In 2011, the US band Destroyer tugged at many critics’ heartstrings with their ninth album, Kaputt. Despite having a name better suited to a death-metal outfit from Sweden, the band based the sound for this album on the mid-Eighties, ‘progressive pop’ template of Prefab Sprout, Talk Talk and forgotten Scots duo, The Blue Nile. The result was sumptuous, smart, adult-oriented pop with bags of melodic and emotional complexity, let down somewhat by fretless bass and wafting saxophone solos. No matter, the title track of Kaputt caught many a critic’s ear for the chorus refrain alone: ‘Sounds, Smash Hits, Melody Maker, NME, all sound like a dream to me.’
In one line, an Anglophile open love letter to a vanished pop era highlighted an unusual generation gap, and reduced fortysomething hacks to blubbering wrecks in the process. While those born in the Sixties may cling to notions of pop’s ‘importance’, younger generations appear far less obsessive or even interested. Many argue that computer games, the internet and social media have filled the gap where buying vinyl and the music weeklies used to be. It is the impact of this new online world, and how it has altered people’s relationship to pop music, that partly informs Bob Stanley’s new book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop. A dense and thorough history of pop music, Stanley’s book actually stops in 1999 because it was at this point that pop music, as he sees it, ceased to be ubiquitous. Smash Hits, Select, Melody Maker and the BBC’s Top of the Pops are all gone. Chart hits no longer have much of an era-defining quality to them, and regional-based underground music scenes, based around small pub and club venues, barely exist in any meaningful way.
Thus Yeah Yeah Yeah appears as both a warm celebration of pop’s greatest hits and a forlorn elegy for a fading institution. As both a broadsheet freelance journalist and a musician with the band Saint Etienne, Stanley is well equipped to cover this mammoth story from both angles. His way of approaching pop’s story echoes the sound of Saint Etienne at their best: mainstream and modern in sound, but echoing a bygone world of Ready, Steady, Go, the Beach Boys and back copies of the 1970s paper, Record Mirror. Just as Saint Etienne unified the present and the past, so, too, does Yeah Yeah Yeah.
Stanley decides to start his epic story in 1952, the year seven-inch singles were first issued, and the Hit Parade started to appear in the NME. Far from being a dry list based exclusively on sales (at least in Britain), the parade ‘meant competition, excitement in league-table form, pop music as a sport’. Stanley captures well the youthful ritual of listening to the singles chart rundown on a Tuesday lunchtime, the appearance of key bands on Top of the Pops on Thursday, and the ‘did you see…?’ conversations at school the next morning.
Although Stanley covers the vast majority of chart-busting acts over a 50-year period, he still finds time to mention the no-hit wonders whose influence endures to this day. It is this wholly personal, often unorthodox approach to pop’s back catalogue that gives Yeah Yeah Yeah the authentic voice of the music fan. Hence there are recognisable and highly enjoyable pub-style arguments about past greats raging across its 700 pages. Pop music can be a tribal beast and Stanley captures well the sometimes personal championing of one band against another. And so it is here: The Beatles over the Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols over the Clash, Pulp over Blur, and so on. Stanley is unafraid to champion those who have long been derided, be it Cliff Richard and the Shadows in their prime or the ‘genuinely subversive’ UB40 (before they became a chicken-in-a-basket cabaret act), or Phil Collins’ debut solo album, Face Value (praised for its straight-ahead blue-eyed soul).