Contact sheet of Frank Sinatra in the recording studio, c. 1955

A square prehistory of popular music

Rock versus pop, and orchestral numbers versus guitar solos

This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Midway through Ian McEwan’s novel On Chesil Beach there is a scene in which the central couple argue about music. Florence, the violinist in a string quartet, can’t stand the racket made by Edward’s rock group. It’s the drumming that really gets her: “the tunes were so elementary, mostly in simple four-four time, [so] why this relentless thumping and crashing and clattering to keep time?”. At which point he kisses her and tells her she’s “the squarest person in all of Western civilisation”.

Not while Bob Stanley’s alive she ain’t. Though he is himself a member of a beat combo (St Etienne), and though he has already written a history of modern pop that covers everything from Bill Haley to Blur (Yeah Yeah Yeah), Stanley’s tastes are as square as an army drill. 

In his new book, Let’s Do It, a kind of prehistory of pop that covers everything from Scott Joplin to Scott Walker by way of Ronnie Scott’s, Stanley quotes Harold Arlen’s dismissal of rock and roll as “horrible … Percussive instruments have taken the place of the melodic line”, before admitting to his own regrets about how by the mid-’50s “rhythm and raw noise had become more desirable to many than whistleability”. 

Stanley wasn’t yet three during the Summer of Love, but there can be little doubt that had he been a few years older he’d have been one of those people whose purchase of Englelbert Humperdinck’s “Release Me” kept the Beatles’ “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever” off the top of the charts.

Let’s Do It: the Birth of Pop, Bob Stanley (Faber, £25)

What Stanley loves isn’t so much light music as music with a light touch. Just as he prefers the froth of pop to the pomp of rock (in Yeah Yeah Yeah he prized Sweet over Led Zeppelin), so here he favours the “urban smarts” of Richard Rodgers’ first lyricist, Lorenz Hart, over the “socially conscious” homespun philosophising of Hart’s successor, Oscar Hammerstein. 

Rock music, on the other hand, is all about solitude

And while he acknowledges that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s unified field theory of the musical “took another step forward with Stephen Sondheim”, he rightly dismisses much of the latter’s oeuvre as “precious” next to, say, that of Cole Porter or Irving Berlin. 

Basically, Stanley prefers songs to shows, singles to albums, orchestration to guitar solos, entertainment to ideas, and anything that exists to get your toes tapping. Such music he dates only as far back as Ragtime. Victorian parlour songs, Sousa marches, music hall singalongs, even Viennese waltzes — none of these, he argues, “immediately made you want to dance”. 

Right enough, though what Stanley’s otherwise omniscient gaze misses is how dance has changed over the course of the past century or so. Whether or not a Strauss number had you on your feet immediately, when it did get you to the dance floor it would be either on someone’s arm or with someone on yours. Dance, that is, was a social experience. You didn’t do it alone. 

Rock music, on the other hand, is all about solitude. At one point in the book, Stanley quotes a reverie from Steven Berkoff about dancing to Roy Ellington’s band at the Tottenham Royal: “you became more and more desperate to find someone you could crush for half an hour of fierce kissing and squeezing and creating sparks as your gaberdine rubbed against her taffeta”. Nobody remembers “A Whiter Shade of Pale” like that.

Rock’s individuation of experience moved in tandem with developments in technology. Ian Kershaw has elsewhere pointed out how the invention of the transistor changed the radio from something the family gathered around to something individuals listened to alone. Stanley explains how new technologies enabled singers both to enhance and embody this sense of isolation. 

Reading this book could cost you a lot of money

In the early days of recording, trained opera singers (sopranos especially) often broke the tubes of radio transmitters. Among the early adopters of the latest kit was Bing Crosby, who, as well as working out that the tape-recorder would let him put out ‘live’ radio shows while he was on the golf course, also realised that not having to belt out a tune to the back row of the gods meant he could sing more intimately. So influential was his one-to-one sound that a few years later Mercury’s Mitch Miller had Vic Damone singing in a lavatory cubicle, the better to make his out-of-this-world baritone a bit more down-to-earth.

But Vic and even Bing are also-rans, says Stanley, who rightly posits Frank Sinatra as “the fulcrum” on which twentieth-century pop culture turns. So vital is Sinatra, he argues, that you can have “the bulk of this [600-page-plus] book inside three minutes [simply by playing] “You Make Me Feel So Young””. Nice try, but Sinatra is far too various an artist to be summed up in one number. 

That’s because he was more than just a crooner. He was a storyteller, an actor, and the first singer to sing as if the songs mattered to him. Along the way, he invented what Colin MacInnes called “the most original thing to come out in our lifetime” — the album. As Stanley says, next to one of Sinatra’s emotionally chaotic, aesthetically coherent records, the sainted Ella Fitzgerald’s contemporaneous Songbooks are way too short of “emotional punch”. 

Stanley is fond of going out on such limbs. Easy enough to big up Peggy Lee and Nat King Cole. Far more daring to suggest that the work of Lionel Bart and Matt Monro and, sotto voce it, even Barry Manilow, might merit another listen. 

Which is a way of saying that reading this book could cost you a lot of money. Few pages go by without your consulting eBay on, say, the price of Dick Haymes’ greatest hits or Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall. Stanley makes you want to hear these and hundreds of other records because he’s so good at evoking what he’s heard himself. Here is Shirley Bassey with her “flamethrower voice”, here Barbra Streisand with her “rubbery Bronx honk”, here John Barry’s “still underrated” “James Bond Theme” — looking back to Stan Kenton and Sweet Charity, and forward to the Stranglers and the Pixies and Nirvana. 

On which point, it wasn’t Michael Caine who told Barry that the opening phrase of “Goldfinger” sounded like that of “Moon River” — it was the song’s lyricist, Anthony Newley. Shirley Bassey sang four Bond themes, not three — as Stanley, who remembers Thunderball’s unused “Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” but has forgotten “Moonraker”, claims. While Crosby and Armstrong both recorded “April in Portugal”, Sinatra never did — though he did, of course, cover “April in Paris”. 

I don’t like it that Burl Ives named names any more than Stanley does, but our knowledge of that fact does nothing to “taint his music”. Stanley’s inexplicable decision to not mark the line-breaks of quotations from lyrics with an oblique, on the other hand, does taint this otherwise magnificently square (and true) book.

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