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.

Carefree Black Girls – Zeba Blay (Square Peg 2021)

This is a difficult review to write for a white middle-aged man and I am sure that the author would appreciate the fact that I would find it difficult- it means that the issues she raises have hit home.

I selected this book on the basis of its subtitle “A Celebration Of Black Women In Pop Culture”.  I have often used this site to applaud the contribution of Black women within music, the arts and literature and thought this celebration was something I really wanted to be a part of.  The subtitle is not inaccurate, it is a celebration, but not quite what I had anticipated.

The author is central to this work, she is Ghanaian who has become an American citizen in recent years and works as a film critic and commentator on culture.  She also has struggled with fragile mental health, with suicide attempts and attributes this, at least in part, as her experience of being a Black woman in America.

You can appreciate from this the tone would not be as celebratory as I had anticipated.  An author’s note warns the reader to “be tender with yourself” if likely to be triggered by the issues in this book.

Zeba Blay studies the Black American female experience in terms of racist expectations and stereotypes borne from white supremacy including the body, sexual identity, skin tone, childhood and the quest to be “carefree” using women from popular culture as evidence.  Her arguments are powerful and impressive.  I do not feel it appropriate for me to comment on these truths other than to encourage a reading and an absorbing of what the author is saying.  I’m just going to write 10 quotes from the book which will be enough for you to know whether you are prepared to go on this journey with her.  I read the US edition before publication over here.  I see the UK edition has a Foreword by radio DJ Clara Amfo which may put some of this into context for the British reader.

I’ll give you the quotes as they appear chronologically within the book and also the section in which you will find them.  They will be out of context, perhaps, but I have not distorted them in any way.

“And writing about Black women is the thing that put me together again, that got me through and helped me become reacquainted with the concept of joy and freedom” (Introduction)

“To say that Black women are everything, are indeed essential to American Culture, to the global Zeitgeist is simply to observe things as they actually are” (Introduction)

“… to exist in a Black body is to exist in a persistent state of precarity, to be in constant anticipation of some form of violence” (Bodies)

“Black women’s bodies were once legally considered property.  They were bought and sold, traded and loaned” (She’s A Freak)

“How can a piece of property be raped?  Black women were therefore assumed as always being sexually available and this way of seeing them was sanctioned by the American government” (She’s A Freak)

“The fact that one in four Black girls will be abused before the age of 18, that one in five Black women are survivors of rape and yet for every fifteen Black women who are assaulted just one reports her rape comes as no surprise” (She’s A Freak)

“If Beyonce had a deeper complexion would her dominance within the Zeitgeist be as ubiquitous as it is” (Extra Black)

“My Blackness doesn’t make me depressed, but being Black in this world can be depressing.” (Strong Black Lead)

“the exuberance of Black joy springs forth from Black despair.  Collectively, we made a way out of no way.” (Strong Black Lead)

“Black women are killed in America at a higher rate than women of any other race.  Trans Black women are killed at an even higher rate.” (Strong Black Lead)

Carefree Black Girls is published in the UK by Square Peg on October 21st 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.