Bob Stanley's 10 best music histories
One of the reasons I wanted to write Yeah Yeah Yeah is because it didn't already exist.
There wasn't a book that followed pop music's development from the start of the 1950s, when the introduction of vinyl records, the "hit parade", the weekly music press and the Dansette – the first portable musical hardware – created the modern pop era.
There were plenty of books out there on genres, micro-genres, even specific songs, and some of these are among my favourite books. Without the 10 I've listed here, all big inspirations, Yeah Yeah Yeah would have been much harder and much less fun to pull together.
Love Is the Drug by John Aizlewood
Aizlewood edited this book about fan worship, written by fans who mostly ended up as DJs (Steve Lamacq) or journalists (Sheryl Garratt) or both (Danny Kelly). Each writer describes their first pop love, which can either be forbiddingly cool (Kelly grew up in Dalston, split equally in the 60s between Irish and Jamaican communities, and so came to love reggae at an early age) or quite the opposite (Garratt's essay on Rollermania). Best of the lot is Mick Houghton's piece about falling in and out of love with Billy Fury, betraying him for the Beatles in 1963, and still feeling a sense of shame 30 years later.
This covers the pre-rock era, and the rise of American popular music through parlour songs, spirituals and ragtime. Wald has more time for musicians and ordinary listeners than swing buffs and revisionists. Best of all, he takes on the conventional history of jazz (he has a rare respect for the white "king of jazz" Paul Whiteman, largely ignored by modern critics) as well as rock, which we don't reach until the book is more than halfway through.
Revolt Into Style by George Melly
The first book specifically about British pop culture, published in 1970, is a fabulous period piece. Melly was on the outside, as a jazzman, but observed the rise of modern pop with interest; his is a pretty unique perspective. He describes the "castrating process" of Tommy Steele's career move from rock'n'roller to all-round entertainer, and Swinging London as "of use only to the lazy and least talented". He's no snob, though: "There's nothing wrong with camp if it doesn't put on airs."
Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record by Richard Osborne
In theory, Vinyl is an academic book, but I found it a very easy read – there was plenty to discover. Osborne talks about how 78s were made from the secretions of beetles found on the Malay peninsula and in French Indochina, how record labels were first created (yes, the paper labels themselves), and the reasons why Johnny Marr might regard 7-inch singles as "mystical objects" while a Pink Floyd fan urged NME readers in 1974 to lobby their MPs so "seven inch records must be made illegal". Anyone who has an obsession with records as physical artefacts will love this.
Pop From The Beginning by Nik Cohn
Written in three weeks flat at the start of 1969, this was a chronological dash through pop's first 15 years, from Bill Haley to Crosby Stills and Nash (who Cohn thought were weedy and unlistenable). He is never scared to have an opinion that goes against the grain and even if I don't agree with him most of the time (PJ Proby gets a whole chapter!), the pulp thriller style gets the excitement of the period and the pace of change across with a huge amount of panache.
The Heart of Rock and Soul by Dave Marsh
Marsh celebrates the 7-inch single, listing what he considers to be the 1,001 greatest 45s in order (I won't spoil it by telling you what's number one). I love the intriguing, unlikely connections he makes to show how the story of pop can be seen as a whole: Nolan Chance's eerie doo-wop hit The Wind is described as "a prophecy of Michael Jackson 20 years before he came along … if it had arrived in a meteorite shower it couldn't have been any spookier". The only thing wrong with the book is its clunky title, but then it was written in the mid-80s when pop was a dirty word.
The story of recorded music, and how we've listened to it since the days of Edison. It turns into something of a polemic once it reaches the digital era, but you can understand Milner's frown. The romance of radio waves, magnetic recording tape and gramophones is strong, and the digital age seems rather puny and unexciting when set alongside these progressive, physical, scientific advances.
Though there are other good books on punk – John Robb's oral history for one – this is definitive. Which is most impressive when you consider that no two people have ever agreed on exactly what "punk" is. Savage looks at it as much from a sociological perspective as a musical one. He reanimates the Sex Pistols' huge social impact in 1977, set against the "pathetic scrap of bunting" of the Queen's silver jubilee, using quotes from John le Carré, Guy Debord and his own teenage diaries.
Faking It by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor
I like Girls Aloud as much as I like Nick Drake – authenticity is a bugbear of mine. The notion that you have to be a tortured genius to make great music seems hideously outdated, yet certain types of music are still treated as more important and more serious than ones that tend to sell in quantity. Faking It has all the ammo you need to shoot down Mercury music prize advocates. It reveals how the supposed realness of the blues was basically a white enthusiasts' construct, and explains why Nirvana felt the need to apologise for being popular.
I've avoided straight biographies on this list, but the Beatles' story is the perfect pop story, and – by going through every Beatles song chronologically – no one tells it better than Ian MacDonald. It's wildly unpredictable. MacDonald has a problem with George Harrison's general moodiness, and describes Helter Skelter as a "drunken mess", but you don't have to agree with him. His writing is so good that, against all odds, it'll make you listen to the most overplayed songs in history all over again.
Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop by Bob Stanley is published by Faber, £20.