By Bob Stanley
Norton. 599 pp. $29.95
Much like the sound it describes, the best pop is swift, urgent and as brief and satisfying as squeezing the air out of packing bubbles. The jubilant genre has seen countless incarnations since its mid-1950s inception, and Bob Stanley attempts to cover them all in just under 600 pages. In his encyclopedic “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” Stanley zips through decades of dance tunes and teenage heartthrobs with an affectionate ebullience. The title is telling, as he clearly favors infectious songs with lighter lyrics over anything heavy, taking sly shots at Paul Simon (“almost no one would say he’s their favorite songwriter”) while lauding the goofy freneticism of the early rock-and-roll year 1958, which gave us songs like “Get a Job,” “Poor Little Fool,” “Do You Wanna Dance,” “Susie Q,” “Sea Cruise” and “Book of Love”: “Nothing was quite the same, or quite as new, or quite as free, ever again.”
In his great enthusiasm, Stanley is unashamed of subjective asides and hyperbolic praise, which help push the reader through some of the denser sections, and there are a few. Yet even when he’s trudging through a biblical genealogy of one-hit wonders, he stays profoundly fascinated by his subject. The writing gets clunky when he’s ambitiously squeezing as much as he can into a single chapter, but that’s to be expected with singles-fueled genres like doo wop, garage rock and disco. The book is best enjoyed in small portions, while listening to the material Stanley covers.
Stanley’s best anecdotes have to do with unexpected success, such as the extraordinary British revival of washboard-toting skiffle bands in the ’50s, the influence of skiffle star Lonnie Donegan on John Lennon and Jimmy Page, and the unlikely chart dominance of the late ’70s Bee Gees, who incidentally were in a skiffle band themselves in the ’50s.
Stanley draws connections between eras, notes the advent of new genres and tracks their evolving meanings. “By 1963,” he writes, “R&B meant something quite different to Americans from what it did to the Rollings Stones. Their blues heroes belonged to an older generation. . . . The Four Seasons as well as Chicago’s Impressions . . . were all creating something new on Billboard’s R&B chart.” He goes on to name 1966 as the year the term “soul” was coined for music, though the style began to form years earlier. In an especially insightful moment, he points out how Billboard’s changing names for one of its singles charts mapped the evolving terminology — from “race” music to “rhythm & blues,” from “soul” to “black” music, and eventually to today’s “R&B/hip hop.”
By the time the ’80s roll around, pop has shot out in so many directions that condensing it into a single book is nigh impossible. Stanley is not particularly interested in the trajectory of big pop bands like Tears for Fears and A-ha, but after diving headlong into disco, he digs deep with less mainstream movements like house, techno and rave. “The biggest break for house and techno,” he explains, “came from an accident, a piece of malfunctioning technology . . . a cheap piece of gear called a Roland TB-303.” He goes on to tell how DJs Pierre and Spanky utilized the warped sounds of the faulty TB-303 to spark dance-floor chaos in Chicago clubs, marking the birth of acid house music.
Although his coverage of American music is generally quite good, Stanley writes from a decidedly British perspective. He notes interesting divides and commonalities between the two nations, pointing out America’s late-blooming interest in glam rock, its divergent perspective on punk, and the fact that Britain missed out on the initial triumph of pop-country icon Garth Brooks.
Ultimately, Stanley knows that the task of condensing what he refers to as modern pop into a single book is impossible, but he does his damnedest to get it done anyway. His personal taste as a dance musician is refreshingly far from the “rockist,” Led Zeppelin-worshiping tendencies of so many pop historians. Perhaps as a result, when the music gets louder, his facts occasionally get blurry, as when he dates the rise of thrash metal a bit too late, wrongly refers to Black Flag as a D.C. band (though the group’s onetime singer Henry Rollins is from the area), and uses the term “heavy metal” much as it was first used in the ’70s, with no regard for the difference between the pop-chart success of hard rockers like AC/DC and the long-term influence of metal royalty Black Sabbath. But much of this is forgivable because of the way Stanley writes, as if he were engaging the reader in conversation rather than delivering a treatise. His affable writing style is punctuated by moments of wit and insight, even when some of his stories sound apocryphal.
The man is a true fan, with enough historical understanding and musical knowledge to argue all night about any given era. In that sense, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” is as good a “story of pop music” as a fan could hope for.
Little is a freelance journalist living in Washington.