Pop-Ed Pages

Saint Etienne is a long-standing London-based pop group, founded in the late ’80s by two pop writers turned musicians, merging post-punk fanzine culture and the rave idyll. Its sound is a self-consciously cosmopolitan mix of acid house, folk, blue-eyed soul, Parisian yé-yé, and CinemaScope sound tracks; charismatic blond vocalist Sarah Cracknell evokes soft-edged 1960s UK singers such as Dusty Springfield and the early Bee Gees. A few singles (“You’re in a Bad Way,” “He’s on the Phone”) nudged the UK Top 10 in 1995. But since none of the band’s Euro-cool influences carried remotely the same cachet across the Atlantic, Saint Etienne has gone almost unheard in the States—aside from one early Neil Young cover, because Americans can always feel a good Neil Young cover.

At that point in the ’90s, as Bob Stanley writes in Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyoncé, “British and American pop culture seemed a long, long way apart.” And Stanley should know. He was one of the two writers who started Saint Etienne.

Stanley mentions this only briefly in the introduction to his massive history, but it’s germane. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! is the story of the past six decades of pop as you might imagine a guy from Saint Etienne would see them: It’s stylishly written, dense, and eclectic to a fault—it covers most artists in one- or two-paragraph bursts not unlike the one I just concocted for his own band. It has a soft spot for pop’s softer side, though it also likes vehemence and dancing. It has an eye for the appearances of female performers, but, in its defense, it’s more generally adamant that looks, surfaces, and sex are part of the pop game for boys and girls alike. It cares about the charts. And, despite its best intentions, it doesn’t quite translate to America.

Mind you, I always liked Saint Etienne, and to be sure, much of Stanley’s achievement here is impressive. As he says in his introduction, “There hasn’t . . . been a book on the whole of modern pop’s development, none to explain when and why things happened, the connections, the splinters, what has been lost or forgotten along the way.” Few could rival Stanley’s memory for and sensitivity to masses of music across the decades. He weaves the incoherent traces of multiple genres from several countries into an almost-convincing semblance of a narrative. And best of all, nearly every chapter drops tantalizing unfamiliar names and song titles that promise hours of YouTube bliss-outs or streaming-service prospecting.

Some chapters offer lively reading for any pop fan: His tales of the furtive, stuttering start of British rock ’n’ roll. His tour of the human curiosities who made up Merseybeat, aka the British Invasion. His outline of the cross-continental crisis of confidence in pop at the dawn of the ’70s. His prehistory of Jamaican pop before reggae (although Stanley’s puzzling eagerness to sneer at Bob Marley ends it sourly). The birth of the modern boy band in the improbable form of the Bay City Rollers. His take on the transcendent career of ABBA. The confusing muddle of post-punk (New Wave, new pop, indie, etc.) in the UK in the mid-’80s.

And I will stand on the prow of a yacht wearing gold medallions and declare in a sweet falsetto that chapter 39, “Islands in the Stream,” is the most delicious short essay you will ever read about the Bee Gees or almost any other band. It inhales their essence in one eight-page breath, from their “extreme arrested development” to “total pop domination” and the backlash that followed, then sighs out an emotional plea for their cause that only the most churlish anti-disco bigot could deny.

Most of the time, though, I didn’t enjoy reading this book. Not just because I took issue with Stanley’s theories and tastes—although I did, often intensely so. Rather, it was due to a central question he’s skipped: Why was there never “a book on the whole of modern pop’s development”? I’d say, for a damn good reason: The subject—one of the most globally influential cultural forces of (at least) the second half of the twentieth century—is vaster than one book or any single author can handle.

There are great music books about single decades. There are long-term but selective histories that focus on a few central arguments, such as Elijah Wald’s mischievously titled How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music (2009), which argues that pop is at its best as a dance-driven, female-listener-centered form. From another angle, the upcoming book by veteran critic Greil Marcus goes micro instead of macro by promising The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs—none of them the usual canonical suspects (no Dylan, Elvis, or Beatles). And of course there are countless genre histories—of rock, hip-hop, blues, R&B, disco, punk, techno, etc.—that go into depths Stanley can barely graze.

