Imagine you’re a bird flying high above a vast landscape. Now imagine that the landscape–forest, mountains, rivers, roaming animals, small towns–is the history of popular music stretched out below you. You’re not flying alone. Next to you is another bird named Bob. Bob knows this territory well, pointing out the important sights below and explaining to you how everything relates to everything else.
Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! is a remarkably engaging history of pop music from the 1950s to about 2000. Over some 600 pages, musician and writer Bob Stanley touches on most of the pop musical styles, movements, and artists over the past fifty years–from Bill Haley, Elvis, the Brill Building scene and the Beatles to folk, country, punk, funk, heavy metal, disco, new wave, Motown, soul, electro and hip hop, and so much in between. His writing is succinct, insightful to the point that it reads as if the author was somehow there for every musical moment he describes, and utterly engaging. Like a street corner observer who witnessed history shuffle by and then remembered and distilled the good and juicy bits, Stanley has knack for telling the sprawling story of pop. Rarely has a book gone by so effortlessly for me. Bravo Bob!
The book takes a chronological approach to pop history, patiently moving from year to year and including dates of noteworthy songs in parentheses. One of Stanley’s go-to structuring techniques is to anchor his narrative around important and/or hit songs from the year as kinds of signposts indicating points of widespread critical admiration. Hit songs tell us what a lot of people were listening to and enjoying at various moments in time. We can understand how these moments work when Stanley tells us that what makes great pop is “tension, opposition, progress, and fear of progress.” Fortunately for us, the author himself seems to appreciate just about every pop subculture out there for what it has to tell us about the human experience. Whether it’s folk music or glam rock, Stanley sees the modern pop era as an “endless, interchangeable jigsaw puzzle.” This makes him a fascinating tour guide who on each page goes on explaining to us how all these sounds and styles and artists fit together and relate to one another.
If Stanley has a bias it’s that he likes good music, quality music–music that takes chances, music that embraces the full potential of what it is meant to be. And in addition to being a pop musical generalist, Stanley is a populist too, quick to value the underdog, the overlooked, and the marginalized rather than simply rehash the merits of a few canonic favorites. (Please, no more Zeppelin.) This is what allows him to explain how, for example, in pop “noise and overexcitement became values rather than marks of low quality.” It’s easy to forget the value these kinds of artistic contributions that often come to the mainstream from the margins.
The history of pop is, among other things, a history of technology, and Stanley observes that pop would not exist without recordings. In fact, pop innovated the idea that music can exist first and foremost as a recorded form. Here, we learn about the British producer and studio wiz Joe Meek, who in 1960s “was the first to manipulate every element of the track, imagining the record as a complete production.” Meek was also “the first to argue that records didn’t need to directly mimic a live performance.” This powerful idea would be famously taken up by The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and others who came to recognize the recording studio as pop’s natural habitat.
One of Stanley’s most compelling qualities as a writer is his range of interests and the way he is able to say incisive things about so many different musics. Whether he’s talking about country music (“the underside of modern pop…on every level, country music remains a mass fantasy”), Jamaican reggae (“Marley fitted a preconception about Jamaican culture that suited a white audience”), soft rock (“managed to be both countercultural and crushingly conservative …It was also unforgiving, very male, and very straight”), punk (“stripped of pretty much all black influence”), or post-punk (“the sound of postwar architecture itself. It was abstract, sometimes confused, frequently surprising”), Stanley tells you what is important to know about the place of a style within the broader historical narrative.
And rarely is the author dismissive of a music. Instead, he finds a way to validate it. For example, he describes metal as “not out to test your faculties, it was there to dim them, to blot out that teenage shit with sheer volume…It is about a state of being, Being Metal. Almost no other music has this raison d’être.” Stanley also locates quotes from the musicians themselves that give you pause. About punk, for instance, we hear from the Ramones’ original drummer Tommy Ramone explaining lucidly what his group was trying to do: “The hypnotic effect of strict repetition, driving the music like a sonic machine…it’s very sensual. It was a new way of looking at music.”
One of the most interesting aspects of Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! is how it validates pop’s shift towards electronics (synthesizers, drum machines, computers, etc.) and explains how this shift radically changed its soundscape. As Stanley matter of factly describes the shift: “It had become apparent by the turn of this century that rock–the vocals/guitar/bass/drums setup pioneered by the Crickets, Shadows, Beatles, and Led Zeppelin–had become as fossilized and ancient as Dixieland jazz was in 1952.”
In the 1970s, disco was the first threat to the rock canon. (Remember the “disco sucks” rallies in Chicago?) Thanks to disco, “for the first time the pulse of pop became the most important factor in a hit record, and that hasn’t gone away.” This steady pulse also marked “the beginning of pop’s internationalization.” While it is perhaps easy to ridicule some of disco’s biggest stars such as the Bee Gees (humorously described as “aliens who had been given tiny scraps of information about what pop music was all about and were bravely trying to piece it together”), the idiom also brought us real innovations such as the remix and the idea of extending the rhythmic breaks of songs. This would in turn influence the breakbeats of hip hop. Not long after disco, electro funk “gave American pop a new sense of space, as New York producers mixed dub with Korg and Roland’s evolving keyboard and beatbox technology, and created something undeniably futuristic.” Electro would soon bifurcate, one half fueling techno and house musics (“house and techno were the first truly international sounds of modern pop; they could be easily mimicked, exploited, expanded by musicians in any country”), the other driving hop hop and its investigations of “texture and persuasive powers of dialogue and flow.”
Since that bifurcation, pop has continued many of its guitar-based ways (indie, post-rock, grunge, alt-country), but increasingly the most interesting music is that made in idioms free of shall we say, six-string constraints. An early example is New Order’s “Blue Monday,” a song that “physically bridged the gap between rock and dance culture in that it was only available as a twelve-inch single, the chosen format of DJs.” Another example is the idiom of contemporary R&B. As Stanley notes about this music from the mid-90s to middle of following decade: “A swathe of auteur producers emerged, happy to take the most oblique rhythm, the most exotic instrumentation, and deliver the most outré chart hit.” Much of the most interesting pop today–rhythmically, texturally, timbrally–grows out of the template set by these R&B producers.
Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! ends amidst this cultural moment–a point in the history of pop where producers using little more than computers and software are creating big, engaging sounds. Stanley doesn’t mourn the half-passing of the guitar-bass-drums-vocalist pop template because he still believes in great songs in whatever form. At heart, he’s a true fan, in love with Quality pop, yet tempered by a sense of realism. “We have entered a different era, the digital age, in which great records will continue to be made,” he tells us near the end of the book, “but, with such a choice of influences readily available, it will be much harder to create a brand-new form of music.”