Bob Stanley’s debut book, 2013’s Yeah Yeah Yeah, sounded like a bonkers undertaking: the whole history of pop music – from the UK’s first hit parade in 1952 to the rise of Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love – in a single book. Amazingly, it worked. It was broad and scholarly, opinionated and funny, and deservedly critically acclaimed. Obviously, this success has emboldened its author: the prequel, Let’s Do It: The Birth of Pop, seems even more ambitious. It attempts to tell the story of pop at the turn of the 20th century, when the term was first used – an in-scene 1901 advertisement for a sheet music lending library promised “all the latest pop. Music” – to the rise of rock’n’roll. It seems much broader, encompassing by necessity everything from music hall to Muddy Waters. Because Stanley continues the stories of pre-rock’n’roll stars long after the rise of rock’n’roll – a later chapter is titled Adventures in Beatleland – a book that begins in Victorian London ends, more or less , in the present day: an enormous amount of time to cover, even in 600 pages.
As with its predecessor, this shouldn’t work, but it does. Yeah Yeah Yeah seemed like the product of a life spent devouring and considering pop, but Let’s Do It is clearly more of a journey of discovery for its author. An inveterate record collector, Stanley’s writing crackles with the elation of a man who has encountered a whole new world of vinyl to obsess over. It adds new excitement to some well-known stories: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra. Never happier than to rescue a figure from obscurity – whether it’s Jeri Southern, a contemporary of Peggy Lee whose career was canceled by stage fright, or Sam Mayo, who introduced himself as “The Immobile One” and seems to have been the Edwardian England equivalent of Morrissey, mournfully intoning songs called I Feel Very Bad I Do and Things Are Worse in Russia – Stanley can also stir up enthusiasm even when he doesn’t particularly like what he’s doing. ‘he hears. He doesn’t have much time for Al Jolson, a black-faced “bellowing ham,” but he can relate to what people must have seen in him.
He recounts potted anecdotes and biographies in a clip reminiscent of someone hastily snatching a recent turntable purchase in order to play you another. He has both a catchy turn of phrase – real-life Betty Boop model Helen Kane “sang like her tongue was tingling with rumors and gossip” – and a fantastic eye for obscure head-spinning fact. Down at the Old Bull and Bush – “the very soul of Cockney London”, as Stanley puts it – was originally written by two Americans in New York as an advertisement for Budweiser beer. At the height of World War II, the BBC took Vera Lynn off the air for a year, calling the Forces’ Sweetheart “flaccid entertainment”. Miss Piggy of The Muppets was originally known as Miss Piggy Lee, a piggy tribute to the singer of Fever and Is That All There Is?.
Stanley is admirably non-snobby in his approach. He defends the oft-vilified Glenn Miller Orchestra, which even at the height of its fame was derided as too commercial and watered down: in their riff-heavy, solo-less music, he hears the future of post-war pop. war. He was brilliant in the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, authors of the first 78 rpm jazz record, but widely regarded as lucky white musicians, securing their place in history thanks to the color of their skin. and the fact that trumpeter Freddie Keppard became to miss the chance to record before them, believing others would steal his sound. Stanley argues convincingly that they were “the first recognizably modern pop band”, with image, gimmicks, a knack for self-mythification and a neat line in provocative interview quotes: “Jazz is the ‘murder, murder, syncope murder,’ offered frontman Nick LaRocca, punk-ishly, ‘we’re musical anarchists.’
Let’s Do It’s masterstroke in bringing the past to life is in drawing parallels to the present, or at least to more contemporary history. The music industry, it seems, despised its audience long before cynically fabricated pop reared its ugly head: the degree of nose-to-nose involved in early country music recordings—intended, in the words of Variety magazine, to “poor white people…with the intelligence of morons” – is quite something to behold. In 1910, a New York Times writer complained that the music had become too mechanized and soulless, decrying the “factory exit” of Tin Pan Alley: In every moment of musical history since, there has been someone ‘one like him, saying something like that. The moral panic caused by hot jazz in the 1920s is clearly the model for all later moral panics caused by pop: ostensibly over licentious behavior and drunkenness, but tacitly motivated by fears about race. , class and gender.
Perhaps most striking of all, Let’s Do It makes it clear that people have always been obsessed with the past. We tend to think of retro-revivalism as an aspect of pop in the postmodern era, but there was a revival of Viennese Edwardian operetta in the mid-1930s, driven by exactly the same forces that drove every revival since: older audiences wary of where the music was going coupled with younger audiences seduced by a romantic notion of a past they were too young to remember. The Barbershop quartet, meanwhile, turns out to be a latter-day construct, based on a deliberate bad memory of a supposedly prelapsarian era: clearly a taste for striped blazers was not the only thing they had in common with the mod revivalists of the late 70s.
It’s one of the moments in Let’s Do It where the distant past seems more familiar than alien, although there are plenty of those too. Its 656 pages are a perfect guidebook, filled with clever thinking and the kind of communicable enthusiasm that sends you rushing to the nearest streaming service, eager to hear what it’s all about.