Charting Pop’s Evolution: Bob Stanley Interviewed

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The foreword to Bob Stanley’s Yeah Yeah Yeah begins in a newsagent in the Glasgow suburb of Giffnock with Ken Bruce recalling his eleven-year-old self buying his first record in 1962. 

It ends with Stanley’s rumination on Rihanna’s ‘Man Down’ and Nicki Minaj’s Stupid Ho’ and covers most things pop in between and a few before. The story properly begins with the first NME chart some ten years prior to Bruce buying Frank Ifield’s ‘I Remember You’

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The new version of the book is being published for two reasons – to celebrate its tenth anniversary and to coincide with the first paperback release of Stanley’s follow up, Let’s Do It, which originally appeared last year. 

The latter covers the period (roughly) from ‘the end of the American Civil War to the beginning of the civil rights movement’ and acts as a prequel to the more familiar territory of Yeah Yeah Yeah. It comes with a new foreword by another polymath, Lenny Kaye, and between them the two books, over the best part of 1500 pages, give as thoughtful, thorough, and playful account of pop music’s journey from music halls to Spotify and AI as you will find. 

Although researching and writing the books has, in Stanley’s own words, taken “the best part of the last twenty years”, that is to overlook some of his other activities during the same period: as a third of Saint Etienne, a DJ, journalist, film director and curator of several excellent compilations for Ace Records. He has even managed to squeeze in another book this year (Children of the World about the Bee Gees) and he talks animatedly about current and forthcoming projects. 

It is unsurprising then that even a relatively short conversation with him has few musical boundaries and tends to veer in the most unexpected directions. He is as comfortable on the topic of obscure 1920s bandleaders (Reginald Foresythe, anyone?) as he is on Taylor Swift, stopping off at Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Del Shannon, The Kinks, Queen, The Cars, Adam and the Ants, Benny Hill, Nick Drake and Charli XCX and many others en route. 

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Yet it is his more sweeping overviews of pop history that Stanley is primarily talking about here, to mark the new editions appearing in bookshops this month. He begins by explaining the thinking behind the forewords and the changes he made to Yeah Yeah Yeah – a breakdown of the last chart of 1999 and a coda reflecting on the technological and musical changes of the twenty-first century.  

“I wanted two people with some slightly contrasting reputations,” he says of the guest writers. “Depending on who I chose, I think there was a danger that it might have felt too heavyweight and too worthy. But I love Lenny Kaye’s writing. His book on crooners (You Call It Madness) is amazing. It’s kind of like a semi-fictionalized story of a crooner, Ross Columbo, who was real and died when his best friend shot him accidentally with a gun he had in his office. So, I knew Lenny was a really great writer. And ‘Lightning Strikes’, which came out more recently is pretty good too.”

“Ken Bruce, I asked just because I love PopMaster. I’ve got his autobiography, but I’d never read him writing about something else. So, I wasn’t sure if he would say yes, but he did. And it is absolutely terrific. I love what he’s written. I was really, really thrilled to get those two.”

If the idea of having introductions by well-known musical figures may have originated from the publishers, Stanley had a more difficult decision to make when it came to the text itself. He resisted the temptation to alter anything that he had written in the first edition of Yeah Yeah Yeah but chose instead to write an additional chapter and coda to provide a more definite end point and a reflection on what has changed since. He explains: 

“The idea for the final chapter of Yeah Yeah Yeah came from me. It was because I remember when I was writing it, people were saying, ‘are you going to finish it?’ And I always thought I’m going to go to the end of the 20th century, that’s it. It only occurred to me after the book came out, about a year later, that as it starts with the first chart, the first British pop chart in 1952, so it should end with the last chart of the 20th century, and I had always kicked myself for not doing that. It was nice to have the opportunity to finish it in that sense.”

So, what does he consider the main changes in the way pop music has been consumed since Westlife’s 1999 Christmas single displaced Cliff Richard’s ‘Millennium Prayer’ at the top of the charts, shifting nearly 750,000 CD singles in the process?

“There are the obvious cultural changes,” he says. “It is just undeniable if you talk to kids about music now. . .they’ll like music, they’ll like different things, but it is just not the obsessive thing that’s been there since the 1920s, I suppose.”

“And it is not like there are not plenty of good pop stars around – and it is mostly women as well, which is interesting, because that’s new. But then I was at a festival near where I live recently and there were bands playing all day, and they all sounded a bit like goth-rock. I do live near Bradford, though! But in that sense, it felt like nothing much has changed in forty years. One of them, that I think was a school band, got up and the first thing they played was by The Cure. That seemed weird and slightly wrong to me. . .you know, maybe play something that’s new?”

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But for Stanley the real changes have been less centred around changes or otherwise in musical taste, but in the media used to circulate it and the social impact that former iterations had. 

“I just think that that the cultural reach of current music is nothing like what it would have been even 20 years ago. I think the demise of Top Of The Pops, in this country at any rate, meant that there was no longer a go-to thing where people could find out what’s around in the one place. And even more recently than that Now compilations were still selling huge numbers because people could listen to them in the car and parents can sit in the car and catch up on what their kids are listening to. But now you don’t have a CD player in the car. So, it’s always weird things, small changes that completely diminishing the cultural reach of pop.”

“Of course, it’d be daft to say that there’s no good records being made,” he says to counter any accusation that could be made of him being either hopelessly nostalgic or a middle-aged man shouting at the clouds. Rather it is just the communal pop moments that he misses. 

“There’s still lots of good music being made, it is just the actual pop, the pop-ness, what sometimes gets called a water cooler moment or whatever, that’s gone. I don’t want to be someone who’s just listening to music that none of my friends can relate to. I find it a communal thing. It should be sociable and pop music should be primarily for young people.”

It is also important to note that for all his curiosity about the history of popular music, he is neither particularly nostalgic nor wedded to the past. Always pushing forward with new projects, he has a book on The Shadows and a new Saint Etienne album in the works, among other projects. He ends the interview by talking about these with the same enthusiasm he has previously for the records of Del Shannon, New Muzik and Adam and the Ants. 

“I don’t want to do any more big overreaching books. I’m currently working on a book about the Shadows who I think are in danger of being completely overlooked. And I want to get that finished when the three main band members and some of the people who were influenced by them are still around.”

“And we are working on a new Saint Etienne album. We all live in different parts of the country now, so we don’t get together as much as we used to, and it takes longer. But it’s still really enjoyable. It is a real honour to be able to make your own music and get it released where there are still enough people interested to buy it. Why wouldn’t you? So, we’re working on that, and it will hopefully be out next autumn – about a year’s time.”

Bob Stanley: always looking forward with one eye over his shoulder. 

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Yeah Yeah Yeah and Let’s Do It are available now in paperback, published by Faber.  

Words: John Williamson
Photo Credit: Alasdair McLellan