The music sections of most bookstores are full of titles focused on single artists or specific movements in pop music. Bob Dylan’s legacy is practically a subgenre, mingling alongside books about the origins of classic albums, the Beatles versus the Rolling Stones, the life and times of Johnny Cash and James Brown, the rise of rap, Madonna’s “Sex,” and so forth.
In last year’s “Ready for a Brand New Beat,” Mark Kurlansky went deep into the history of the song “Dancing in the Street” and its relevance to the civil rights era. Penelope Rowlands’s recent “The Beatles Are Here!” compiled essays from various writers about the Fab Four’s momentous arrival on American shores in 1964.
What, then, to make of a book that sets out to deconstruct the entire genre of pop music? Lordy. That’s the question at hand in “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Pop Music From Bill Haley to Beyoncé,” Bob Stanley’s delightful new work whose subject is as hefty as the tome itself. Just shy of 600 pages, the damned thing lands on the coffee table with a thud, like “War and Peace” but with a beat.
From Haley — whom Stanley boldly declares invented rock ’n’ roll — rocking around the clock in 1955 to Beyoncé falling crazy in love nearly five decades later, Stanley offers a warm and enlightened account of why pop has been such a cultural force, the sound of revolution and the anthem of the young and the restless. Before getting down to business, he gives the genre a personal definition.
“For me, it includes rock, R&B, soul, hip-hop, house, techno, metal, and country. If you make records, singles, and albums, and if you go on TV or on tour to promote them, you’re in the pop business,” he writes in the introduction. “If you sing a cappella folk songs in a suburban pub, you’re not. Pop needs an audience that the artist doesn’t know personally – it has to be transferable.”
Originally released last year in the United Kingdom under a slightly broader title (“Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Story of Modern Pop”), this new US edition is not definitive, but it’s endlessly readable. Stanley, an English music scribe and musician who cofounded the indie-pop band Saint Etienne, keeps the pace brisk and lively, with each chapter skimming a specific era or artists emblematic of it and then making connections between them.
Dylan, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Monkees, the Bee Gees, Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, Pet Shop Boys New Order, and even ABBA get their own chapters. So do Motown’s reign, the birth of indie rock, and pop’s essential intersections with the blues, country, hip-hop, electro-pop, metal, and house and techno music. Stanley goes behind the curtain, too, with a few pages on the pivotal producers Phil Spector, famous for constructing pop’s Wall of Sound (as immortalized on Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep — Mountain High”), and his British counterpart Joe Meek, the demented genius Stanley considers the first record producer in the world.
Far from a drooling sycophant, Stanley is a true music fan in that he leaves room for doubt and debate. He acknowledges that pop music, by its fickle nature, evokes strong, subjective opinions. His own are occasionally barbed and refreshingly honest; he even dares to tip a few sacred cows. “The real problem for her,” he writes of Joni Mitchell, “was that other people always made her songs sound more lovable . . . [Her music] thought it was a little cleverer than it was, and sabotaged a lot of her charms.” (He also has a comedian’s gift for a one-liner: “Pixies had the style, but – Kim Deal aside – they looked like plumbers.”)
In fact, Stanley is not at all tethered to what has been said about pop music in the past. The icons have been sufficiently covered, which might explain why so many of them render only fleeting mentions. Connie Francis, Etta James, and Janis Joplin are all glorified footnotes, even though they cast long shadows over the pop landscape. Tina Turner gets relegated to two flimsy references, though Stanley does get off a laugh-out-loud zinger about her ’80s reinvention “as a kind of rock-soul mutant, all lungs, legs, and leathered skin.”
He’s fond of turning a gimlet eye on what he considers its unsung heroes, asserting that Blondie never got its critical acclaim because its leader was simply too much of a bombshell — “if Debbie Harry had looked like a crow, then Blondie would be accepted as the finest group of their generation, shapeshifting, forward-looking, and endlessly melodic.”
Whether you agree doesn’t matter. Stanley has a clear and emphatic perspective, as if every opinion were delivered with his chest puffed out. His passion and humor make “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” a delicious read even, or rather especially, when it upends your own views. Like the great musicians he examines, Stanley understands that pop music isn’t supposed to placate. It’s meant to make you feel something.