I wish I could say that my love of pop music began when my middle school music teacher showed me a documentary called “The Compleat Beatles.” That would be the socially acceptable, hipster-sanctioned origin story. But truthfully, the affair began a couple years earlier in 1986, when I conspired with some friends to flood our local top 40 station with requests for the song “Rock Me Amadeus.” Dismayed that Falco’s masterwork had slipped in the charts, we resolved to do whatever we could to reverse its fate. This was either true love or something equally intense—a force that could drive a 12-year-old boy to cold-call a radio station and then sit next to the stereo for hours with finger poised over the tape-record button, enduring songs by Mister Mister and Starship, just waiting for that descending synth motif to issue forth from the speakers.
I’m not terribly surprised that “Rock Me Amadeus” receives no mention in Bob Stanley’s new book. While the song embodies the very essence of pop—it is quirky, flamboyant, goofily ambitious, yet so very of its moment—it was ultimately a failed experiment, a novelty hit. (Though, to be fair, it was no less kitschy than The Timelords’ “Doctorin’ The Tardis,” which does receive mention.) I listen to it now and wonder what the hell my 12-year-old self was thinking. But that’s love, right? It rarely makes sense after it has passed. Stanley clearly knows something about the fever dream of the besotted pop fan, and much of his book is written from that headspace.
What a joy it is to find a music writer who didn’t get the rock-critic memo—the one that says you’re supposed to worship at the altar of punk rock, praise Radiohead, and hate the Eagles. Stanley has plenty of nice things to say about the Eagles, the Bee Gees, Hall and Oates, and Abba. Conversely, he has nothing but contempt for The Clash, those self-anointed exemplars of punk rock. “The Clash set out parameters,” he writes, “and then squirmed like politicians when they were caught busting their own manifesto.” (Stanley prefers the more self-aware Sex Pistols.) Radiohead fare even worse; he describes these critical darlings as “dad rock.” Vocalist Thom York sings “as if he was in the fetal position.”
Of Bob Dylan, a figure as close to a saint as we get in the annals of rock lit, Stanley writes: “along with the Stones he sealed the concept of snotty behavior as a lifestyle, snarled at the conventional with his pack of giggling lickspittle dogs, and extended Brando’s ‘What have you got?’ one-liner into a lifelong party of terse putdowns.” For those of us who grew up reading far too many issues of Rolling Stone for our own good, this is bracing tonic indeed.
What gives Stanley the edge over so many other music journalists is the fact that he is a songwriter himself, and a fairly successful one at that: his band Saint Etienne had a string of UK Top 20 hits in the 1990s. It is easier for musicians than for non-musician critics, I believe, to see beyond genre boundaries and appreciate tunefulness wherever it may reside. Stanley, whom I’m pretty sure would rather be known as a “musician who writes” than a “writer who plays music,” takes a more expansive view of the term “pop” than a lot of other writers might do. In his view, pop simply means “popular.” It is not, as is typically imagined, a specific sound—say that of a Britney Spears or Katy Perry. Under Stanley’s definition, Nirvana qualifies as pop. So do Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, and Glen Campbell.
At 624 pages, Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! is a doorstop of a book, but Stanley’s enthusiasm for the material keeps the narrative moving briskly. He can get inside a song and describe its magic to outsiders like no one else I have ever come across. Consider the following highlights: Of the “clattering, drum-heavy” mix of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” he writes, “It sounded like jump blues, only with someone dismantling scaffolding in the studio.” On Abba: “No one musician stands out on any of their hits because they don’t sound like anyone played an instrument on them; they all sound like a music box carved from ice.” On the Police: “Singer Sting had a high, mewling voice that, appropriately, sounded a little like the whine of a police siren.” And, as is probably apparent already, Stanley is very effective with the terse putdown. My favorite concerns The Cure—a band that has spawned an entire cottage industry of mopey imitators: “It was all somehow powdery and a little slight,” he writes. “The Cure were more about stubbing your toe than taking your life.” Ouch.
Stanley’s two preoccupations throughout the book are innovation and craft, in that order. He gives a lot of space to sonic pioneers like Joe Meek, Phil Spector, and later the architects of early hip-hop and house music, detailing how each wave of experimentation inevitably made its way into the heart of the mainstream sound, eventually becoming calcified until the next upheaval came along to shake things up. His love of craft accounts for the lavish attention given the Beach Boys, the Bee Gees, and Michael Jackson. One notable absence is Billy Joel, who receives only a passing mention. With 33 U.S. Top 40 hits and 150 million album sales worldwide, one would think Joel would qualify as the quintessential pop songwriter. Here I have to believe Stanley’s UK roots are showing, for Joel was not nearly as successful in Britain as he was in the States. It’s also possible that Stanley considers Joel more of a consolidator than an innovator, though I would strongly disagree on that point.
