Bob Stanley on tracing the history of pre-pop – BBC News

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Image caption Bob Stanley (left) lets his love of pop shine through in St Etienne, who turn 27 this year

Every time a rock star dies (and, let’s face it, it’s happened a lot recently) a few trusted books get grabbed off the BBC bookshelves for a hastily-written obituary.

They include classic tomes like the Guinness Book of Hit Singles and Colin Larkin’s peerless Encyclopaedia of Popular Music, but they’ve been joined recently by Bob Stanley’s Yeah Yeah Yeah.

Packed with anecdotes and insights (he describes Berlin-era David Bowie as “a silent movie ghost”), it reflects pop through the prism of the charts, rejecting the “rockist” perspective of most reference books.

“A film isn’t necessarily more enjoyable if it’s based on a true story,” Stanley explains. “Likewise, a song isn’t necessarily any better or any more heartfelt, or convincing, because it was written by the singer.”

Although Yeah Yeah Yeah ends in 2000, Stanley had already come up with chapter headings for the next instalment, including the fantastic “Oops I Did It Again and Again”, about the Swedish hit factory behind Britney Spears, Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake.

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So it’s a surprise to discover his next book won’t deal with grime, crunk or EDM – but big bands, ragtime and jazz.

Called Too Darn Hot: The Story of Popular Music, it’s an attempt to make sense of the 50-year period between the advent of recorded music and the birth of rock and roll.

“It’s the classic case of, ‘if you can’t find the book you want to read, write it yourself,'” explains Stanley.

“There are plenty of books on jazz or the great American songbook – but some of those genres have forceful advocates, who see their music as the music of the era and completely ignore Broadway or Hollywood musicals. So I really want to tie it all together”.

<figure class=”media-landscape” has-caption full-width”> Image copyright Getty Images

Image caption Bing Crosby revolutionised the sound of recorded music, thanks to his unique microphone technique

Last time around, Stanley was immersed in the music he was describing. He started his career at the NME and Melody Maker, before forming his own group, St Etienne, as the physical embodiment of his pop obsession – mixing 60s girl group harmonies with elements of folk, house, dub and northern soul.

His knowledge of pop’s pre-history is altogether more sketchy.

“I’m really starting from a position of knowing nothing about the music, except for the standards which everyone knows,” he says. ” But learning things as I’m going is fascinating and terrific.”

He recently discovered how Bing Crosby’s intimate, laid-back delivery on songs like White Christmas was only made possible by the advent of electric microphones (previously, singers like Al Jolson were vaudeville “belters”, screaming down the rafters in order to be heard).

“Nobody could have recorded a voice that soft before the late 20s,” says Stanley. “And then in the late 30s, he [Crosby] funded the Ampex tape company, gave them thousands of pounds, and made the first pre-recorded radio broadcast.

“He said it was because he got fed up of going into the studio every day and wanted to play golf. But he speeded along recording technology.”

Stanley’s research has received a boost from the British Library, who have awarded him a 20,000 grant and a year’s residency at the Eccles Centre – which houses the library’s collection of American journals, newspapers and sound recordings.

“It means I’ll have access to a lot more material in Britain than I thought,” says the writer, “from early music magazines with amazing names like ‘Talking Machine News’ to wax cylinder [recordings] and people’s diaries.”

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Image caption The advent of jazz torpedoed the careers of music hall stars like George Robey

The book’s only in the early stages, but he’s already uncovered a few surprising themes… including the fact that Britain was the dominant force in pop at the start of the 20th Century.

“America at that point just didn’t have the confidence or belief in its own music,” he says, referencing the story of Jerome Kern, who wrote standards like Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and A Fine Romance.

“As a young songwriter, he came over to England and went to see the music halls. Then he went back to America and passed himself off as English because that was the only way he could get his songs on Broadway,” Stanley says.

“That changed very quickly once jazz came in. There are lots of [British] songs about how ragtime is a joke – ‘my wife ragged herself to death’ – but music hall got hit really badly by ragtime and jazz.

“As soon as it has the confidence, America becomes so brash, and everyone is cowed by it that it feels like Britain’s doing a lame imitation of America until the Beatles.”

Technology also plays a huge role in the story – particularly with the advent of radio in the 1920s.

“It’s hard to conceive how it would have felt, if you were working on a farm in Iowa, to be able to hear a live broadcast of a big band from a ballroom in New York.

“That obviously affected what music people wanted to listen to, how it was recorded, how it was broadcast.

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Image caption The sound quality of early records lacked the depth and clarity of modern vinyl – as actress Gloria Swanson apparently discovered

“Something else I wasn’t aware of was that record players, like in the 1990s, were consigned to the attic. The quality on radio was so much better than on the 78s [early vinyl records], which always sounded like a man shouting into a tube.

“It was only in the late 20s and early 30s, when the recording technology improved that people started getting 78s out again.”

Stanley’s home in North London is littered with record players – a vintage Dansette and a 1948 gramophone join his sleek, modern turntable amidst the neatly filed vinyl and scattered baby toys of his new son, Len.

He says he intends to listen to the songs he writes about in their original format, whether it be wax cylinder or shellac discs “because they would have been recorded to be played on that format.

“It’s like The Who’s singles in the 1960s. They were made to be played on a Dansette and that’s why they sound thin and strange on a CD.

“So what I want to get across is what it was like to live through that period and how people were listening to music, and what they were listening to.”

Writing the book will have to be slotted in around his other commitments, including a film about the jazz musician Basil Kirchin for Hull City of Culture and a brand new St Etienne album, which is due in June.

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Image caption St Etienne are due to tour later this year

Called Home Counties, it reflects the band’s experiences of growing up in Surrey and Berkshire.

The songs tackle everything from the Enfield Poltergeist (a notorious hoax that made the national press in the 1970s) to the rail drivers’ union Aslef, as well as “teenage parties and deceased pets”.

Stanley says he may miss a few of St Etienne’s concerts as he finishes Too Darn Hot – grimacing he recalls flying the 1,000-page manuscript for his previous book on a tour of eastern Europe.

“I want to get this one done faster than the last, because that was five years,” he says. “I’ve got the structure sorted out, and I’m looking forward to talking to collectors.

“It’s just a question of not wanting to go too far down the rabbit hole.”

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