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and ever-changing, and I concluded that it is a fool's errand to ever attempt a written history; it would be out of date by the time it was published.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.
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