Justin Lewis talks ‘Don’t Stop the Music: A Year of Pop History”

❉ Brilliantly simple as an idea but also ambitious, Justin Lewis creates a glorious interlocking history.

Justin Lewis’s excellent Don’t Stop the Music: A Year of Pop History One Day at a Time is a book with a brilliant premise. Take a calendar year and using the whole of popular culture, map out events that happened on each specific day of the year to create a day-by-day encyclopaedic history of the pop universe. Don’t Stop the Music is out in paperback on May 30th 2024; a date incidentally that according to the book saw the release of the Beatle’s sublime Paperback Writer/Rain in 1966, Soul to Soul’s excellent Back to Life in 1989…and James Blunt’s frankly annoying You’re Beautiful in 2005. 

I interviewed Justin via zoom about the book and started by asking how the premise for the book came to him…

I was approached to do it really. I’d been doing this stuff on twitter and the net where I’d been putting out birthdays. Then I had this idea ‘Well, what it you had all the same stuff that happened the same day and you back mapped it?’ The publishing person, Simon Spanton gave me a call… without him the book wouldn’t have been possible. Simon asked me if I wanted to do a book on pop music. I thought it would be interesting to throw it open and cover as many areas as I possibly could.”

Your knowledge is encyclopaedic, and you do seem to try to cover everything?

Thanks. I tried. I also think people have a distinction between rock and pop and have a strong idea of what rock is. I just think all of it in the end is pop really. I think it’s through pop that new ideas come and so that’s why I kept thinking ‘Well, let’s channel it through that and see what we come up with’.

I like the way you cover technology in the book and emphasise how that’s important for everything. For example, the Walkman gets invented and the 45 gets invented and you show how technology connects to the culture.

Well, I mean funnily enough I think people think less about it now even though it’s still happening, but I think those defining formats are important. It’s one of the reasons why pop music in the fifties sounds different to pop music in the sixties and the sixties music sounds different to the seventies. Virginia Plain released in 1972 is a good example of that.

It sounds absolutely a million miles from the last Beatles records which were only about 3 years earlier and that’s extraordinary. Also, if you compare a record at the start of 1970 to a record at the end of the seventies, they’re completely different.  Those records that sort of predate the eighties such as M’s Pop Music, Sparks’ Number One Song in Heaven or the Buggles; they sound quite outlandish. The same is true again of the end of the eighties. You can keep doing that decade to decade.  

It’s less easy to do that now mainly because people are using the same kind of technology and so all sorts of different things are coming out. I think it’s less easy or maybe I’m just old that’s probably what it is!  I think it’s easier to make these observations and make these distinctions in retrospect   It’s not necessarily what I was thinking at the time.” 

You do cover a lot of modern stuff like k pop and j pop and I can tell you’re a big fan.

Mainly because I really like a lot of it. It’s quite nice to be able to talk about it because I’ve done a couple of events and a couple of radio interviews (when the hardback came out) and it was all very nice but no one really asked me about the current stuff at all.  Whether that’s a sign of the demographic that’s buying it I don’t know.

I had a couple of ideas when I was writing it. One of which was ‘wouldn’t it be brilliant if someone picked this up who didn’t necessarily know anything about pop music’ or hadn’t given it too much thought. I delivered the book in March last year so there’s even a few, not many, entries for 2023. It’s nice to cover the new stuff.”  

It’s completely different in structure but the book reminds me a bit of Stuart Maconie’s or Bob Stanley’s books on pop history. It’s got the same breadth. 

One thing I wanted to try and do, which those books also do, was try and tell the story of a changing world that was outside pop music. I didn’t lay this on too thickly but the idea that pop doesn’t exist in a vacuum outside what is happening is interesting. You particularly notice this, for example with Kendrick Lamar, and him doing an album just before Trump was elected and having a reaction to that event.

 It’s interesting how in the overground pop world in Britain there’s not many people who have done records that are about post Brexit Britain for example. It’s weird. You don’t really see it in the mainstream very much but someone as massive as Kendrick Lamar has done that. I think in America it’s easier and people feel fearless about doing it.”

Speaking of Bob Stanley I know you’re a big Saint Etienne fan and they appear in the book a couple of times?

Yes. I notice the So Tough rerelease is out and the booklets include interviews with a lot of people who were involved and one of them was the guy who was involved with the concept for the album sleeves. A guy called Michael Gillette. I was at school with Michael. I didn’t see him for years- he lives in America now – but we were at school together until we were about 16 and he went to art college. A brilliant artist. It was so obvious that he was going to go on to bigger things. Did you used to buy Select magazine?


 He used to do a thing in that called Pop Tarts which was a comic strip. I think he worked with the Beastie Boys at some point!  The craziest thing! Yes, he was a big pop fan. When I was at school, he was the biggest other pop fan in my class. He was just interested in everything that was going on.” 

I’ve read it all the way through twice but often go back to the book when I do the daily thing of checking out what happened on a particular date. It’s a constant source of knowledge and weird facts and juxtapositions. I know a lot of the stuff but am always learning something. Picking out my favourite fact at the moment…Bill Oddie attended Prince’s first ever UK concert in the early eighties?   

Yes. That is both an interesting fact and also something that you can absolutely believe. That Bill Oddie was a music fan but also loved his funk music. Because funk was quite underground in Britain in the 70’s. It wasn’t a mainstream massive success like it was in the States. It was more disco over here. I also love the fact that Prince toured with the Rolling Stones and was getting everything thrown at him at the time!”

He would have seemed weird and unusual at the time?

Yeah, it was the time of Dirty Mind, so it was sort of ‘Punk Funk’.  It was the time of Devo, so it’s got as much to do with what they were doing as it has with somebody like George Clinton or Sly and the Family Stone.” 

