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Easy To Sing, Easy To Say: Bob Stanley On Pop's Birth Pangs
Irina Shtreis , September 3rd, 2022 08:21

In a revelatory volume on pre-modern pop, the music historian balances education with entertainment, finds Irina Shtreis

author pic c. Alasdair McLellan

Music archaeology helps to revise the history and find the unobvious bits that make the narrative cohesive. With his latest volume on pre-modern pop, Bob Stanley digs deep enough for his readers to be constantly astonished and intrigued: what’s coming next? While his earlier book Yeah Yeah Yeah uncovers music within reach through habitual mediums, Let’s Do It reveals cultural layers as deep, time-wise, as the 1890s.

While the previous work was partly triggered by a desire to recount personal experience, Let’s Do It came about merely through Stanley’s curiosity and meticulous approach. “I always wanted to write a chronological story of pop music from the first vinyl records and music papers and the kind of pop world I grew up with because in the early 2000s I thought it was disappearing, with things like music papers going, Top of the Pops going. I felt like history was getting slightly rewritten. That was the reason to write Yeah Yeah Yeah. Having written that, I realised that I had to go further back because the earliest chapters in that, which had made sense when I was writing them, now felt incomplete”.

Stanley’s research methods for Let’s Do It seem (almost) scientific. The materials were mostly obtained from the archives at the British Library. Old issues of Billboard, Variety, academic papers on jazz and radio interviews from the BBC archive became the key sources for the book. “I was going through the papers at the British Library, all Billboards and Varieties. They are very dry on the whole. They were trade papers. It wasn’t like the modern pop era where right from the beginning you had fan magazines, you had the charts, interviews with pop stars, pop stars you know. With this book, it was more about going to memoirs and finding interviews. Radio interviews were a pretty good source because people seem to be much freer when they are being interviewed on the radio than when they are writing a memoir, for instance”.

Although the approach might bring to mind works by other contemporary historians such as Jon Savage’s Teenage, 1966 and England’s Dreaming, the narrative of Let’s Do It lacks any eyewitness account. Instead, there is a different kind of polyphony where precise details and references to archival documents replace potentially unreliable narrators. “There are no interviews because I thought so much time has passed. I was put in touch. I spoke to people off the record who were enthusiasts or people who lived through the period or people whose parents remember why Al Jolson was important. But I didn’t want to have any sit-down interviews. It would have been so far from being first-hand. So much of the book is so very long time ago apart from the tail end of the book. No-one is alive. It’s only people like Tony Bennett, who are an exception really”.

Despite its academic flavour, the book has enough moments to keep you entertained, as the chapter on Al Jolson suggests. Meticulously researched facts and figures, including Stanley’s favourite chart positions, are balanced with stories, the writer’s thoughtful reflections on music, and anecdotes. Introducing the innovation of 7-inch 45 rpm records, the author tells about Columbia Records’ head of A&R Mitch Miller and one of the label’s artists Al Cernik. Miller considered that the Croatian name wasn’t pop enough and suggested an alternative at the drop of a hat: “You’re a nice guy, and my name is Mitchell… Let’s call you Guy Mitchell”.

As much as any kind of birth, the history of pop music had a bumpy ride at the very beginning. Pop wasn’t born overnight. Although the conventional name of the genre emerged on pages of the British theatrical trade paper The Stage in 1901, it took a series of contractions before the true labour began. Initially, it was a play of contrasts (past versus future, old versus new) and a longing for free expression that contributed to the development. In the chapter on ragtime, Stanley emphasises that it was immigration and the consequent slight increase in tolerance that endowed pop with its all-inclusive quality:

“In 1900 European music, whether Mozart or Marie Lloyd, was the real thing as far as New York was concerned; American music was nothing, trivial, an embarrassment. To get over this hump, and for twentieth-century pop to begin, white America had to acknowledge that African American music existed. Enter ragtime”.

With ragtime emerging at the turn of the century, early pop music signified a change of perspective. It was a place where anyone could be accepted regardless of gender or race. Defined as a social phenomenon in Yeah Yeah Yeah, pre-modern pop builds upon a multitude of investments, quite often by ambitious outcasts and mavericks relying on music as means for transformation. The chapters about individuals such as Irving Berlin (“the first in line. Top of the bill and front of the queue”) explain how pop could change lives. Thirty years later, punk would act as a similar catalyst for change.

Emphasising Berlin’s role as a precursor, Stanley draws parallels between different decades, comparing the composer’s concept of a hybrid pop song to Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty’s manual on how to make a number-one record. “Naturalness, he [Berlin] found, came to him as long as he followed his own basic lyrical rule: ‘Easy to sing, easy to say, easy to remember and applicable to everyday events.’ More than seven decades later [1988], Bill Drummond would write The Manual on how to make a number-one record, but the first edition was Berlin’s”.

Although pop emerged as all-inclusive and liberating, restrictions and limitations played an important role in generating some of its forms. One of the examples was close harmony singing which gave birth to a genre known as ‘barbershop’. Documented a long time before the recording era, this spontaneous vocal practice gave customers and employees of Black barbershops a chance to sing together. Due to racial politics in America, there was almost no other place where they could do that. While many sources failed to explain the genre’s name, Stanley detected the connection to Black barbershops: “That really took a lot of digging out, there was almost nothing written about that. You read a basic overview of barbershop and they write something like ‘no one knows why it’s called barbershop because no-one used to sing in a barbershop’, I thought that sounded weird because there has to be something about that and it was, it was Black barbershops”. The barbershop sound would later feed into doo-wop in the 1950s.

Another discovery was the link between the launch of Black radio stations in the late 40s and the first seismic signs of rock ‘n’ roll. “Black radio stations were listened to by white teenagers”, says Stanley. “It was a by-product of an American law where they were breaking up the monopoly of radio stations so people could start their own little local stations which enabled you to listen to a Black-run station playing R ‘n’ B for Black audiences. And I quickly realised that in the early 50s those white teenagers were listening to this music. It was basically the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll but I didn’t know that it was due to these strange radio regulations”. This is one of the examples, telling how various forms of pop music emerged from one’s desire to reach for forbidden fruit or cross a boundary.

Spanning the first five decades of the 20th century, Let’s Do It stands on its own but also unveils the details that might be missing in Yeah Yeah Yeah. The former joins the dots that initially seemed to exist in different galaxies. The passion and enthusiasm of the author evokes a parallel with early sci-fi fanzines which studied the subject with the fervent diligence of a devotee. Stanley’s book explores the world of pop carefully, giving it a three-dimensional perspective: that of a historian, musician and fan.

Let’s Do It: The Birth of Pop by Bob Stanley is published by Faber