Everything Is Fragmented: An Interview With Bob Stanley

Phoebe Hurst speaks to the music journalist and founding member of Saint Etienne about the decline of chart music, his new book and the magic of Britney's 'Baby One More Time'

It’s no revelation that pop music and the way we consume it has changed in the last fifty years. Even ‘aspiring musos’ with more Twitter followers than legally purchased albums are writing blog posts about how Spotify has skewed our listening habits and Record Store Day seems to have been invented to give MOJO columnists an excuse for using strained phrases like ‘the digital music world can never quite replicate the heady thrill of running your fingers across a Procol Harum B-side.’ We get it: pop music is different now. Generation Y-Bother isn’t going to wait for a 1500-word album breakdown in next week’s NME when a few clicks and a Tumblr account will bring up a review of Nothing Was The Same, told through the medium of Spongebob Squarepants GIFs.

While the evolution of pop music may seem obvious, the means by which we got here and what the future holds is less certain. So foggy, in fact, that Bob Stanley has just written an entire book on the subject. Published by Faber, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop traces the contemporary music era from the release of the first singles chart in 1952 to the launch of iTunes in 2000. While you’ll find well-thumbed copies of the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll at almost any provincial jumble sale and Stanley used Tony Palmer’s All You Need Is Love documentary as a source of one-up-manship inspiration (‘Palmer stood before me as an example of how deeply you can dig and still get it wrong,’ he wrote in a recent blog post), Yeah Yeah Yeah claims to be the first music history book that takes stock of an entire era.

If anyone is qualified to condense the history of pop music into a 747-page book and reclaim the subject from the MP3 vs. vinyl hand wringers, it’s Stanley. As founding member of Saint Etienne, music press stalwart and owner of a notoriously extensive record collection, Stanley practically has A-Levels in rock ‘n’ roll.

And yet his book is almost void of Melody Maker-era anecdotes, focusing instead on the sense of community built around Top 40 stat-watching and discussion of last night’s Top of the Pops. Stanley himself is endearingly removed the trappings of music snobbery and emits genuine sympathy for Miley Cyrus when I broach the subject of dysfunctional modern day pop stars (‘I want to defend people who are always getting a kicking and she’s currently the person who’s getting the kicking’). Accessible but covertly well crafted, Yeah Yeah Yeah has a lot in common with the pop songs it celebrates.

Why did you decide to write the book?

Bob Stanley: It’s been something I’ve wanted to do from when I was a teenager. I used to write sleeve notes for fictional compilations and I’ve always enjoyed writing about pop history as much as the new stuff. There used to be plenty of books on the history of rock but that stopped happening after punk, probably because you ended up looking like a lemon if you wrote something and by the time it was published, some seismic new event had happened and made it completely out of date.

Are you worried that might happen to Yeah Yeah Yeah?

BS: I had to have a reasonably tight end point for the book so it wouldn’t date. The analogue era of pop comes to an end in the ‘90s, and when iTunes comes in the year 2000 is the real cut off point.

Does the book make any predictions about where pop music is heading next?

BS: No, you can’t, that really is a mug’s game. There are still plenty of avenues that people could go down and create something that sounds new. We’re living at a time when the past and the future are all part of the present, there’s no way that some small scene could start up in Dusseldorf and then eventually break through, everything goes around the world automatically now.

The book is chronological; have you structured it around specific singles or genres?

BS: It’s mainly put together by looking at the charts, the first chapter is literally the first pop chart in Britain in 1952 and I pull out threads that are going to occur over the next fifty years. It’s fascinating going back to that pre-rock ‘n’ roll period, you find things like early examples of what would now be the X Factor winner.

Like who?

BS: A terrible singer called David Whitfield who I think won Opportunity Knocks which was the first major radio talent show. He became a huge star but he’s got this horrible rubbery, operatic voice, it’s dreadful. We’ve had a lot of that in the past ten years thanks to Simon Cowell.

Simon Cowell has been stealing his ideas from post-war radio shows?

BS: Absolutely! He’s obviously not stupid, if you look back at trends from the past and pull out what made them happen and update the format very slightly, it’s clever.

And slightly terrifying. Did you draw on your own experiences when writing the book?

BS: It’s absolutely biographical. The last thing I wanted it to be was like something you had to study for homework, I wanted it to be an enjoyable read so it’s fairly opinionated. There’s not much first person stuff in there but it’s fairly obviously my voice coming through.

Did that make you feel nostalgic?

BS: I didn’t feel nostalgic but it definitely made me think ‘That’s a period I lived through and I thought I understood it but now I realise there’s so much more to it.’ It made me go back and listen to early House for one thing.

What else did you end up listening to that you thought you wouldn’t?

