Rock & Roll &
Anti-Rockism's Hall of Fame
Bob Stanley's Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyoncé begins with a sentence both spot on and inauspicious: "The story of pop music is largely the story of the intertwining pop culture of the United States and the United Kingdom in the postwar era." As a journo who appreciates the killer lede, I admire its terse sweep, and as a rock critic I note that it's far from ridiculous. Not only did Britain give the world the Beatles, without question modern popular music's linchpin and holy spirit, they gave the world the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, who between them defined the rock band, and rave culture, which although short-lived in its "pure" form as usual, was the making of the electronic dance music that was called techno and many other things before the rise of the acronym EDM. These days EDM dominates world pop, and despite its formative debts to minimalist Detroit techno and deep-soul Chicago house, it is by no means a principally American form.
All that granted, however, Stanley's lede is also arrantly chauvinistic. It's kind of like saying rock and roll is what happened when blues and country had a baby. Stick to rockabilly and Chuck Berry and Stanley's man Bill Haley and the formula works out pretty good. But its evenhandedness evades swaths of '50s music from doowop to Fats Domino and doesn't explain why, in a nation where 10 percent of the population was black, well over half of the decade's enduring records and artists were African American. Similarly, to posit pop parity between U.S. and U.K. is not only to assume two equally fecund musical cultures even though almost all of Britain's pop groundbreakers worked proudly and explicitly off American models until 1970, but to ignore the raw fact that the U.S. is five times bigger than the U.K. Even if Britain's musical culture is now more creative than America's, a plausible theory if you're contrarian or sentimental enough to agree with Stanley that hip hop lost its savor before 2000, we have big numbers on our side.
So please don't assume I'm being defensive when I observe that this is a British book that targets a British audience. Its author is a British musician-journalist whose ignorance of America can get pretty comic--Lynyrd Skynyrd weren't (and aren't) "cowhands," and Detroit is a straight shot up I-94 from Chicago, not "across the Great Lakes." It was released last year in the U.K. to moderately ecstatic, candidly nationalistic notices. Most reviewers understood that it wouldn't be lively enough without its blind spots and quirky enthusiasms. And most agreed that it ended too soon, its half-graf about Beyoncé's 2003 "Crazy in Love" tacked on to justify a misleading subtitle. But it was praised, and plausibly too, for its exhaustive listening, its scattershot wit, its choice storytelling, its "scale, sweep and drama," "its lack of snobbery, its rejection of the principle of 'guilty pleasures,' its exuberant and cross-generational linkages." Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! is the only rock history the British Chambers of Commerce will ever need.
In America, on the other hand, its aspirations to authority won't wash, no matter how accurate and insightful it may or may not be about the many American artists in its pantheon. But it does have another function. Although I just called the book a rock history, Stanley, like most contemporary U.K. music journalists, is an "anti-rockist." And although this rhetorical stance, which goes back to the avant-prog postpunk and "new pop" of Britain's early '80s, is far from strictly Brit anymore, its parameters remain tricky for Yanks to suss. Perhaps in deference to anti-rockism's prog wing, pop anti-rockists prefer to classify themselves by deploying the silly, philosophically constricting term "poptimist." But I submit that just plain "poppist" has a nice clarity to it. And by constructing his "story of pop music," Stanley has provided the only poppist sourcebook the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will ever need.
As a rock critic who's always thought "pop" both compliment and concept--who praised bubblegum in the year of Woodstock and Altamont, who covered the black singles market from the days when "soul" was branded "commercial" by "progressive radio" through disco's rise and fall through the dark moment when CBS had to strong-arm "Beat It" onto MTV through the 12-inch burgeoning of old-school hip hop--I count myself neutral in this delusory affair. That's because I also, damn it, get off on Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt, the Allman Brothers, and Van Morrison, none mentioned in Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, presumably because they're not pop enough no matter how many hits they've had. But what exactly pop is remains elusive. As a fan of the term, I sympathize--it's hard to pin down even allowing for sui generis exceptions. So I give Stanley credit for making a pass at it in a brief introduction.
By anti-rockist standards, Stanley is aggressively ecumenical. He scorns "the separation of rock and pop," the elimination of "disco and large swathes of black and electronic music" from pop history, and the anti-album animus of the "seven-inch fascist." And crucially, while insisting on the pop precept that "the charts are vital social history," he's well aware that they don't necessarily "reflect emerging movements." This last is the contradiction that always trips up critics who believe the charts mean something not just socially but aesthetically--that they respond to evolving artistic imperatives. I devised my own solution in 1970, when by adopting the term "semipopular music" I freed myself to kvell about thousands of marginals and unknowns whose sole formal link was songs with a beat--while in no way cutting myself off from low-status smashes such as Mungo Jerry's "In the Summertime," A Taste of Honey's "Boogie Oogie Oogie," Ray Parker Jr.'s "The Other Woman," Van Halen's "Jump," and Pink's "Get the Party Started." But such artists are too homely for Stanley, who doesn't mention a one of them, although Mungo Jerry had the biggest U.K. single of 1970. Like so many pop aficionados--especially in Great Britain, where a hyperactive music press long speeded a procession of short-lived insurrections even more negligible than glam, Britpop, and garage--he's addicted to the shock of the new. His introduction explains why, well enough to quote at length: "What creates great pop? Tension, opposition, progress, and a fear of progress. I love the tension between the industry and the underground, between artifice and authenticity, between rock and pop, between dumb and clever, between boys and girls. A permanent state of flux informed the modern pop era and taking sides is part of the fun."
