This’ll be the second month in a row I’ve been spending most of my free time wading through a big old book that details important events in the history of pop music. The major difference is that whereas Mark Lewisohn’s The Beatles Tune In focused tightly on one five year period in the career of one group Bob Stanley’s Yeah Yeah Yeah is in stark contrast a brave attempt to cover pretty much everything significant in the fifty years that popular songs were consumed chiefly via the single record (initially 78rpm discs, then 45s, cassettes, CDs and ultimately downloads). The result is a tome that’s maybe slightly too opinionated to qualify as definitive but is certainly informative, passionate and well written with welcome touches of wit. It’s also formidably well researched, as you’d expect from a true music obsessive like Stanley, whose day job is as part of pop classicist outfit St. Etienne – if he mentions in a footnote that When Doves Cry was the first hit not to feature a bassline since Andrew Gold’s Never Let Her Slip Away six years previously you can be damn sure he’s listened to every record that got into the charts between them to check.
The author takes a sensible broadly chronological approach, starting in the early 50s and using each chapter (of which there are 65) to concentrate on a particular development, genre or, occasionally, single artist. Each chapter can thus be read as a stand-alone essay, though it’s undoubtedly easier to perceive the various throughlines that Stanley carefully sets out if you start at the beginning and work your way through. Some of the subjects here have already been copiously documented (Elvis, Beatles, Dylan, Motown, Pistols) and these chapters don’t add too much to what’s already been said, but the bulk of the book deals with musicians and subgenres that I can’t remember being covered in this depth before outside of ponderous and over-earnest features in places like Mojo and Uncut, and Stanley’s readable and funny (breezy, even) writing style is a cut above what you generally find in those magazines. In particular, the sections on the era immediately before rock’n’roll kicked in and those on mid-sixties rhythm and blues are packed with information and enthusiasm and make you want to go out and try to find the original singles right away.
Where the book is less effective is in those passages where Stanley lets his own preferences and idiosyncracies colour his descriptions. He makes no secret of his disdain for much of the music of the early 70s and sometimes comes out with comparisons that seem calculated to wind up rock-snobs: was the music of The Sweet really on a par with that of Led Zeppelin? Later on he seems a bit sniffy about my beloved post-punk and overly dismissive of certain massively successful acts (The Police were undoubtedly a bit cynical and sometimes horribly pretentious but they did put out some cracking singles). I found the last part of the book the hardest to get through, though that’s probably more down to my lack of understanding of the appeal of techno and the myriad subdivisions of house than any failure of the author.
Stanley doesn’t quite succeed in conquering his impossible self-imposed brief – certain artists and genres (The Velvet Underground, lots of 90s alt-country stuff) get short shrift from his habit of squeezing less mainstream trends into pithy capsule summaries – but this is still a mightily impressive project, and a very handy reference for things you might catch on the radio and not instantly recognise. And also it’s a fun book to pick fights with. Just don’t slag off The Beach Boys within earshot of the author.
Cate Le Bon’s hour long set at The Junction last night was brisk, efficient and surprisingly loud and crunchy. Surprising to me, anyway – for some unfathomable reason I’d had her tagged somewhere down the hippy corner of the indie-alternative scene and had been expecting a few bespoke acoustic instruments and possibly some onstage basket weaving and pot throwing as well, but other than the occasional bit of swirly organ reminding me of paisley patterned wallpaper this was a no-nonsense rocking-out set played at high volume but with enough clarity to be able to pick out all the lovely fiddly bits that help give Le Bon’s music its distinctive offbeat character. Other significant distinguishing factors are her wistful, highly proficient and definitely Welsh vocals (she sustains some of the high notes for very impressive stretches of time) and the slightly lurching, loping nature of her compositions. The band (which contains notable musicians Sweet Baboo on bass and H. Hawkline on guitar and keyboards) is as tight as a drum, but the tendency towards including bars containing irregular numbers of beats, unconventional accenting and chord sequences that never quite develop or resolve as you’d expect make the songs as hard to dance to as they’re intriguing to listen to. There’s no shortage of catchy hooks though, as a few listens to the lead tracks I Can’t Help You and Are You With Me Now from her recent Mug Museum album will make clear, and there’s no hint of any proggy indulgence. In the end the only disappointment is the absence of mugs for the sale at the merchandise stand, but that’s a pretty churlish complaint given the musicians’ friendliness and willingness to chat to the fans after the gig. A lovely night out.
