OCTOBER 23, 2014
IN THE SUMMER of 2003, you couldn’t miss “Crazy in Love.” The Beyoncé single with a horn hook from the Chi-Lites and a rap from the singer’s future husband Jay-Z was everywhere. I heard it on a boom box at a rec center while a dance troupe rehearsed for a drag show. Baaaa, ba-dap-bop-ba-dap-baaaaa! But what Bob Stanley heard in that horn fill was the fall of music’s Berlin Wall.
“Crazy in Love” is the last single named in the UK musician and critic’s Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyoncé. It marks the far side, he claims, of “the pop era,” a span similar in kind to Eric Hobsbawm’s Short Twentieth Century, but instead of the collapse of the Soviet Union as an endpoint you get the tectonic consolidation of R&B, hip-hop, and pop into a single mass.
Stanley isn’t saying that the horns in “Crazy in Love” themselves brought down the walls like Joshua’s at Jericho. Rather they trumpeted the arrival of digital. And that, for Stanley, was the end of one thing, and the start of something new.
What is Stanley up to? Consider my first love in music writing, Greil Marcus. Marcus could listen to eight bars of electric guitar on repeat until it told him the secret history of the Civil War. Trying to understand the actual history of pop music by reading Greil Marcus would be like trying to map Detroit by scuba diving. The sea is beautiful and strange, but sometimes you want an answer to the question you asked. And this is where Stanley, whose method is no less omnivorous, no less personal, but 90 degrees askew Marcus’s deep interpretive dives, comes in.
In a 2008 review of a pop music documentary, Stanley suggested that writing a history of pop music would be “a complete folly.” The promise and the peril are easy to see. You could lose your way in one song or in all of them. But this year, Stanley proved himself wrong. Clocking in at a fitting 600-some pages, Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! is encyclopedic in scope and proudly personal in voice. And it connects invaluably to the ways most of us experience pop.
Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, after all, will be very few readers’ introduction to its subject. Most of us assemble our own stories of pop music. We connect the dots between our parents’ radio stations and our own. First we discover the pleasures unique to each chart and format. Then we stretch our ears toward their blind spots, drawing in patches of unmapped territory from an inexhaustible digital inkwell. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! takes our personal listening maps and gives them invaluable context by switching confidently between grand narrative and fine detail, between the music’s sound and its backstory. It tells you how it felt, and compresses between its covers a half-century’s explosion of art, technology, social history, and emotion.
“What exactly is pop?” asks Stanley in his introduction. This was a question I’d long pondered myself. When I was six years old, an older friend tried to explain it to me, shortly after blowing my mind once by playing me “Little Red Corvette,” then again by revealing that the singer was male. “It has, like, a popping sound,” he said. This was not exactly correct, but neither was it entirely wrong. In a music culture that reinforces a distinction between “rock” and “pop,” a lot of the latter has a gum-smacking ring.
Stanley begins by tossing this pop/rock distinction. (Later he traces its history to precisely 1967 and the Monterey Pop Festival.) “If you make records, singles and albums, and if you go on TV or on tour to promote them, you’re in the pop business. If you sing a cappella folk songs in a suburban pub, you’re not,” he writes. “Most basically, anything that gets into the charts is pop.” The charts are vital social history for Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, although Stanley doesn’t overlook the hitless wonders who only got to see their musical progeny reach the Promised Land, as if the Velvet Underground were Moses and everyone who bought their first album Joshua and the Israelites.
Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! loves the social, material world where music is made and heard. Some of its most intriguing nuggets are straight-up base-and-superstructure tales. Liverpool had the edge on the rest of England in the ’60s because the port city’s seamen brought back “unimaginable treasures” from their voyages in the previous decade, and had the capital to start nightclubs and the gear to outfit them. The raw material of the commodity form reveals itself in the music: all British rock pours forth, Stanley claims, from an early skiffle hit about “illegally transporting pig iron.” Commodity culture shows up in the band names, too: the Orlons, the Rayons — girl groups referring to better fabric through chemistry. To our ears, their names sound antique, but Stanley has a special talent for bringing the clash of newness to the eras he describes. He places the music alongside new technologies and consumer goods, then evokes the excitement it all brought to the lives of artists and audiences.
Stanley allows us to witness the work that goes into creating that excitement. He tells pop as a story of making, of labor. Indeed, his “pop era” begins in a pair of portentous work stoppages. Today, the music publishing entities ASCAP and BMI are largely indistinguishable, but in 1941, ASCAP represented the Great American Songbook artists centered on sheet music, and BMI artists tended toward the jazz, blues, and country upstarts who didn’t have a home in the Tin Pan Alley establishment. ASCAP declared a strike, blocking radio play of its copyrights, leaving a vacuum for BMI artists, along with international sounds, to fill. The following year, a musician’s union strike stopped all new instrumental recording, leaving vocalists — momentarily performing with a cappella orchestrations — to seize attention previously showered on bandleaders. Thus the late big band era gave rise to informal, vocal-led music.
