Bob Stanley talks ‘Let’s Do It: The Birth of Pop’

❉ James Collingwood catches up with the musician and pop historian to chat about his most recent book.

Bob Stanley must be one of the most wide-ranging, informative and entertaining music writers of modern times. After covering basically the entirety of modern popular music in his book Yeah Yeah Yeah : The Story of Modern Pop he has recently published Let’s Do it: The Birth of Pop which charts the history of popular music from 1900 to essentially the start of rock and roll. All this as well as putting out his excellent Ace compilations, writing for publications like Record Collector and of course continuing to put out excellent music as one-third of Saint Etienne.  I met Bob in the Shipley Market Café (Bob is now resident in West Yorkshire) to discuss this magnificent book…

bob stanley (@rocking_bob) | Twitter.

I first asked Bob how he got the idea for the new book and what the writing and research process was like in covering such a huge subject.

Having finished the first book, I worked out a structure. Also, after the first book I knew how I could tackle a lot of research and boil it down and make it readable and hopefully enjoyable. I started out with a planned structure – a big thing on the wall with all the different chapters planned out. I would cross things out and add to it. When I thought about someone I was going to write more about or when someone cropped up and I thought they deserved a chapter to themselves or a whole genre needed more coverage I updated it.

I think one of the last things I wrote in both books was the kind of earlier chapters – the introduction etc.  You don’t know exactly what you’re doing until it’s done. Musical theatre for example. I knew nothing about it really, so I had to look into that. It’s basically forgotten. One of the things I found which wasn’t surprising was that class structure dictated who listened to what. Musical theatre in Britain early on was not just Gilbert and Sullivan. It wasn’t just operetta, and it wasn’t music hall. It’s some level in between. Hyacinth Bucket types as opposed to lower middle-class stuff. It’s basically mostly forgotten because it’s probably mostly terrible.

I dug some things out and it’s like… it was massive. A huge deal. A bloke called George Edwards promoted a lot of this stuff and it was huge. A massive deal. A lot of theatres and music halls in the West End were built on the back of it.

You deal with certain artists in great detail. For instance, with Sinatra, I knew you are a big fan of his later album Watertown, and you cover the whole of his career up to his last albums?

Yeah, the Frank Sinatra chapter was one of the first chapters I started writing (though in fact I didn’t finish it first). I was actually listening to Close To You (Sinatra’s 1956 Capitol album) this morning because I was feeling a bit mellow. Yeah, I had a fair idea he (Sinatra) was going to be right at the centre of the book.

The book is a real education and covers such a wide range of music that I only knew snippets of information about. I knew a bit about P.G. Wodehouse being involved with musicals in America for example.

I didn’t know so much about that. I got a copy of his autobiography Bring On The Girls, but I didn’t really realise quite how significant he was.

Have you seen the Tony Palmer documentary series All You Need Is Love because that is the only thing I can think of that covers a lot of the same territory?

Yeah, there were a lot of things which were a bit of a grounding and All You Need Is Love is one. I always find him quite sniffy. I find everything he does too much about putting himself in the story.

And he gets it wrong about 1976. Predicting Tangerine Dream and Mike Oldfield will be the way music would go! Totally not seeing punk as the future!

I’ve really got him to thank for the whole deal with the book in the first place because All You Need Is Love came out on DVD and I reviewed it and said, “Well basically you have to admire his ambition”. He obviously gets it very wrong about 1976. And then a couple of people got in touch and said, “You should have a go” And that’s how Yeah Yeah Yeah came about. It kind of made this book an obvious thing to do as a follow up.

I have to say though…all the time I was writing it I wasn’t really sure because with Yeah Yeah Yeah I knew there would be a market for it and this one I really didn’t know. Who is going to wanna read about Al Jolson for example? It seems to be going alright though.

(Halfway through the conversation a passing café customer sees a copy of the book on the table between us and says, “That’s a good book!” and is delighted when I inform him Bob wrote it.)

I didn’t know about more than half the artists in the book, but you write so well about them. I didn’t know about the Boswell Sisters, and I didn’t know about the Original Dixieland Jazz band for example. You have a full chapter on the Boswell Sisters, and you mention that the Original Dixieland Jazz band were the first pop group in a way?

Yeah. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band had that patter – a sales pitch which was very modern.

They were white?

Yeah, that was probably how they got a recording contract. They were good though. Every time I found a story about someone who had done something they were white and male, and I was conscious of the fact that there were great artists who were female and black for example.  There was a group called the Southern Syncopation Orchestra who were black, and they also came to Britain around the same time or shortly after. I’m pretty sure that Sidney Bechet played with them It’s interesting how that was all put together. Half of them died unfortunately (as a result of boats colliding in the North Sea). There are so many stories in the book that could be turned into biopics.

One of the original Dixieland Jazz Band died from the 1919 flu didn’t they?

The Spanish Flu, yes. That felt timely when I was writing it.

The chapter about the female vocalists is fascinating. People I didn’t know about but have listened to now. Helen Merrill for example.

Yeah. Helen Merrill’s son was in the ‘70s group Arrows as well. They did the original version of I Love Rock and Roll. Alan Merrill… He’s dead now but Helen Merrill is actually still with us.

