Yeah Yeah Yeah- Bob Stanley (2013)

This book’s scope is so huge that it is difficult to be able to succinctly describe it.  In 2022 Bob Stanley published “Let’s Do It” (number 2 in my current Books Of The Year list) and that book was in many ways a prequel to this written more or less a decade on.  This earlier book focuses on pop music really from the introduction of the first UK charts in 1952 and has as its focus the vast seismic shift – The Beatles, whose presence seems almost there from that point on but actually do not dominate proceedings here as much as I had expected them to do.

Bob Stanley completed a gargantuan task in relating the developments and shifts in popular music up to his publication date- maintaining a good balance between the UK and US markets and touching upon almost every form of popular music which had a moment in the spotlight in the past 70+ years.  He does it in a way that I’m equally fascinated with reading about the major and minor performers in genres I’m not even interested in (US Country, Metal, Britpop etc) as in those areas of music I feel I know well.

There is so much to be enjoyed in this book but I must admit that compared to “Let’s Do It” I sometimes felt a little fatigued by it all here with so much information in rapid succession.  I felt we were given more space in the later book and that “Let’s Do It” actually had a greater freshness because I hadn’t lived through those years.  I didn’t have the feelings about acts I’d built up watching “Top Of The Pops” and reading “Record Mirror”.  I felt this affected how I responded to the author’s writing.  One telling point of difference is that when I read “Let’s Do It” I went overboard on looking up more about artists and putting them into Spotify playlists.  This time, hardly any, I didn’t have the same openness to what I thought I might like or not like because I had lived through much of the period examined and had my own ideas which proved harder for the author to shake.

What I do love is Bob Stanley’s turn of phrase and his enthusiasm for what is joyful in music which is often laugh out loud funny, as it was in “Let’s Do It”.  Once again, I love his apt descriptions.  Here he is on 70’s glam-rock legends Slade;

Dickensian singer Noddy Holder had a voice like John Lennon screaming down the chimney of the QE2; rosy-cheeked bassist Jim Lea looked as if he lived with his mum and bred racing pigeons; Dave Hill on guitar had the most rabbity face in the  world; while drummer Don Powell chewed gum and stared into space- even after he’d been in a horrific car crash and lost most of his memory, he looked exactly the same.

This book is nearly a decade old which makes The Epilogue where Bob Stanley does a bit of projection into the future fascinating.  After decades of glory days there was a definite decline in the way pop music was perceived from probably the mid 90’s.  The stalwart barometer of taste “Top Of The Pops” fizzled out, the UK music press lost major titles and the UK chart became about marketing, with tracks attaining their highest position in the first week of sale there wasn’t the excitement of watching singles climb their way to the top.  He states he misses going to a record shop and that “Without the detail, pop music doesn’t have the desirability it once had; it’s not as wantable. Instant downloads require no effort and so demands less of an emotional connection -it’s less likely that you will devote time and effort to getting inside a new record, trying to understand it, if you haven’t made a physical journey to track it down in the first place.”

Ten years on and the unpredictability of pop means that this statement is both more so (with the predominance of streaming and the vast choice of instant access music) and less so (with the revitalisation of the vinyl market).  That is one of the great things about pop music, you never really know what is going to be around the corner but something will be.

This is an essential book about pop history even if it did not fill me with quite the same love and awe as “Let’s Do It.”  For anyone wanting an overview of popular cultural life in the last 50+ years this is a dream of a book.

“Yeah Yeah Yeah” was first published by Faber in 2013.

Top 10 Books Of The Year 2022 – Part Two – The Top 5

Here are my five favourite books that I read in 2022:

5. Once Upon A River – Diane Setterfield (Black Swan 2018)

(Read and reviewed in October)

This is the third novel from a British author I had not read before and what story-telling!  I found this tale of a drowned girl who comes back to life in the 1880s and its setting of a stretch of the Thames between Cricklade and Oxford absolutely captivating.  I said; “It is beautifully rich, imaginative, involving and operates on the thin line between myth and dark reality.  I was spellbound by this book.”  Looking forward to reading more by this author in 2023.

4. The Appeal – Janice Hallett (Viper Books 2021)

(Read and reviewed in January)

I knew I had missed out on something good when I put this book in my “What I Should Have Read in 2021” post.  I had felt it calling me from a table of new titles at Waterstones.  I liked the look of this book, even though it’s not the kind of book I read regularly.  At that time I decided not to merely judge it by its cover but when I saw it in the library in January this year I snapped it up.  It’s clever, funny, and so well structured.  In my review I said “If we are considering this debut in the “Cosy Crime” genre then this is the best “Cosy Crime” book I have ever read.” Her follow-up “The Twyford Code” appeared this year and was good but did not blow me away like this did.  Her new novel “The Mysterious Case Of The Alperton Angels” is out in January.

3. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens (1861)

(Read and reviewed in December)

A re-read but I had left it probably over 40 years.  The plot of this novel feels like it has been with me for the whole of my life, both from the book and film adaptations (apart from the ending which I always have trouble remembering).  In sections this is the best book I have ever read in my life but then there are sections that fall flat making it an uneven gem, but it is still a gem.  Perhaps it is a casualty of the way in which Dickens’ novels first appeared with a certain amount of padding mid-way through to keep the issues coming.  I feel that it should be Dickens’ best work- but it isn’t, but it is up there amongst his very best.  Pip, Miss Havisham, Estella, Joe, Magwitch – what characters!

2. Let’s Do It – Bob Stanley (Faber 2022)

(Read and reviewed in August)

Two books with the same title in my Top 10.  What are the chances?  Luckily, both have subtitles and this one explores “The Birth Of Pop” and it is my non-fiction pick for this year (I think I have to go back to 2010 and Vince Aletti’s “The Disco Files” to find a non-fiction work I have enjoyed as much).  This is a real labour of love and involved so much research for music journalist, founding member of Saint Etienne and DJ Bob Stanley.  Thousands of books have been published about the music industry post-Beatles (the author published a very thorough, critically acclaimed one “Yeah Yeah Yeah” himself about decade earlier – which I am currently reading) but this charts the development of popular music from its very origins to the point where Beatlemania came in.  Pop music is seen as transient and temporary but these developments inform everything that has come afterwards and so is a very important, totally fascinating history.  Beginning with Ragtime and Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” the first million selling sheet music from 1899 he explores the major musical shifts and the major players with insight, humour and with love.  This book had me seeking out all sorts of artists on Spotify.  I felt Bob really knew what he was writing about and was able to convey his views so well and this for me was a real treat.  The Telegraph had this book at number 8 in their Books Of The Year list.

1. Young Mungo – Douglas Stuart (Picador 2022)

(Read and reviewed in April)

Well, this is unprecedented. I’ve never given my Book Of The Year to the same author before and here is Scottish writer Douglas Stuart doing it two years in a row with his first two novels.  “Shuggie Bain” – a Booker Prizewinner (and this would be a serious contender for best ever  Booker winner ever in my view) blew away all the competition for me last year and I do believe that “Young Mungo” is even better. It’s the best book I have read for 5 years.  It wasn’t Booker shortlisted and it didn’t get as much critical approval because some saw it as more of the same, but I really don’t understand that this is a criticism.  Some did get it- It is appearing in a healthy selection of Books Of The Year list – The Telegraph had it at number 34.  Emily Temple at Literary Hub produces an Ultimate Best Books list which counts the number of times books make the end of year lists in American publications and this makes it onto six lists, which earns it an Ultimate nod (the highest 14 was achieved by two novels Hernan Diaz’s “Trust” and Gabrielle Zevin’s ubiquitous “Tomorrow, And Tomorrow, And Tomorrow”).  I said “I never thought I’d feel more sympathy towards a character than Shuggie, but Mungo, with his facial tics, unsuitable attire and devotion to a mother whose actions are consistently poorly-judged tops it.” I also felt “I did finish this feeling emotionally purged finding moments that I did not really want to read on from but ultimately being totally unable to take my eyes off the book.”  That for me represents an ultimate reading experience. Congratulations to Picador for publishing my ultimate favourite two years in a row. Over at Bookshop.org you can find Douglas Stuart’s list of the books which inspired him during the writing of this novel

So, Douglas Stuart makes it onto my Hall of Fame for the second time.  Just for some context here are my other top titles going back to 2008

2022- Young Mungo – Douglas Stuart (2022) (UK)

2021- Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart (2020) (UK)

2020 – The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai (2018) (USA)

2019 – Swan Song – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (2018) (USA)

2018- The Count Of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (1845) (France)

2017 – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (2017) (Ireland)

2016- Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (2016) (Netherlands)

2015- Alone In Berlin- Hans Fallada (2009 translation of a 1947 novel) (Germany)

2014- The Wanderers – Richard Price (1974) (USA)

2013- The Secrets Of The Chess Machine – Robert Lohr (2007) (Germany)

2012 – The Book Of Human Skin – Michelle Lovric (2010) (UK)

2011 – The Help- Kathryn Stockett (2009) (USA)

2010- The Disco Files 1973-78 – Vince Aletti (1998) (USA)

2009- Tokyo – Mo Hayder (2004) (UK)

2008- The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (2007) (Australia)

Special mentions for the five 5* reads which did not make it into the Top 10. In any other year these would have been assured Top 10 places: The Manningtree Witches – A K Blakemore (2021); The Governor’s Lady – Norman Collins (1968) – narrowly missing out on a 3rd successive Top 10 title; Rainbow Milk – Paul Mendez (2020); Miss Hargreaves – Frank Baker (1939); Fire Island – Jack Parlett (2022)

Here’s to some great reading in 2023.

