Our own Colm McCrory spoke to Bob Stanley about his book Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop…
The best bits of the recently released Morrissey Autobiography are undoubtedly the early passages where his love of the pop music of his youth lights up the pages. It’s just a pity this ends and the book takes a dark turn, boring us with the settling of old scores most people his age would’ve got over a long time ago. Bob Stanley has no such problems. In Yeah Yeah Yeah his appreciation and love of pop music in all its forms remains undimmed through the book’s 800 pages. At one point he seems quite down on Patti Smith, but doesn’t dwell on it for 50 pages.
He is no dry pop historian, recently described as “the Antony Beevor of pop”, Stanley is known best for being a member of Saint Etienne for over the last 20 years, as well as being one of our better music journalists, writing for the now defunct Melody Maker, various broadsheets and on call for Mojo’s annual Beach Boys article. You should also spare 30 minutes to delve into his excellent Croydon Municipal blog. He also just co-wrote the new How We Used to Live film. He is a busy man, but took some time to tell us about his new book which covers the period between 1952, the advent of the 7” single and the first NME chart, up until 2000, when the arrival of Napster signalled the beginning of the digital switchover.
Why did you decide to tackle a history of pop music and what challenges did you face?
It was something I’d always wanted to do since I was a kid, there were several written since the late sixties and seventies, but as far as I know nothing written since the seventies. The reason for that is once a book was written and was meant to be definitive, you can guarantee that by the time it was published there would have been some major change that makes it irrelevant. So I decided that there had to be a set period up until downloads started that changed the way we consume and listen to music, and how it has affected popular culture. This seemed like the correct cut-off point for the book.
In Retromania Simon Reynolds writes that music is now continually looking backwards and isn’t changing. The music scene of 2000 is no different to the current scene. Do you think that this is likely to change?
Reynolds’ theory that everything from the past is part of the present because of the internet is a very valid point. It makes it difficult to make brand new music, but doesn’t mean that you can’t make great records. It’s been a pretty good year for music with things like ‘Blurred Lines’ and the Daft Punk album. Major commercial records have been really exciting records which hasn’t happened for the last two or three years, which has been a fairly fallow period where everything seemed to be merged together; R&B, Hip-hop, Eurobeat, what the Americans called the EDM…but I really don’t think that really great records won’t continue to be made in the future, I don’t think anything is over. The era I’ve written about is a specific era, the era of Smash Hits and Top of The Pops, with kids listening to the new Top 40, anxious to see if something has gone up 5 places and that just doesn’t happen anymore.
There is a freshness about the writing, how was this kept up through 800 pages?
I went through stacks of old music papers to get contemporary stories and quotes you haven’t read a hundred times. It’s incredible how you can go through one copy of Record Mirror from 1972 and find half a dozen stories you’ve never heard of before that just haven’t been documented. So going back to source material was very important as well as being a great pleasure.
The book ends with the advent of downloads, do you think today’s youth will have the same excitement about discovering great music today?
When I was a kid I had The Guinness Book Of Hit Singles and I remember looking at all the songs, all these hits I’d never heard, and just thinking “Imagine there was a button I could press and I’d be able to hear it.” And now you can. That’s amazing! It’s properly what I dreamed would happen, it’s great. There’s obviously layers of mystery that disappear which the younger generation just won’t really be able to understand. It’ll be interesting to see how other people try and communicate the magic of hearing a record in someone’s house or a snatch of it on the radio and then spending ages and ages trying to find a copy. And then the amazing moment when you go through a box in a junk shop and come across it. That thrill, that mystery is gone.
My nephew went to Download Festival recently and saw Iron Maiden and also was in the D&B room, consuming all different types of music that were fast and loud and had no other links.
There isn’t that tribalism anymore, if you like ‘A’ you can’t listen to ‘B’. It doesn’t exist anymore and it’s a good thing. Things rubbing up against each other can be a positive, creative thing, but I’m glad he isn’t going to be beaten up for liking the wrong thing at school.
People today won’t be able to look back and remember the first record they bought then.
They won’t have done, it just doesn’t happen. It’s quite an odd thing, singles basically just don’t exist anymore. You have a Top 40, that can include album tracks. Rihanna puts a new album out and pretty much all the tracks will chart. The single as we know it doesn’t exist as a physical product, which makes me sad. I really do miss being able to go out on a Saturday and buy a couple of things from the chart and play them as a 7” single.’
Yeah Yeah Yeah is a celebration of pop music, both the brilliant and obvious, to the more obscure and borderline insane. There is no room for elitism here. A chapter on The Fall follows a chapter rehabilitating the reputation of The Bee Gees. Where others might concentrate on rock’n’roll excesses of punk, the conclusion of his chapter on The Sex Pistols was their final British gig. They played a benefit gig for the children of striking firemen in Huddersfield on the afternoon of Christmas Day 1977. There was a talent competition won by a girl reading a Pam Ayres poem and skateboards given out to the striking families children. The chapter concludes with: “People in Huddersfield remember Christmas Day 1977, as a showing of solidarity, a small act of charity, outsiders playing for outsiders, and the very real power of pop, the thought of it can just about break my heart.”
There is real heart and humour at the core of this book, coupled with Bob’s lifetime’s obsession with pop music is what makes this 2013’s most essential music book purchase.
Colm McCrory, for Waterstones.com/blog
You can Reserve & Collect Yeah Yeah Yeah from your local Waterstones bookshop (http://bit.ly/16gdBcA), buy it online at Waterstones.com (http://bit.ly/16gdCNT) or download it in ePub format (http://bit.ly/16gdIFf)
Bob’s favourite music books:
Let’s Talk About Love, Carl Wilson
An intense exploration of taste that bravely attempts to explain why Celine Dion has sold millions of records.
Hellfire, Nick Tosches
The Jerry Lee Lewis story, told with great panache by a fellow southerner.
Faking It, Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor (Currently unavailable)
Authenticity in music is an illusion. This book tells us why Girls Aloud’s records are just as valid as Richard Hawley‘s.
Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love (Currently unavailable), Peter Guralnick
The story of Elvis Presley’s rise and fall, absolutely beautifully written.
Stoned, Andrew Loog Oldham
Though he became famous as the Rolling Stones’ manager, this autobiography reads more of a photo album of London in the late fifties and early sixties.
Starlust, Fred and Judy Vermorel
The rather creepy letters and unintentionally hilarious memories of obsessive fans
England’s Dreaming, Jon Savage
The definitive book on punk – again, as much a social history of England as a book about guitar bands.
As Time Goes By, Derek Taylor (Currently out of print)
My favourite Beatles memoir, from their suave and highly literate press officer.
See Bob Stanley in conversation
Bob Stanley is visiting Waterstone’s West End, Edinburgh next week. At this special event the Saint Etienne founder member and music journalist will be discussing his new book Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop with BBC Radio Scotland’s Vic Galloway. In addition to the talk and signing we will be running a pop quiz and local record shop VoxBox Music will be selling vinyl from through the ages.