Even more than the drama of labor action, Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! sees the everyday labor of making music. Stanley calls Charlie Watts, Ian Stewart, and Bill Wyman the “worker Stones” behind the “star Stones.” After a chapter’s paean to the sonic wonders of ABBA, he grounds it in a simple formula: “Nobody has ever worked harder.” His tributes to producers and engineers, from the Thomas Edisons of musical artifice Phil Spector and Joe Meek up to Giorgio Moroder and Quincy Jones, explain the perspiration as well as the inspiration. The Brill Building, famously known as the “hit factory” where Carole King and Neil Diamond unspooled the girl group songs that redefined love, longing, and adolescence, gets its due as a real place of work, going from a warren of cubicles to an archipelago of Broadway addresses.
This ear for social context is Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!’s great strength. The depredations of urban planning titan Robert Moses isolated the Bronx from the rest of New York City, creating a petri dish in which hip-hop could grow. The emergence of domestic air travel led country music out of Nashville parochialism to conquer the continent. “The Twist” paved the way for gay liberation — previously, men were barred from dancing with one another, but after Chubby Checker, they could dance alone. Even trivia and gossipy asides reveal prismatic glimpses of history and twists of social life. Stevie Wonder’s blindness drives him away from socializing with fellow studio musicians and deep into technology, allowing his sonic innovations a place next to those of prog rock. Diana Ross dating Motown head Berry Gordy makes her songwriters work “that little bit harder.”
“What creates great pop?” asks Stanley. “Tension, opposition, progress, and fear of progress.” Stanley hears in dialectics, and combined with his textured evocation of the social world and the centrality of work, it’s hard not to think that Karl Marx himself would have got down to these pop revolutions. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! is watching pop sow the seeds of its own destruction. Thesis and antithesis face one another time and again through the pop half-century. There’s an episode early in the book when Carole King, driving into New York City to see A Hard Day’s Night, turns the car around in terror. She’s right to be afraid; the Beatles loved the Brill Building sound so much; they consumed it and transformed it, building a musical revolution from the literal and emotional symphonies they heard in the early ’60s sound. The Beatles’ onetime peer group, the Merseybeat bands of early ’60s Liverpool, render themselves “instantly redundant” by making pop both artful and accessible. Their art summons its eventual replacements. This syncopation of create and destroy gives Stanley a subtler narrative engine than the ever-branching family tree or the rock Whig history of great bands. Stanley’s ever-present argument about work and progress never gums up the story. It just raises the stakes.
Yet Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! is not exactly a “social history” of pop — it has relatively little to say about the pop audience, which would require another book entirely. Nor is it a polemic. But by living in the churning material, the connected world where pop happens, it slyly reframes a debate central to pop music as it is discussed and perhaps felt today, the critical scrimmage between “rockists” and “poptimists” that seems close to exhaustion but not nearly close enough to be over.
Something called authenticity is central to the rockist prejudice. Rock, as an antipode to pop, elevates the raw over the cooked, boys over girls, sweaty virtuosity over engineered effects. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! leaves this prejudice more times dead than Spinal Tap’s drummer. Listen to Stanley discuss the deceptively cosmopolitan quality of the Brill Building sound, today heard as show-tunesy and juvenile, through the weird blend of Latin rhythms and orchestral strings in the Drifters’ 1959 hit “There Goes My Baby”:
Modern pop is essentially urban, and city living is a matter of constant shifting of context, between neighborhoods and between roles. Two or more seemingly incompatible styles working at once is the existential reality of urban life. The term “authenticity,” one which causes a constant tension throughout the story of modern pop, was popularized by existentialism, the du jour beatnik/student philosophy of the early sixties. Beatniks, jazz fans and readers of Kierkegaard and Sartre may have heard “There Goes My Baby” in the context of a TV show like Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and dismissed it as inauthentic, emotionally infantile, but right here was a blend of different musics and neighborhoods (Spanish Harlem, Long Island, the Bronx, Broadway) that related to shape-shifting street life much more closely than the venerated, un-diluted directness of Pete Seeger’s folk or Chris Barber’s jazz.
He doesn’t exactly champion artifice over authenticity. He hears the authentic in the artifice — in the way things are built, and made. It’s a tragedy that grown-ups listen to music any other way.
By cracking open authenticity’s calcified aesthetic veneer, Stanley transforms it into a value meaning something like “good faith,” and uses it, for example, to champion the soulful Hall & Oates over the “soul-ish,” as he says, Huey Lewis. It’s less important to him to join any debate than it is to plot the music on less obvious, more personal axes. Here he tries to figure out just what gives soul music its soul:
A gut reaction might involve terms like “honest,” “authentic,” “natural”; these are problematic words in pop because there’s as much emotional truth in the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” — written by Neil Diamond, performed by session musicians on an hourly rate — as there is in Irma Thomas’s “Wish Someone Would Care.” Each song can say just as much about your life. Maybe the answer […] lies in the sense of being privy to something secret — listening to a vocal performance so intense that you feel that you’re sharing someone’s private pain and anguish.