Born Christmas Day, 1964, Stanley was 11 when punk broke in 1976 and 16 when Wah! Heat's Pete Wylie dropped the term "rockism" in an NME interview. So he missed not only the '50s but the '60s, thus failing to bond with, for instance, Eric Clapton, who really gets his goat, or unmentioned anti-hippie Frank Zappa, whose pop parodies might have tickled an older version of himself. Moreover, the ideal of the pop insurrection is his generational heritage. There's a sense in which Bill Doggett's lounge-blues instrumental "Honky Tonk," a record I glommed onto at 14 and thrill to today, was even more revolutionary than PiL's "Public Image," which Stanley encountered at 13 and sometimes still considers "the most powerful record ever made." I mean, blues elementals going pop was groundbreaking. But nobody gave it a thought, because Bill Doggett presented himself as an entertainer merely, whereas Johnny Rotten né John Lydon couldn't stop yapping about how much he hated rock and roll--by then the music press had turned the fan fun of taking sides into an endless series of schismatic struggles.
Soon an alternative chart compiled by independent labels was picked up by the new Smash Hits. Neil Tennant, later to create the divine Pet Shop Boys, and Paul Morley, later to create the mortal Frankie Goes to Hollywood, were active music journos. A Human League hit deployed the word "sericulture"; Scritti Politti charted a B side called "Jacques Derrida." The States had its indie movement too, one I prefer musically myself. But ideologically, the action was much hotter in Britain, with its own profusion of narrowcast artists for the likes of Stanley to latch onto and such bestselling consequences as Adam and the Ants, New Order, the Specials, Culture Club, Depeche Mode, and the Cure. Any one of these bands could make a music-mad teenager like Bob Stanley feel as if history or his head was exploding. And although such kids soon realized that the last uproar wasn't quite as momentous as they'd thought, seeing that pop insurrection was a bit of an illusion didn't stop them from riding the next blast-off.
Two-thirds of Stanley's book is over before the year the author turned 20, and clearly he's enjoyed studying music from before he was born. Except in the obscurity-hawking rockabilly chapter, he's pretty good on the '50s, even isolating decent Pat Boone and Paul Anka tracks. He honors Motown and the girl groups and finds his own angles on Beatles-Dylan-Stones, although he tires of the Stones fast and has no use for post-breakup Fab Four. But because he absorbed punk's anti-hippie rhetoric at an impressionable age, the rest of the '60s give him big trouble. For him the Beach Boys are the only American band of the decade who top the Monkees, and in Britain he can't even get enthusiastic about the Who. This distaste for hippies and what became of them, while understandable in itself, is why he has so little use for virtuosity, why he believes old people make boring music, and why at 25 he fastened onto a quote from acid-house sample kings the KLF, inspired troublemakers who once inveigled Tammy Wynette to sing their lost, neocanonical "Justified and Ancient": "I was really getting pissed off with the way the whole history of music, from Marvin Gaye and James Brown to the present day, was getting treated so reverentially."
That aura of reverence is what most peeves Stanley's cohort about rockism. It peeves me too. But not so's I'll deprive myself of all the pleasure pop, popular, and semipopular music can provide without making my head explode. As Stanley staunchly insists, Are You Experienced? is indeed one impossible three-minute pop stroke after another, but why let that desensitize you to the trippy materiality of the world's greatest electric guitarist letting loose with voodoo aforethought all over Electric Ladyland? Why let your loathing of Laurel Canyon's decrepit self-regard put you off the agony and hilarity of Randy Newman's sweated-out bile? Why not relax like Frankie said and let your jaw drop at the Bach-like intricacy of disc three of James Brown's Star Time?
Stanley the musician masterminds the excellent synth-dance Saint Etienne, fronted by the Dusty Springfield--channeling Sarah Cracknell. For my money--I did actually purchase their 2005 Sub Pop comp to check--the 2012 Words and Music by Saint Etienne, never officially released in the States, was their best album in 20 years, a creative lifespan Stanley fails to grant either, to cite two explicit examples, Johnny Cash or the Pet Shop Boys. Its opening track is a pop-history recitative whose chorus is keyed to the line "Over the border, I'm getting older, heaven only knows what's on its way." So I wonder how Stanley conceptualizes his own artistic longevity as he pushes 50. No poptimist in the end, he never truly cottoned to compact discs and believes that digitalization caused what he calls "the passing of the modern pop era." But he continues to make and cover music anyway. Hmmm.
For all its flaws and worse, this book will be remembered and deserves to be. My own hope is that it somehow moves the mountain and convinces the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that if it can sacralize de facto one-hit wonder Percy Sledge and the noble yet overrated Stanley fave Del Shannon, perhaps it can conquer its own hidebound chauvinism and make room for the Cure, New Order, and the Pet Shop Boys.