There’re so many things I didn’t know about which I discovered in the book. I’d never seen that clip of Sooty and Sweep singing Buzzcocks Boredom for example.

Haha.  I remember seeing it for the first time because it was on a programme called Top Ten … Channel 4 used to do this thing on Saturday nights in about 1998 which was probably the grandparent of all these clip shows which exist now. This clip seems to do the rounds on twitter every now and again. Twenty seconds, and once you know that it’s Boredom you can hear it ….but you wouldn’t necessarily know.  That’s a very good example of how I didn’t want it to be too po-faced.

I also wanted a new angle on certain things and to try and include people who often get written out of the story. For instance, not many people know that Heartbreak Hotel was co-written by a woman (Maue Boren Axton).  It’s a bit like the early days of Hollywood when there were so many more women involved in the film industry. I don’t know if you’ve read it but Helen O Hara, who I think writes for Empire…. not the Dexys Helen O Hara by the way. She has written this great book about women in the film industry.

People think it’s always been male dominated and actually it hasn’t. At the beginning it wasn’t at all. It was just that in the thirties it changed. It’s things like that where I just wanted to make it a bit more inclusive really. I always thought it was a good sign if I came across a piece of research and thought ‘Wow I didn’t know that!’. I just think ‘If I didn’t know that other people may not know that either’. So that led into some interesting areas.

What main areas did you use to research the book. Was it looking at old magazines and books etc? 

Anything I could lay my hands on. What I realised quite early on was I didn’t want to use one source endlessly. Also, I wanted to make it as international as I could. It did mean that I got to use so many different aspects. There were certain little facts that I’d always picked up and that I’d always thought “keep that!”.  Some of it was just discovering things.  I think if you find new information whatever you do it sort of kicks the thing up the backside really. You suddenly think ‘oh great!’ and you can go anywhere with it.

With the obvious people such as the Beatles and Bowie I tried to include things that were a bit different. So, for example, when I wrote about John Lennon’s murder there are obviously all sorts of angles you can take with that but I was interested in how they’d just been recording “Walking on Thin Ice”, the Yoko Ono track, that day. That to me is really great. it’s interesting because it really points to wondering what he would have done having not been in the studio for a while and having been influenced by all these artists like the B52’s. So again, that thing of one thing connects to another thing is important.

 I’m not sure on where I stand on whether something is ‘original’ or not but some things are more original than others and the original stuff often happens when somebody just puts together three or four things that don’t seem to have any common ground. The point is to enjoy the kind of oddness of it. Also, sometimes you’d think ‘oh that’s a more interesting thing to put in then that even though they’re not as famous a group’.

We did a playlist as well. It’s on Spotify and it’s on Apple and YouTube. People have very kindly copied it over. I decided to try and do one song per day and it’s nearly 24 hours long that playlist! It took me a whole day! 

So anyway, it’s funny how people seem to have picked up on different aspects of the book so some people have enjoyed the nostalgia element and that’s fine and other people have enjoyed the weirdness of it because I’m trying to reclaim the weirdness of pop. The odd decisions.

I’m a big fan of the First Last Anything textcast you do which is a sort of podcast written as text. 

Thank you. I haven’t done any of those for a little while and I’m hoping there will be more of those this year They take a while to do. I had this idea and I thought ‘well if I do a podcast there are so many of them’.  So, I thought, ‘well let’s try and do something else’ and I wanted to really try to have different types of guests. I wanted to have people who hadn’t made that many appearances on usual podcasts. Luckily there were a number of people who were quite prepared to come on it which at the very beginning was good of them because I had no real way of knowing whether it would work or not.

I suppose in a way it’s a variation on something like desert island disks but where it differs is I didn’t want people to get too bogged down in trying to decide what their favourite records were. If you ask …. what’s the first piece of music you remember, what’s the most recent one you heard and then pick anything (which can be more than one) it’s interesting. 

The original idea was I wanted to do a number of them but not too many. So, I think we did 16 the first year and we did 8 last year. I would like to do more but it’s finding the time to do them properly because of the way it works.  You’ve read them?

Yes, I’m a big fan.

Cool. So, when I do the interviews, I set up a zoom the way we’re doing now. Then I get a rough transcript and then I edit it with the cooperation of the guest. It’s sort of a collaboration really. I see it as something that we’ve written together and almost see it as a cowrite project. Not an improvisation exactly but…. if you’re editing it it means that you can correct little things. Also, if either of us can’t remember the name of something you can look it up. I even say to the guest’ look if there’s something you want to elaborate on you’re very welcome to do that’.  Some people have indeed taken that opportunity. 

I honestly got people on that it was an absolute honour to speak to because I’d been fans for a long time. It was really great to be able to do that.  The very first person I got on was Lev Parikian who writes about ornithology quite a lot but he’s also a conductor and he was a perfect first guest. He operates in so many different areas.

 He’s a funny man but he also has a lot of interesting ideas about things. I remember him and me had a discussion about what he actually does as a conductor which is a mystery to people. I’m not an expert on the classical world. How does a composer compose something or what does a member of an orchestra or a soloist do for example? It’s like asking what does a film director do. It’s not immediately obvious to people who aren’t in that world. So, to get people to talk about how that works is fascinating. Also, everyone has got different approaches so I really like that. Hopefully other people got a really nice insight.” 

You got great guests like Jonathan Coe and David Quantick but also interesting people whose work I wasn’t familiar with.

The other thing that was brilliant about doing it was that everyone without exception picked at least one thing I’d never hear in my life before.

❉ Don’t Stop the Music: A Year of Pop History, One Day at a Time by Justin Lewis is out now. ISBN: 9781783967162

 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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