Jeri Southern is another artist I didn’t know anything about.

Yeah, she’s great. Again, that was a chapter I started writing early on. I was listening to a lot of that stuff 10 or 15 years ago. It was just a matter of putting it together really. I’m sure a lot of people do this, but I just wanted to make sense of a lot of it. So, I knew who Stan Kenton was, but I didn’t really know what he’d done. I know that John Barry learnt to write scores by a correspondence course with him and things like that so there were always odd things that I knew.

I knew Stan Kenton was massive and I had seen records in the charity shops all the time, but I didn’t know where he fitted in. So, things like that were really why I wanted to do it and just make sense of it in my own head. I’ve got a better idea of it now than I did 10 years ago.

You know when you talk about the Great American Songbook in Let’s Do It? That didn’t have that name when it was happening did it. It was named later …I think you say in about 1972. Was it just people writing songs in different genres?    

Yeah, they were just writing songs for Broadway or for Hollywood or just for performers really. Mostly for Broadway or Hollywood anyway.

It’s interesting that the American version of your earlier book Yeah Yeah Yeah was published with chapters missing on subjects the Americans may not have understood such as skiffle.

Yeah, the publisher missed out chapters on Glam Rock and Folk Rock as well!  You know Robert Christgau, the famous American music critic? He wrote about it somewhere saying “Oh he’s such a pop obsessive I thought he’d mention Mungo Jerry!”. In the English edition I did mention Mungo Jerry, it just got taken out of the American edition. So, I sent him one and he was nice. It’s really flattering to have people like that looking at what you’ve written.

The book covers such a wide area. How did you research it?

I didn’t want it just to be a reference book. I wanted it to read like a story and read like a social history. Getting stories for this book was different to getting stories for Yeah Yeah Yeah. There wasn’t really a music press over this period – just trade magazines.  You had Melody Maker from the mid-twenties, but it was really just for musicians to find work and you didn’t get record reviews.

Finding old radio interviews was another way of getting information. The BBC have got a lot. I got a British Library award for a year, and this was great because I could just use their archive.

I get the impression you’ve listened to and have a refreshing opinion on all the music in the book. How did you listen to the music you write about?

I tried not to stream as the listening experience is very different. There was a market for well put together annotated compilations at one time from the ‘60s and ‘70s to the mid ‘80s which was useful. Swing bands, British dance bands, Hollywood actresses who sang. I found compilations of their works rather than the original 78’s which would have been expensive. The sleeve notes on these compilations were really good.  They were always thorough and sometimes they were entertaining. It was another good way of getting the information whilst you were listening to the music – learning who played in what band etc. I got a load from Todmorden Market Also a bloke called Brian Rust was useful. He absolutely knew his stuff.

Are 78’s playable? They seem fragile. You mention in the book that some Cliff Richard early records were on 78. When did they stop being made?

I’ve got a gramophone that can play them. They lasted until about 1960. There’s an Indian 78 version of the Beatles Things We Said Today actually, from about 1965.

 1952 was a key year. The first 7 inch single, the first NME, the first chart, the first Dansette all happened in that year. It’s the 70th anniversary of all those things this year.

One thing I get from the book is that all these genres and all these styles of music were overlapping in a dynamic way. I knew that Elvis was influenced by Blues and Country of course but it’s great to know how everything overlapped and cross fertilized.

I love Elvis. I knew what his influences were, but I was thinking – where does that come from?  Elvis loved Mario Lanza and Dean Martin as well.  I kind of wanted to make it one continuous story.

And technology was hugely important?

With broadcasting you had Duke Ellington and Earl Hines broadcasting across the whole of America. With the Federal Communications Commission ruling of 1949 the monopoly on American radio stations was broken up.  You then got black-owned radio stations that were listened to by white teenagers.  I didn’t know much about that even though I knew about Alan Freed. The history of American radio is fascinating.

The technology influenced the styles as well? The crooners for example with their more intimate vocal style?

I ended up having a lot of admiration for Bing Crosby. His voice was influenced by the new technology. After the Second World War American soldiers brought back this primitive recording equipment that the Germans had used to make it seem like Hitler was in every town. Crosby invested in it and that’s how tape recording got started!       

What projects have you got coming up next, Bob?

I’m working on a book on the Bee Gees which is coming out early next year. I’ve also got three or four Ace compilations in the pipeline. There’s also the Q & As for the book at festivals during the summer.

I can only scratch the surface of this magnificent book but as always interviewing Bob was great and I look forward to writing about his next projects. 

❉ ‘Let’s Do It: The Birth of Pop by Bob Stanley is available in hardback from Faber & Faber, 5 May 2022, RRP £23.00. ISBN: 9780571320257. ‘Fell from the Sun (Downtempo And After Hours 1990-1991)’ is out on Ace Records from 24 June 2022. Saint Etienne’s current album ‘I’ve Been Trying to Tell You’ is also out now.

 James Collingwood is based in West Yorkshire and has been writing for a number of years. He currently also writes for the Bradford Review magazine for which he has conducted more than 30 interviews and has covered music, film and theatre.  His Twitter is @JamesCollingwo1


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