Bob Stanley: tracing the birth of pop

Bob Stanley, whose new book Let’s Do It traces the birth of pop. Photo: Alistair McLellan

The 57-year-old musician and journalist – who is one-third of pop group Saint Etienne and now lives in Saltaire – says the idea for the new book actually started to form while he was writing the first chapters of Yeah Yeah Yeah . “It was very obvious to me that there was a pre-history that I was going through because I had to, otherwise it would have gone on forever,” he says. “I was really intrigued by the period between the end of World War II and rock ‘n’ roll being dismissed as a lame period, where people like Frankie Laine were really great. That was interesting in itself, to find where it came from, and then to think “this whole story somehow intersects.”

“The other reason was that every time you read a book about music from the first half of the 20th century, it treated the music they were talking about in total isolation. So it would be either jazz or authors of songbooks like Rodgers and Hart like nothing else existed. Certainly once he got to rock ‘n’ roll, that was the end of music as far as some people were concerned. makes sense to people who listened to this, I guess, but there had to be a way to tie it together, and I couldn’t quite figure it out, so I thought, “That has to be my next book.” knew it was going to take me quite a while too,” he laughs.

The 600 pages of Let’s Do It are the result of ten years of research, with Stanley, an inveterate collector, wading through piles of biographies, films and compilation albums. “I didn’t feel like I was sitting in a library all day, it was much nicer than that,” he says. “Having to watch all the big Hollywood musicals wasn’t a chore.”

The work of the late discographer Brian Rust has proven to be very instructive on the history of British jazz. He also found a treasure trove of old records in the Todmorden market.

The book begins with the arrival of the gramophone in 1900, for which wax cylinders were mass-produced. “Everything fell into place at the end of the 19th century when Edison discovered recorded sound, but also pianos and sheet music were mass-produced. It was the industrialization of music, which did not exist before,” Stanley says. “The idea that you could have a recording of something and be able to listen to it over and over again, I can’t even begin to think how weird that would have been as a whole new experience. Was the definition of early pop to me, just being able to play a record five times in a row – it’s quite relatable now.

The importation of American ragtime and jazz after World War I changed class-based listening habits in Britain. “Jazz in particular came along and people like Stravinsky said ‘it’s amazing music’, and it’s obviously black in origin, so it was something entirely new in Britain,” says Stanley. “It was American music that came here, and then British musicians took that up and started their own dance groups (it changed everything).”

The industrialization of songwriting began in New York’s Tin Pan Alley, where songwriters produced songs to order for music publishers – and it continues today in music production teams such as Stargate, who have worked with everyone from Beyonce to Coldplay. “It’s even more prevalent now than it ever was,” Stanley says. “When Lana Del Ray’s first album came out, she looked like this self-invented but I was really surprised when I saw the songwriting credits on her album. Fame Academy winner David Sneddon, had a credit on his debut album and I was like, “How the hell is that going? But modern pop is all run like that – people who are lucky enough to work in Nashville, Swedish hitmakers… There’s more and they’re more spread out, but it’s been over 100 years, really I found out that PG Wodehouse was on one of the earliest writing teams – as much as I love PG Wodehouse, c was completely new to me.

A chapter of the book also explores the unsettling legacy of American singer Al Jolson, the first visible pop star who notoriously wore blackface on stage and in movies. “There was definitely cultural appropriation before that, but he was very visible — and he was very visible because he wanted an audience,” Stanley says. “Throughout his life, he was not silent and he never stopped talking about himself at any time. But I would say he was the first person you could associate with an album of greatest hits songs, because his career spanned decades.

“He kept using blackface well into the 1930s, which hardly anyone else was doing at that time, so he really brought it out and it looks terrible now. He was obsessed with fame, which was quite unusual for a singer at the time, and obsessed with making songs his own so people would associate them with him. He used to steal other people’s jokes – he had underlings who would go to the theater and write the best jokes they heard, then the next day Al Jolson’s lawyers would write to them saying ‘cease and desist you, that’s Al Jolson’s joke.” ​’. So he wasn’t a very nice man, but in that respect he’s definitely a recognizable figure in the early music industry. He is definitely an archetype.

Another chapter is devoted to “racing” records, originally marketed to a black audience, which would be re-recorded by white artists. “These companies would have their catalogs completely flushed out by the music companies in New York and that was just considered perfectly fine because working-class people in the South and black people were considered second-rate. Nobody even questioned it; it’s amazing,” says Stanley. “Practically throughout the book, I had to be aware that if someone was doing something innovative, there was probably a story where women or country singers of black musicians were behind it and it would be borrowed and appropriated. I must have read some pretty awful stuff when I was researching this.

He was, however, delighted to discover an academic paper that finally revealed the origins of the barber’s song. “Barbershops were one of the few places (in the United States) where black men could congregate and sing together without being harassed, and that’s where it came from, but it took so long for the find out,” he said. “It was very close to the publication of the book and I was so happy to find it.”

Jazz is a key element of the book, with its almost ubiquitous influence in the years between the end of World War I and the advent of rock ‘n’ roll. “The best-known Broadway writers were almost all inspired by jazz,” says Stanley. “Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein weren’t, but pretty much everyone was – just in terms of phrasing as much as anything else. You could glide from note to note without singing along to the beat , what everyone was doing before jazz, that’s how you did it, so it seems odd to think of someone like Bing Crosby or Doris Day as being influenced by jazz, but they absolutely are. It’s a big leap from John Coltrane, obviously, but that’s definitely where their singing style comes from.The phrasing is all about jazz.

Stanley describes Frank Sinatra as the “pivot” of his book. “Musically, when he was doing this series of classic albums in the 50s like Songs For Swingin’ Lovers, which are best remembered, almost all the songs he sang were between 15 and 20 years old, so he looked strangely in back for his catalog because a lot of songwriting in the 50s was pretty substandard, but creating these things that looked and sounded incredibly modern and futuristic. If you look at the cover of Come Fly With Me, it’s mid-century in a nutshell. And also he was creating concept albums that looked forward to the Beatles and Moody Blues and beyond, which is why I called him the fulcrum: he’s right in the middle of the century and he looks back to create the future, which I always find interesting in any art form when people do that.

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