With his deep knowledge and love of pop, who better to write a history of it than Bob Stanley, the only person I know who can boast equally successful careers as both pop musician (with Saint Etienne) and journalist (NME, Guardian, Mojo). [There are others who have tried, me included, but none who have made a decent fist of both – and in my case neither!].
It’s surprising that no-one has really tackled the story of modern pop from its beginnings in the fifties (Stanley chooses 1952, when New Musical Express was first published, when seven-inch singles were first released and when singles charts first appeared) to now. Actually, he ends it in the late 90s when vinyl had finally succumbed to the compact disc, which in turn would soon be usurped by the MP3, which in turn will probably give way to not ‘owning’ any format at all (spotify etc).
And what a story it’s been: skiffle, rock & roll, soul, R&B, folk, psychedelia, glam, disco, punk, indie, hip hop, rap, techno, jungle, trip hop, grunge… an ever-changing and cross-pollination of genres which has kept pop music interesting and central to popular culture. They say that age 10-20 are the most influential in terms of forming musical tastes. In which case I feel lucky to have had the seventies as my tutor: Bowie, glam, punk, new wave, krautrock, nascent synthpop… even prog and disco.
The early eighties were great too, but pop – as an all-embracing, all-consuming thing, somehow ended for me in 1984. Of course there was great pop after that, new genres (mostly revolving around dance), mega-stars like Madonna and (for a while) Prince, alt-stars like Radiohead and Bjork; every now and again you can still hear a song or a sound that makes you sit up and take notice. But music is no longer the driving force in popular culture. It’s computer games, fashion, sport, celebrity or (amazingly still) television, all driven by an all-pervasive social media.
Stanley tells the story brilliantly with very little repetition and not a word wasted – quite a feat given there is a limit to the number of ways one can describe a three-minute pop song and the book is 750 pages long. He manages to be both authoritative and very funny. The section on Glam is laugh out loud. This is Slade in a nutshell: “Dickensian singer Noddy Holder had a voice like John Lennon screaming down the chimney of the QE2; rosy-cheeked Jim Lea looked as if he lived with his mum and bred homing pigeons; Dave Hill on guitar had the most rabbit face in the world; while drummer Don Powell chewed gum and started into space – even after he’d been in a horrific car crash and lost most of his memory, he looked exactly the same. With no hint or possibility of pin-up potential, they saw the Titus Groans and the Amazing Blondels, the prog noodlers, the folk archaeologists and the questing space rockers and thought, sod this, let’s get pissed and have a really, really good time”. It could have applied to a dozen other bands of their ilk.
Interestingly, the only reference to his own (excellent) group is a blink and you missed it mention, and they don’t even make it into the index. Modesty forbids… Are there any weak points? Not really. It's very Anglo-American centric; nothing much about Australia, New Zealand or Canada, let alone non-Anglophone Continental Europe, which is deserving of analysis, but that's another book. It slows right down after the dire Britpop (who can blame him?), splutters after Gangsta Rap and the Spice Girls and gives up as the New Millennium and boy bands take over. A great, great book.