Saturday, 21 September 2013

Why I wrote 'Yeah Yeah Yeah'

A few years ago I reviewed a DVD box set of Tony Palmer's mid-seventies TV series All You Need Is Love for the Guardian. An epic history of twentieth century popular music, it ended with Stomu Yamashta and the ambient drift of Mike Oldfield's Ommadawn as Palmer gamely predicted the pop music of tomorrow. By the time the series aired in 1977, punk rock was at its peak and Palmer's prediction - his entire series, even - seemed a grand folly. How could it have been anything else? It was like trying to capture lightning in a bottle. Pop music by its nature is unpredictable and ever-changing, and I concluded that it is a fool's errand to ever attempt a written history; it would be out of date by the time it was published. The day after my review ran, a publisher and a literary agent both got in touch to say I was wrong, that it could it be done, and that, as a pop obsessive, would I like to give it a go myself?

This was a challenge which dominated the next five years of my life, resulting in Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop. The narrative of how and why pop music developed hadn't been attempted for decades, and Tony Palmer stood before me as an example of how deeply you can dig and still get it wrong. I knew I had to avoid other pitfalls, too, which may not have been so obvious to writers in the seventies and eighties. There were snobberies and anti-snobberies at every turn - soul and R&B historians tended to be afraid of that dread word 'manufactured'; the mod take on pop was basically a ranking of cool, scared of any mess; while the traditional rock history was largely suspicious of electronics, and even the intellect (with David Bowie as the key dividing figure).

The simplest way around this was for me to base my book on the charts, singles and albums, an engine of pop which dates back to the critical year of 1952. That was also the year when the first New Musical Express was published, the first seven-inch, 45rpm singles were issued in Britain, the first portable record player - the Dansette - was launched, and the NME printed the first Hit Parade, with Al Martino's Here In My Heart at the top of the pile. These four mediums formed the very basis of modern pop, and the music (in 1952, largely ballads, film themes and novelty records) would eventually catch up with their new, plastic thrill on Bill Haley's Rock Around The Clock three years later. For the next forty-odd years, the charts would remain the closest we could get to a pop consensus, and give us a sense of direct participation in popular culture.

Where to end the book became apparent as I was writing a list of contents. The year 2000 had always promised to be a line in the sand and so it proved, though not necessarily for musical reasons - the first number one of the new millennium was Westlife's cover of Seasons In The Sun, after all. But 2000 was the year iTunes was launched, with the iPod arriving a year later, rapidly ushering in the digital revolution and leaving the music industry – which had barely changed in almost five decades - in turmoil. Since the dawn of the digital age great records have continued to be made, of course: the current number one act, Katy Perry, is a model pop star; Blurred Lines and Get Lucky will be party regulars for years to come. Pop lives on. Yet there is little sense of community, and it has become easy to stop caring about the Top 40. Pop has become less wantable.

We are in a state of what writer Douglas Rushkoff calls 'present shock': the past is now a constant, re-fashioned to our current tastes and needs, while no one talks much about how music will sound in the future – the sense of pop's evolution and progression has gone. The feel and grain of the modern pop age, from the fifties to the end of the nineties becomes gradually harder to recall. With Yeah Yeah Yeah, I wanted to capture how it felt to live through that era, through the bad and the ugly as well as the good. Context is crucial in understanding how and why pop developed, and can be easily lost in the digital age.

Most importantly, though, I didn't want to write a dry history of 'classic pop', leaving it "sitting on its ass in a museum", to quote Claes Oldenburg. My opinion on who has been influential in pop may not chime without everyone else's. No one in the world is going to read Yeah Yeah Yeah and agree with everything in it - not everyone likes Del Shannon or T Rex or the KLF as much as I do. But this is how the era felt to me, and how it has ruled my life, firing playground spats and pub arguments, filling my home with the iconography and detritus of pop music: posters, records, cassettes, biographies, ticket stubs, box sets, a lifetime of devotion. I knew that one day I needed to get all this stuff out of my head and into a book, and the result was Yeah Yeah Yeah.

8 comments:

  1. I had (probably still do) that Tony Palmer "All you need is love" book back when it came out. Of all the music themed books (yr Rock File's, yr LesBangs, etx) it was the one book that stayed shut for the most part: Dry as old twigs. Possibly unfair, I should dig it out..

    Still, though, if you are writing a 'history of pop' without implicit reference to the audiences that take it in, then no wonder it's as dry as old bones.

    Looking forward to the book coming out!

    MG

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  2. Just bought Yeah, Yeah, Yeah and the first thing was to get an actual book not a Kindle substitute which probably explains my interest in what I am about to read as much as anything else. Tony Palmers thing was a joke because it committed the cardinal sin of 'intellectualising' pop in the same way the recent V&A Bowie Exhibition did. Pop mattered because it was our form of communication and expression of feeling to everyone around us. It made us want to actively take part in something that was happening. Today's technology seems to encourage people to passively sit back and observe and consume rather than take part. I'll see if the book agrees.

    Bob

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  3. Hi,
    I am still 200 pages away from ending the book but loving it. Regarding the Macca story about playing in a pub are aware of the same kind of story in Algarve, Portugal? From that episode a song was adlibed and then recorded by portuguese band (which play with him in the bar/hotel). The name of the song/hotel in Algarve: Penina.

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  4. Hi,

    I'm currently enjoying your book. You've done a fabulous job in conveying the joy and ecstasy that great pop music can give us. I was wondering if there are any plans for any CDs to accompany and complement the book. Like all great music books you always feel like playing a particular song when the description brings the record vividly to life.

    If there are no CDs planned do you recommend any compilations that would cover the period you have written about. Many thanks

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  6. Devoured and loved the book. One small correction - I produced Definition of Sound, not John Coxon - he did some writing and pre-production on a couple of album tracks only. We had both worked with the Boo, as the team "King John", and then gone our separate ways,me to Definition of Sound, and John to Grrr for the Boo, and the fantastic Spring Heel Jack. That minor point aside, I've been looking for a successor to Awopbopaloobop, and your book surpasses it.

    All the best from Rex Brough aka the Red King

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  7. Congratulations on the new USA edition, which I am devouring at the moment. But how different is it from the original? I see at least three chapters missing, all of which I would love to read.

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  8. Hi Bob.

    Why did you say Elvis Costello has a surgically enhanced eyebrow? That was so ludicrous that I had to put Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! down halfway through it. I wonder how many other inaccuracies are in your book?

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