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Blogs 'N' Sods #22: Maybe! Maybe! Maybe!

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyonce (W. W. Norton & Company, 2014, 624 pages), looks at pop music highlights and trends over the last 60 years. It is a lot to ask for in one volume. There are obvious personal favorites, a few new tidbits, and possibly the best article ever written about the much-maligned Bee Gee’s I have yet to come across.

Even though the focus of the book is basically singles, Stanley does make the argument for many LP’s and several genres of music that basically had no chart action at all but seem worthy of importance to the overall thrust of pop music, like the Riot Grrl movement.

The failings, though, make this tome a glaring example of a vanity project, his very own Graffiti Bridge.

 1. There are many factual errors throughout the book. One humorous example: he states that Chic’s “Le Freak” was their only #1 single. In the very next paragraph, he states that they had a #1 single with “Good Times”. (Chic did, in fact, have two #1 singles in the U.S., which were these two titles.) Slights like this make the book, and its author, seem less professional than they are. And, Mr. Stanley, Led Zeppelin actually did release singles, 10 of them in fact in the U.S. during their decade together, including “Whole Lotta Love” (Pop #4, 1969), “Immigrants Song” (Pop #14, 1970), “Black Dog” (Pop #15, 1971), “Dye’r Maker” (Pop #20, 1973). “Trampled Underfoot” (Pop #38, 1975) and “Fool In The Rain” (Pop #21, 1979).

2. Stanley’s informational bias, in particular with leading media outlets covering pop music, are almost exclusively British, with little to no references to the media pop culture landscape of the U.S., even though this book readily describes itself as covering both U.S. and U.K. scenes. Melody Maker, Top of The Pops and BBC1 are listed on practically every other page. We never hear once about the cultural impact of Soul Train, for example.

3. There is very little in the way of coverage of the influences of world music beyond a short chapter on Jamaica. World music had been seeping into the American music scene in a major way by the late 1960’s. In 1968 alone, Hugh Masekela (#1 Pop, “Grazing in the Grass”, and within a year and a half returned to #3 in a cover version by The Friends of Distinction), and his then-wife, Miriam Makeba, seperately both had massive pop hits. They were both from South Africa, and Makeba’s “Pata Pata” (#12 Pop) was sung in two languages and even mentions her hometown of Johannesburg in the song.

4.  Some acts are glaringly left out altogether. There is a lot of ink given to teen age sensations, heavy rock acts and glam rockers except for KISS. As a singles act, as an album act, as a touring act and as a piece of pop history, they should be impossible to ignore. (They really never did conquer radio, which is one of the reasons you don’t hear them much on classic rock stations at all.) Additionally, like the Beach Boys before them, Aerosmith along side them and Iron Maiden and Metallica after them, their initial core following was almost exclusively young men, not young women. That trend alone could have made an interesting chapter in this book, as it truly goes against the grain.

5. The book has a great many insider tidbits that, without a serious history in the scope of rock and pop artists non-musical lives, would come across as vague and confusing. He references things like a Mars bar during a Rolling Stones drug bust in 1967. I know exactly what this sleazily refers to, but the casual music fan would not, and items like this detract from what the focus of this book should be about, which I understood from the book jacket to be about the music and its impact on culture.

6. Like many Brits, his understanding of R&B is limited and defined by Tamla/Motown. He mentions that James Brown had more hits than anyone else in music save for Elvis, but very little attention is paid to his seminal recordings. He believes that the Impressions “It’s All Right” pretty much summed up their career, and that later singles like “We’re a Winner” were simply retreads of the former (it wasn’t). Additionally, he, in a sense, marginalizes the impact and power of Aretha Franklin (though he does give much needed praise to Gladys Knight).

 The last item here is of particular note. He has not lived in America. He doesn’t understand segregation or the impact of the legacy of slavery in this country. He is also white, and has only visited places like New York City, Los Angeles or Chicago, and probably not spent any time in the ghetto whatsoever. He has never seen his culural heroes assasinated, or why records like James Brown’s “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” (Pop #10, R&B #1, 1968) or Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” (Pop#1, R&B #1, 1967) are so damn important, influential and still referenced in today’s Hip Hop recordings. In fact, R&B was such an integral part of the pop music landscape in the 1960’s in the U.S., the leading trade publication, Billboard, actually did away with their R&B chart for several years, as there were so many crossover hits from 1963-1965.

Overall, not a bad read for hardcore music fans with massive record collections, but to the casual person wanting to understand what this subject is about, it fails as a point of reference.

Love to you all.

Ben Bear

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