BS: There were certain groups who I came to like a lot more because I felt I had to try and understand why they were popular. No one wants to read me saying that I think AC/DC are crap so I had to work out what it was that made them so popular because I don’t really get it.

And did you manage to work it out?

BS: I still didn’t end up liking AC/DC but I ended up liking country music a lot more and Led Zeppelin. Writing the book made me realise how much of an important figure Little Richard was. He crops up all the way through the book, whether it’s James Brown or Prince or Janelle Monae.

It’s interesting that you discuss Britney Spears and Katy Pery alongside the supposedly ‘classic’ rock records.

BS: Britney I like a lot, I think Blackout is an amazing album. Katy Perry I’m not very fond of, I think her voice is too fog horn-y for me but they’re only really in the epilogue. Britney’s ‘Baby One More Time’ just sneaks in at the very end.

Was that a seminal moment in the story of pop?

BS: It’s a phenomenal pop record. The magic of ‘Baby One More Time’ is the way the chorus climbs and climbs, it keeps going up the level higher than you think it’s going to. Caitlin Moran played it to me, I was at Pete Paphides’ and she just came back one night and said, ‘You’ve gotta hear this record!’ and put it on and it was absolutely mind blowing.

In the book, there’s a record I talk about by Lou Christie called ‘Lightnin’ Strikes’ and that’s also one of those songs that builds. Just when you don’t think it can’t go to the next level, it does.

You weren’t afraid of any criticism for including her?

BS: I started writing for NME in 1987 and my taste in music has pretty much always made people snigger behind my back so I’m used to it by now! I’ve always loved following the charts and trying to work out why pop music is popular. When there are things in the charts that you can take sides over and argue about, I find that all really interesting. It’s definitely more interesting that reading yet another five star Nick Cave review.

Are people becoming more disconnected with pop music?

BS: In the digital age, it’s inevitable because everything is so fragmented. It was pretty fragmented in the ‘90s but you still had things people could rally around. People still watched Top of the Pops and probably knew what was Number 1 but if you asked 20 people on the streets today what was Number 1, maybe only a handful of them would know.

I was just reading someone’s account of going to a birthday party as a kid and one of the parents brought over ‘Tiger Feet’ by Mud and said, ‘You’ve got to play this, nobody has a party without playing the current Number 1!’ That attitude is obviously completely gone now but it doesn’t mean that there aren’t good records around. I do find it sad that there’s no community based around what’s in the Top 40, there isn’t that glue anymore.

Is it also sad to watch things like Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMA Awards and compare it to that supposed ‘golden era’ of pop?

BS: No, I don’t think that performance was sad, I thought it was quite a decent record! It makes it sad when people are soft targets and Miley really is a soft target, I think. And Britney was like that around the time of Blackout, too – when she sang ‘Gimme More’ at the MTV Awards and looked slightly overweight and very lethargic and instead of being sympathetic, people were going, ‘Well she’s finished.’ And then she put Blackout out and everyone was like, ‘Oh this is an amazing record’… I’m talking about Britney a lot aren’t I?

There’s surely no such thing as too much Britney. Was Yeah Yeah Yeah a hard book to write?

BS: I worked out the chapter breakdowns first, so if I had an idea there would be a home for it. That took five years but I had to get it done first. Once I had the framework it wasn’t difficult to write, but by the time I got to the end of the first draft, it felt like three different writers had written it because my style had changed so much over the time.

Did you tend to write by hand?

BS: I took a notebook everywhere so that I could make a note of interesting conversations and then take these scraps of paper and put them in the laptop. I wrote a lot at the British Library, which was a big help. It’s somewhere to go where you have to concentrate because everyone around you is concentrating.

The book uses a lot of primary source material. Was there much research involved?

BS: I ended up buying a stupid number of old music papers. I could have asked to look at them in the British Library, but having them around the house meant that I could just pick one up. I really wanted to go back to source material too because so many authors just rewrite books from twenty years ago.

It’s also unbelievable how many stories you find in the old papers that have just never been rewritten; really odd things like Velvet Underground, who I just assumed were completely unknown in Britain until the early 70s, actually got a fair bit of coverage in the music press. There’s an interview with Moe Tucker in Record Mirror and I was like, ‘What the hell is this doing here?’ Or a Nick Drake album review when he’s meant to have been basically ignored at the time. Things like that I found really interesting, there’s a lot of received wisdom in music writing and that’s something I tried to avoid as much as I could. I’ve got to work out what to do with the huge piles of music papers that are in my one bedroom flat now. It just looks like a record shop at the moment.

Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is out now, published by Faber & Faber. Bob Stanley and Faber Social will be taking the Story of Modern Pop on tour with special guests, starting 10th October

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