Bob Stanley’s prequel to ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah’, ‘Let’s Do It’ (soon to be published by Faber) is the only book that brings together all genres to tell the definitive story of the birth of Pop, from 1900 to the mid-fifties. It’s also Book of the Month for May. Andy Childs reviews.
More than three-quarters of the way into this ambitious and brilliantly entertaining volume Bob Stanley tells the lovely story of how ‘on a warm LA night in 1947’ backstage at the Lincoln Theatre where Nat King Cole had just performed, a long-haired man in a tunic and looking ‘a lot like Jesus’ approached Cole’s manager Mort Ruby and handed him ‘a rolled-up score that looked more like an ancient parchment than a music score’. “I want to see Mr. Cole”, the man said. “I have a song for him”. Luckily for Mr. Cole his manager took the score in good faith and passed it on. The song was ‘Nature Boy’ and it ‘would transform Nat King Cole’s fortunes’. Its composer, one eden abez ‘(no capitals — he thought only the divine were worthy of capitals)’ was eventually tracked down ‘living under one of the ‘L’s on the Hollywood sign’ and although ‘Nature Boy’ has become a ‘standard’ and been subsequently covered by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye, Céline Dion and Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga, and although abez was a minor celebrity in L.A. (Stanley dubs him the ‘equivalent of New York’s street-jazz genius Moondog’) his name has been all but forgotten.
It’s stories like that that help propel Let’s Do It: The Birth of Pop and make it such a delight, one of its great virtues being Bob Stanley’s ear for the underrated and neglected artist or record — and his knack for re-defining and seamlessly re-positioning such artists and their music into the mainstream narrative that constitutes this breathless and exhilarating romp through pop’s pre-history. Right off it has to be said that any project Bob Stanley undertakes is guaranteed to stimulate and provoke a re-evaluation and re-contextualization of popular music. While I’m writing this I’m listening to his excellent recent John Barry compilation The More Things Change, and before that, his State Of The Union and Choctaw Ridge selections deftly changed my appreciation of some of the marginalised and misunderstood American music of the late 60s/early 70s. Remarkably, he has managed to perform a similar feat with this book.
Given its scope and volume of detail, it’s an almost impossible book to summarise in any but the most sweeping way. It’s packed with elegant, sometimes amusing, and often opinionated potted biographies of practically every important or influential artist from the period in question, and the abundance of arcane facts and anecdotes are integrated into a narrative that flows effortlessly with the lightest of touches and an over-arching sense of wit and fun, so that we never get bogged down in unwelcome detail before being whisked along to the next subject and the next strand of the history.
It all begins at the very end of the 19th century when ‘music hall’ (in the UK) and ‘vaudeville’ (in the US) was the popular music of the day and the first 100 or so pages of the book focuses mainly on developments in the US. One by one, in an overlapping and tangled sequence, ragtime, jazz, barbershop, Tin Pan Alley, the blues, hillbilly, gospel, folk and quite a few other sub-genres vied for public recognition. All the relevant artists are given their due as well as artists with a long-forgotten claim to fame. For instance I had no idea that someone with the unlikely name of Len Spencer probably had the world’s first million-selling recording with a song called ‘Arkansas Traveller’ in 1902, or that Al Jolson was such an insufferable egomaniac who stole other performers’ jokes for his show and continued to ‘blackface’ right up to the 1940s. It was also instructive to read some of Stanley’s bold assertions such as ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ being ‘the most significant song in the development of American pop’, and P.G Wodehouse being ‘the first great lyricist of American musical theatre’; assertions I for one would not dispute.
We are led deftly and incisively through the age of the crooner, the movie musical, British dance bands, Broadway musicals, the Great American Songbook, swing, bebop, R&B, trad jazz, British Big Bands, the folk revival, skiffle, exotica, film soundtracks — every pre-1975 popular musical genre you can think of, and all of them adding to the knotted tapestry that shaped ‘modern’ pop music. And then of course there are the technological innovations of the first half of the 20th century that had a profound influence on the development of popular music. Vinyl records — 78s, 45s and LPs, radio, television, and the cinema all changed the way artists composed, sang, played and performed and they also changed the way the public listened to and consumed music. The ever-adaptable ‘music business/industry’ cast a protective/exploitative cloud over popular music too. Also, both world wars had a dramatic impact on the habits and preferences of artists and public alike.
All of these threads — overlapping, cross-pollinating, often competing and always inspiring change — they’re all integrated into a 600-page comprehensive history that serves as an incomparable primer for a deeper investigation into pop’s roots. The 52 chapters of the book are helpfully quite short — they gave me the excuse to try and unpick them one by one and to search out some of the music that forms the backbone to the story. So it took me a long time to read this book, time indisputably well spent, but when I finished it I confess to feeling both somewhat overwhelmed and well-informed. As Bob Stanley states at the beginning of his concluding chapter: ‘Here is pop’s greatest conundrum: how does the present tackle the ever-increasing mass of the recorded past?’ If anyone can make sense of it all it’s Bob Stanley. He’s written a dense, erudite, immaculately researched book and its many sparkling passages and succinct analyses make it essential reading for everyone who has ever loved pop music.
‘Let’s Do It: The Birth of Pop’ is published this Thursday by Faber. Order a copy here from the Caught by the River shop (£25.00) — with limited signed bookplate while stocks last.
Bob Stanley will read from and discuss the book as part of our lineup for this year’s Camp Good Life.