Skewing in the other direction, Stanley devotes three full chapters to the origins and history of UK club music. While the house and techno styles that feature so prominently in these sections may have originated in the U.S.—something I did not realize before reading this book—they never made any sizable impact here beyond the dance-club circuit and the odd novelty hit. Consequently, my eyes glazed over as I slogged through all the unfamiliar names and terms in these chapters. Certainly some mention was necessary, but not, in my view, three chapters’ worth—at least not in the U.S. edition.
These are all relatively minor concerns, though. Stanley unerringly charts the inception point, peak, and decline of each movement within pop’s larger arc, and he shows how each of these genres informed and in many cases deposed what came before. A slightly larger concern is that his overall beginning and end points seem a bit arbitrary. Why start the book at Bill Haley? I would have gone back further—at least to Sinatra and the World War II-era crooners, if not the pre-war Big Bands. Certainly Sinatra and Bing Crosby were every bit the pop stars that the later generation’s rockers were. At the other end of the book, he concludes his story with Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love,” which he cites as the final hit of the “modern pop era.” It’s true that things have become more fragmented since then, and the pop single no longer carries the same cachet that it once had, but there have still been some massive across-the-board hits. On the high-quality side there was Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” in 2006—a near-perfect melding of substantive lyrics and catchy groove that scored with virtually every demographic apart from the country audience. (And I’m sure there’s a country version out there somewhere.) On the just-plain-nuts side was Psy’s “Gangnam Style” in 2012—and perhaps that track, not Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love,” represents the true line of demarcation between Stanley’s “modern pop era” and whatever it is that we’re in now, because “Gangnam Style” was viewed on YouTube over two billion times yet failed to nab the number one slot on the Billboard Hot 100. Clearly there had been a massive paradigm shift, one that rendered the old tools for determining a “hit” obsolete.
Any book that aspires to such a large scope runs the risk of treating at least some aspects of its story superficially. In the case of Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, the area that gets short shrift is the social impact of pop music. In his chapter on Elvis, Stanley writes, “At a stroke, Elvis Presley created the generation gap.” There are mountains of implications to that sentence that the author only partially addresses. To be fair, Stanley’s book is primarily the study of an art form. He doesn’t ignore the societal implications of that form—and indeed, he writes knowledgeably of the social impact of the punk era—but if he has to choose between exploring a melodic innovation or unpacking the ramifications of rock on the generation of parents who saw their children get seduced by it, he’s going with the former.
Given his area of expertise and the space limitations, I don’t doubt that he made the correct choice. But I keep thinking back to a passage I read a few years ago in William Manchester’s The Glory and the Dream that describes family life in the 1930s: “Parents had a tremendous influence upon their children. The teen-age subculture did not exist. … Since the brooding omnipresence of the peer group had not yet arrived, children rarely felt any conflict between their friends and their families.” Stanley’s sentence about Elvis having created the generation gap places the dissolution of this intergenerational harmony firmly at the feet of the new rock and roll.
Now, I am a child of the rock and pop revolutions, and I can’t imagine my life without this music. My own generation had Prince and Madonna, so, needless to say, I’ve grown up feeling smugly amused at the thought of parents freaking out about Elvis. Still, comparing the world Manchester describes with the world we live in now, and understanding that those parents in the ’50s were perhaps the only generation that clearly understood what was at stake when the pied piper from Tupelo started shaking his hips on TV—well, let’s just say I can see both sides now. I can’t fathom what life was like before rock and roll came along, but to understand how those parents felt all I have to do is attempt to imagine something equally seismic—something that would undermine my own identity as a parent—and then they don’t seem so silly anymore.
I wrote earlier of my desire to hear a certain song on the radio back when I first fell for this stuff. Pop music creates desire: first and foremost for more pop music—this is a business after all—but also for increasingly adventurous, some might say outrageous, sounds and images. The pop era, as defined by Bob Stanley, created an appetite for disruption. That’s the shadow side to all the effortlessly great art we got out of the deal.
Robert Dean Lurie is the author of No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and The Church.