Clockwise, from top left: Atlantic, F-Beat, DCC Compact Classics, RSO

By contrast, a digest, even an omnivorous and opinionated one, doesn’t add up to a nourishing reading experience. Mojo magazine compared Stanley’s book to New Yorker critic Alex Ross’s superb, sweeping history of twentieth-century classical composition (i.e., “notated” music), The Rest Is Noise (2005). But the music Ross chronicles is generally unfamiliar or puzzling to the average reader. That’s not true about pop. Anybody interested enough to risk tendonitis by hoisting this tome knows lots of the info—who Bruce Springsteen and the Byrds are, what the Cure and Mariah Carey are like—that Stanley tends to introduce in deadpan discursive mode before tagging on his livelier opinions or more obscure finds. He sometimes seems as if he’s explaining pop to a feral child, or to an alien whose UFO didn’t have a radio. It can become a slogging strain to get on to the next novel bit. At one point I feared I would expire before I escaped the 1960s.

In the days of, say, The Rolling Stone Record Guide, you might endure such trials for the sake of all the otherwise unobtainable information. But in the twenty-first century, it’s a mystifying exercise. It reminds me of British artist Rob Matthews, who printed out all of the “featured” articles in Wikipedia and ended up with a five-thousand-page book, the height of a small child—an object Matthews seemed to intend as a critique but that reads more like a joke about knowledge and futility.

Similarly, a book may be the wrong container for Stanley’s project. It would have been a better website, TV series, or podcast—anything that would allow Stanley to play the records he’s discussing in order to brighten and illustrate his points. It’s not that he lacks a gift for description—I’ll remember his bon mot that the young Elvis Costello sang “as if he was standing in a fridge.” But a thousand verbal capsules are exhausting in a way many quick listens are not.

That’s the formal issue. What about the content? In Stanley’s introduction he declares that “the separation of rock and pop is false, and that disco and large swathes of black and electronic music have been virtually ignored by traditional pop histories.” And he begins his prologue by saying, “The story of modern pop music is largely the story of the intertwining pop culture of the United States and the United Kingdom in the postwar era.” But those two premises soon begin to clash.

For example, he takes 1955 as his starting point, because of the advent of the 45-rpm single and Top 100 charts in both countries. That leads him to anoint Bill Haley and the Comets the first “modern pop” stars. That may represent the British experience, but it slights the deeper American story of a continuity, not a break, between black R&B and rock ’n’ roll. Likewise, he gets to country music only when he hits the ’70s, and recaps the seven-decade-plus lineage of Nashville in less space than he’s expended on the glam rivalry between Marc Bolan and David Bowie. Isn’t country pop?

It’s not that Stanley is prejudiced or (usually) a snob: He’s good on doo-wop, Motown, “deep soul,” and more. But his lens tilts toward what affected Britain most, which ends up meaning mostly a revival of the stereotypical, misleading, Elvis-to-Beatles/Stones-to-Zeppelin rock narrative of the ’50s and ’60s. Perhaps the most egregious result is how little heed Stanley pays to James Brown, who not only has one of the great pop biographies but was crucial to nearly all the black music that came after him. When Stanley bemoans the rock/pop divide, he mostly means the split between hard rock and softer sounds in the late ’60s, and all the divisions that spawned. It’s a worthy point, but not as bold a reform as he makes it out to be.

Even later, he’s much more detailed and perceptive about British punk and post-punk than about their US equivalents (fans of Patti Smith, or Darby Crash, or American hardcore in general, beware). And while he’s good on techno, house, and the ’90s resurgence of R&B, his two chapters on rap start shallow and become more ignorant as they go along, paying lip service to hip-hop’s centrality while never seeming to grasp it. Even his better chapters on American music tend to be scant or sloppy on cultural context.

Other quirks are more forgivable and personal: I had to remind myself how much I enjoyed Stanley’s swipes at the Doors, for instance, when I started losing my temper over his slagging of Joni Mitchell. But the UK slant is a serious hurdle. If his Brit-centric approach had been incorporated more explicitly into the framework, it could have felt like a clear perspective, instead of an unconscious bias.

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! is a book music fans will leaf through, learn from, and reference for years to come. Some might even read it. But to stem some of its frustrations, I’d propose a fix to the subtitle: One Brit’s Story of Pop Music, from Bill Haley to Saint Etienne.

Carl Wilson is the Toronto-based author of Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste, which was reissued by Bloomsbury in March.