The full effect of this realignment shines in Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!’s most vital contribution, its standalone chapters. The Beatles, Dylan, and the Rolling Stones all get due reporting, but their stories are told in fuller detail in other books. Where Stanley shines is in revealing the shadows they cast over the rest of pop. Carole King’s fear of the Beatles is one example. Another is her songwriting partner and husband Gerry Goffin, who heard Bob Dylan, then burned his tapes, then reignited his own creativity. For the most part, however, artists with deep catalogs get shorter shrift than those with explosive debuts. Bruce Springsteen, to name one artist whose long career has paved whole turnpikes of criticism, here gets a few wryly observed pages in the “American Rock” chapter, sandwiched between John Cougar Mellencamp and Meat Loaf, and teed off with the hilariously sorry-not-sorry transition, “Maybe you’ll think it’s harsh to bunch Bruce Springsteen in with Boston, but …”
Of the artists who earn standalones, the best chapter goes to the Monkees. It’s a wild burlesque that treats the chart-smashing music with reverence, the slick executives who found themselves holding a tiger by the tail with pity, and the line between spectacle and reality as a punch line. It’s the chapter a bookseller should hand to a browser. After reading the chapter on grunge, I wished I could hand it to Kurt Cobain (Stanley insightfully names Nirvana’s Unplugged an ur-text of alt-country), and tell him that just because you can’t fight corporate rock doesn’t mean you can’t win.
In addition to insightful storytelling, Stanley writes elegantly about the actual music. (Why shouldn’t there be dancing about architecture?) Rock critics take on Pet Sounds much like painters do bowls of fruit, but Stanley’s prose, animated throughout by his passion for the music, the artists, and the form, hitches sensation and emotion to very good effect:
The bassline is a beating heart, the ride cymbal is a ticking clock; beyond that there is very little. “Listen, listen, listen …” sings Brian, and then the strings dip down, like the singer’s heart dropping into his stomach.
He weeps for Karen Carpenter, starving herself. He gives the Eagles their due, noting the sound of “steel guitars and banjos […] swaddled in denim,” the emblem that could pass for a hard-rock band, the greatest-hits album sales that rival Thriller’s, the protean slipperiness that won them the whole country. Noting that we first heard Michael Jackson “in the week that the Hells Angels took Meredith Hunter’s life,” he places “Billie Jean” at the exact midpoint of the singer’s career in singles, then reminds us of the “panther bassline and sense of impending dread mirrored in a lyric of shame and humiliation.” He often describes just enough to trigger a sense memory, to make you feel not only like you felt when you heard it for the first time, but also like you would have felt if, the first time around, you hadn’t been so distracted — if you’d really put your heart into listening.
For the English-born Stanley, the ties pop created between the United Kingdom and the United States are as important as those between black and white and young and old. He adds heft to the oft-told tale of the blues’ journey across the Atlantic and back. For this American reader, his chapter on Jamaica elevated that country’s place in pop history far over its sinsemilla-hazy corner, teasing out the early travels of ska, the late ascendance of reggae (its name, I was surprised to learn, onomatopoetic), and the island’s role in the origins of hip-hop. His chapter on Philadelphia soul opens with a travelogue, preferring to tell a stranger’s tale of discovery rather than affect perfect knowledge.
Stanley builds the book with an open heart, and even pop at its most unsustainably cynical merits his empathy (see the Bay City Rollers). Only one section feels sour: his discussion of indie rock, rightly critical of the genre’s strain of lofty insularity, never gets off that note — “autistically quarantined,” “entirely disconnected,” “hermetically sealed.” Stanley’s own band, Saint Etienne, has had a long run as an indie dance outfit; I came to them through their song “Downey, CA,” a floaty petit four of melancholic pop that name-checks that town’s tragic heroine Karen Carpenter. It’s hard not to read his discussion of indie/college/alternative music and wonder if that genre was Stanley’s constricting small town, a Bedford Falls he could never leave. It’s equally easy to wonder if, however harsh his attitude, it’s a needed corrective to the self-regarding empire of studious rock criticism, which David Lee Roth punctured with the quip “music journalists like Elvis Costello because music journalists look like Elvis Costello.”
Which leaves us to Stanley’s framing device, the most provocative idea in Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: the idea of “the pop era” as a discrete and concluded unit of time. The best evidence is, characteristically, the material evidence. As Stanley puts it, “the pop media of 1992 was remarkably similar to the pop media of 1952, but pop music is now consumed and absorbed in a completely different way.” There’s no doubt that omnipresent, intangible digital music has altered the way we make and sell and buy (and share! and stream!) and hear music. Still, the case is, as the Scottish courts say, “not proven.” At the very least, there’s room for a pop history that contains Napster, Pitchfork, YouTube, Volkswagen’s “Pink Moon” commercial, the classic rock reformation of JACKFM playlists. It may represent a radical break with the stretch from Bill Haley to Beyoncé. It may just be one more chapter.
Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! is rich with musical history lived, worked, and felt, with dozens more chapters and digressions that pay pop its due. Stanley’s 2008 review, the one where he claimed he’d been discouraged from attempting this book, criticized the pop documentary All You Need Is Love because it lacked just that, love. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! is smart, funny, surprisingly deep for just how broad it is, but, most of all, for stars and songs great and small, it is full of love.