If you missed out on the other books on my Top 10 you can read about them here.

Let’s Do It- Bob Stanley (2022)

This is the second non-fiction work with this title I’ve read this year.  First up was a five star biography of Victoria Wood by Jasper Rees, this second “Let’s Do It”  also merits my highest rating.  Subtitled “The Birth Of Pop” by music writer, DJ, film producer and founding member of classy pop act Saint Etienne, Bob Stanley.

I read Bob’s work in “Record Collector” and even when I have no connection with what he is writing about (just a glance at my 100 Essential CD Countdown will show I’m pretty much on the margins for what “Record Collector” considers significant) I always enjoy his column and when I heard about this book decided that this author would probably be up to the gargantuan task he has set himself.

Over nearly 600 pages in the hardback edition Bob Stanley illuminates the history, the chronology and the connections of popular music, giving pretty much equal weight to the US and UK- a parallel history which had points of convergence and divergence over the decades but one in which the UK, until the British Invasion of the 1960s pretty much took the supporting role. 

This is very much the story before the British Invasion.  I haven’t read his critically acclaimed “Yeah Yeah Yeah” (2013) which is a chronicle of modern pop and for which this is a much needed prequel of what went on before and I would say this history, maybe because of its further distance from us could be the more fascinating.

Is there a starting point in the development of popular music?  It wouldn’t be too far off the mark to cite Ragtime and Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” from 1899, the sheet music of which was the first to sell a million copies and  from this point the author is able to track the separation of “serious” classical music to what came to be considered “popular” and its huge significance to our world.  He succinctly sums up the appeal and influence of the major players along the way including Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra as well as shining lights on people whose positions attained in the pop hierarchy may not have been as stellar, for one reason or another.

Bob Stanley is a brilliant guide because you do believe he has absorbed all this music from decades before any of us were born and his love of popular music, in all its forms, shine through.  He can be great when he’s not buying it (Al Jolson, Rice/Lloyd Webber, much of Tom Jones) but in a book where the scope is so huge and there’s so many names to be mentioned that half a page suggests an artist who has really made an impact his writing can be outstanding. 

On Nat King Cole;

Gradually his style became sleeker, soft and comforting, but slightly rough, like corduroy.  His delivery, like his piano playing, was relaxed, economical and emphatic.  When he sang you felt like you could trust him completely, and when he told a story, it sounded as if he was making it up off the top of his head.

On the (still) under-rated British singer Matt Monro, who Stanley acknowledges “there was never anything but kindness and warmth in his singing”;

He still looked like the bus conductor he had been before turning pro, like he’d just given the school bully a clip round the ear and chucked him off the 68 to Chalk Farm.  No matter what the exotic setting on his album covers, you could cut the shot of Monro and place him on a Watney’s pub backdrop and it would fit just as well.  A pint of bitter at his side, a fag in his hand.  Never a cigar.  Part of his classiness was that he never looked down on his own.  Monro was a working man’s hero.  In this respect certainly, he was Sinatra’s equal.”

On Shirley Bassey;

“When she sang Sweet Charity’s “Big Spender” in 1967 (wouldn’t you like to have fun, fun, fun?) it was like the hardest girl in school had taken a shine to you and was repeatedly slamming you against her locker door.”

If you had never heard of these three artists Stanley’s interpretation of what made them fit into the pop canon would be enough.

Is there a central character in the way that I suspect (but don’t know) that The Beatles would dominate “Yeah Yeah Yeah”?  Answer- not really because the fickle nature of pop suggests there’s always something else around the corner, those who survive were able to reinvent themselves or their timing was just right to take them onto the next big thing and judging by index references that would be Frank Sinatra (who Bob Stanley really wishes had stuck to his original retirement plan of 1971), Duke Ellington (so influential and who moved back and forth from “serious” to “pop”) and Bing Crosby (who was so popular).  Also hugely significant is the body of songs now known as The Great American Songbook from the greatest songwriters of all time and whose influence can be felt throughout the 500+ pages (and played a very important part in the careers of those I’ve mentioned above).

Reading books about music nowadays is a treat because with Spotify you can be seconds away from listening to performers whose work you would probably never have accessed.  Here are some of the artists I added to playlists whilst reading this book who I feel need to be discovered/rediscovered by me: –

Reginald Foresythe, Henry Hall, Art Tatum, Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson, Dick Haymes, Frankie Laine, The Andrews Sisters, Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Roy Hamilton, The Tokens, Caterina Valente, Chris Connor, Nat King Cole, Earl Bostic, Sammy Davis Jnr

Reading this book has been a joy and I feel there is more to come in discovering some of the music I read about.  Highly recommended for all music fans and I will very soon be purchasing “Yeah Yeah Yeah” for the next part of the story.

Let’s Do It was published in hardback by Faber in May 2022.