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.

Le Freak- Nile Rodgers (2011)

I don’t know why it has taken me ten years to read a book which seems so suited to me.  Subtitled “An Upside Down Story Of Family, Disco and Destiny” and written by a true original, gentleman and legend in the popular music industry this is a fascinating insight into Nile Rodgers and his Chic organisation.

I particularly favour music autobiographies when you really feel like you get to know the subject, where there is no holding back and when there is a good balance between the personal and professional life. This book has these elements just right.

I thought I knew a fair bit about Nile Rodgers.  In interviews he is a great raconteur and so stories like the conception of Chic’s biggest song “Le Freak” linked to an attempt to get into Studio 54 to see Grace Jones are very familiar but there was a lot I didn’t know.  This is where the family aspect comes in.  The suave appearance of himself and musical partner Bernard Edwards always gave off well-heeled vibes of the black urban professional making a name within the sophisticated world of disco culture of the late 70’s, Nile, however, was pretty much a street kid.  Born to a mother who was 13 years old when she got pregnant he was moved around for relatives to care for him and then back to mum.  By the age of 6 he was skipping school and travelling to forbidden areas of cities to spend his day in the cinema and before he was much older than that he was following family members’ proclivities in prodigious drug taking and alcoholism.

He was largely a functioning addict so it didn’t really hold back his multi-million selling career with Chic and production duties for Sister Sledge and Diana Ross and when disco succumbed to the racist, homophobic backlash of the Disco Sucks movement as a producer for David Bowie, Duran Duran, Madonna, Grace Jones and countless more.

The extent of his addictions, his attempts at sobriety and his response to the tragic death of Bernard Edwards in Japan in 1996 when Chic were firmly on the comeback trail are handled very effectively and poignantly.

We end in 2011 with a cancer diagnosis which we know he survives as 10 years on he is still very much with us and still a musical force to be reckoned with (especially as a live festival act).  I’m looking forward to a second volume to bring the Nile Rodgers story up to date.

Le Freak was published in 2011.  I read the Sphere paperback edition.

Flat Pack Pop: Sweden’s Music Miracle (BBC4 2019) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

watching
flatpackpop

This week I learnt a new expression – “Jante Law”. It is a Swedish term for something which is deep within their psyche and may be something of an eye-opener to us more selfish nations. Jante Law is the putting ahead of society before the individual, which means that any boasting of achievements or jealousy of those of others risk social disapprobation. This actually explained a lot to me about Sweden’s role in popular culture- why some members of Abba at the height of their fame became reclusive, and why some still are decades later, why even the choosing of a Eurovision entrant is done so widely and methodically (rather than our pick any three songs and get the public to vote on them approach) and with reference to this documentary why we know so little of the huge role that Sweden has played in popular music history over the last 30 years, with one producer and songwriter, Max Martin, now only behind Lennon and McCartney as the most successful songwriter of all time.

flatpackpop2

Max Martin

The suitably reticent Mr Martin did not want to be interviewed for this, he wanted just his music to tell a story for him but presenter and music journalist James Ballardie found others prepared to do so to put together this story of a musical phenomenon in a fascinating one hour documentary. It is the story of how Sweden became the biggest exporter of pop music per capita of anywhere in the world.

The history does not begin with Martin but with another even more significant figure who was equally happy to be seen as just a backroom boy. This was Dag Volle, a club DJ from 1980’s Swedish clubland mecca “The Ritz” who began remixing US club hits to appeal more to Scandinavian tastes. Volle’s love for this type of music led to the name change of Denniz PoP, who after successful remixing of tracks by others sought to achieve the perfect pop record himself.

flatpackpop3

Denniz PoP

We learnt how serendipity played its part when a tape sent to him by an aspiring Swedish foursome, along the lines of Abba, got stuck in his car cassette player blasting out the same song every time he used the car. This group was Ace Of Base and the track was reworked eventually to become “All That She Wants” – a global hit which topped the UK charts and got to number 2 Stateside. Just before that PoP’s name was established on European and worldwide charts through his work with a Nigerian dentist and wannabe rapper living in Sweden, Dr Alban and his “It’s My Life” track which topped charts all over Europe and got to number 2 in the UK in 1992.

flatpackpop4

From then on things moved quickly. PoP developed a clear musical doctrine, opened Cheiron studios and enlisted a group of writers “moulded in his image” to produce the perfect pop sound. I’d found myself researching these just a couple of posts ago when I was reviewing Will Young’s debut as part of my Essential CD Collection and they were fresh in my mind when I watched this. If there was one special protégé that was Max Martin, lifted from heavy metal group “It’s Alive” whose love for more melodic sounds than he was making led to PoP seeing him as a kindred spirit.

We met other member of the team who also produced hits by the bucket-load for the company- Andres Carlsson, Stonebridge, Herbie Crichelow and jingle writer Jorgen Elofsson amongst them who shared how this magical formula worked. The fascinating thing was that the blueprint was always Abba, showing the integral part the foursome of a generation before played in all subsequent developments in Swedish pop. At the root of all of it (and also of Abba) was Swedish folk music which was simplistic and melodic.

Like Motown three decades before one of the main Cheiron principles was that it should sound good on the radio. “Production control” at the Detroit studio is now famous for its weekly meetings, tracks recorded by different artists and competitiveness between artists and producers to get their songs released but here it was taken to another level with sometimes up to a hundred versions of the same tracks flooding the Swedish clubs,  All this work was to hear what sounded good over the DJ decks and what would sound better on the radio or in an open-topped American car (rather than in a Swedish Volvo in the depths of winter). Recognising the US teen as the biggest purchaser of music PoP’s team looked to reflect American lives from a Swedish perspective. We learnt that this repackaging of ideas to produce a more effective version of the best of what is out there is also part of the Swedish make-up evident in companies such as Ikea and H&M.

flatpackpop5

The inspiration behind all Swedish Pop

But behind this global success “Jante Law” forced these writers and producers to remain as far under the radar as they could (Ace Of Base enjoyed their global success and were vilified in the Swedish press) and then tragedy intervened with another great leveller – as cancer claimed Denniz PoP at the age of 35 in 1998.

By this time globally successful artists wanted in on the act. The Backstreet Boys, N-Sync, 5ive, Westlife and Britney Spears owed much of their success to these writers. Max Martin adopted the central role and the team went from funeral to working on Backstreet Boy’s multi-million selling “Millennium” album but the central force had gone.

Eventually, the writers moved away from the studio set-up and took what they had learnt from Denniz and notched up hits, continuing to this day for the biggest artists of the world including Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, Ariana Grande, One Direction, Madonna, in fact virtually every global pop superstar. Martin has set up MXM Studios in the US and has for the past eighteen years being working with many Swedish producers as part of his team, still observing Denniz Pop’s principles and developing them into their unique formula they term “Melodic Math”.

At the end of this excellent hour we saw Max Martin being awarded the Polar Music Prize from the Swedish King, still concerned about the ramifications of Jante Law. I found the whole thing fascinating, more for what it told us about Swedes than the music which was on generous display throughout. Managing to achieve this level of success in this media-hungry day and age without many people even being aware of their existence just really grabbed my attention and got me thinking.

fivestars