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.