I’ve not been on here much recently, largely because most of my free time has been taken up with working my way through Tune In, Mark Lewisohn’s new history of The Beatles up to the end of 1962. This is one enormous slab of a book in itself but even at 840 pages plus introduction, notes and index it’s only the first third of something even bigger called All These Years which will surely be the last word on this already copiously written about group (the other two volumes are in preparation). Incredibly, this doorstop is the streamlined, edited version of Lewisohn’s work – I thought I was a Beatles obsessive, but even I balk at the extended edition which is twice as long and is currently going for about a thousand pounds on Amazon (or about forty quid on Kindle). Is there really anything more to be said on this subject that hasn’t been comprehensively covered already?
As it turns out: yes, actually, there is. Despite its sheer weight making it a bit of an awkward read anywhere except in an armchair or at a lectern Tune In is, presuming you’ve got a healthy interest in its subject, a real page-turner. It’s written in a clear, accessible style and while Lewisohn doesn’t skimp on presenting the fruits of his formidable research into, for example, the family backgrounds of these boys and the myriad professional and amateur bands working around Liverpool and Hamburg at the time the book hardly ever gets bogged down into dry and unreadable fine detail. Personally, I found the only hard parts to get through were those concerning managerial and publishing contracts but these bits are there for a reason: I never knew before that pressure from a music publisher was one of the deciding factors in George Martin going against his better judgement and allowing the group to release one of their own compositions as their first single. This decision was pretty remarkable. Lennon and McCartney had written dozens of songs together as teenagers but it simply wasn’t the done thing to play your own stuff live and almost all of these were never used – it seems that they didn’t revive their songwriting in any serious way until after they’d secured their recording contract with EMI and had a real possibility of stamping their personalities on the records via the use of their own material.
For the bulk of the book the author does an admirable job of dropping you into the lives of a group of bright young men growing up in Liverpool in the late 50s who are confident and talented enough to want to make music but have no establishment connections on their side to do any favours for them. These boys were obsessed with rock’n’roll at a time when you could only get to listen to it via unreliable pirate radio stations and the odd precious 45rpm record you might be able to pinch from a shop or hear at a party and Lewisohn really communicates the sheer thrill and impact of listening to Elvis, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis for the first time. It must have felt music from outer space when compared to the sedate easy listening fare that the BBC was providing.
John, Paul and George had formed a seemingly unbreakable musical unit as early as 1958 (George was only fourteen at the time) and spent the next couple of years playing sporadic gigs where and with whom they could (at one point they played as trio called Japage 3, which sounds like the name of a particularly naff early 80s futurist outfit). Eventually John persuaded his art school mate Stuart Sutcliffe to fill in on bass but drummers were always a problem. Pete Best only got the gig when a last minute slot for a 1960 season at a Hamburg nightclub comes up and he’s literally the only candidate who’s even vaguely suitable but he never fitted in and the book is particularly thorough at presenting all the reasons that he was dropped just as the group was about to break big, even if seemed like a shocking and callous decision at the time. Hamburg really marks the start of the group as a cultural phenomenon: from this point they’re maturing and evolving at an explosive rate, working through a vast repertoire of popular standards and rhythm and blues obscurities as they unfailingly whip up their audiences into a very un-British frenzy.
Tune In ends, somewhat frustratingly, at the end of 1962 with the group having achieved national success with their first single Love Me Do and with the surefire follow-up Please Please Me about to be unleashed. They’ve got to this point through a combination of raw talent, unabashed confidence and tireless guidance on the part of manager Brian Epstein, and have had startling luck in falling into the hands of George Martin, probably the only record producer working in the UK who had the good taste and judgement to let them be themselves, despite his initial misgivings about them. A project on this scale can hardly be recommended for the casual reader (if you’re only ever going to read one book on this subject Ian MacDonald’s Revolution In The Head is still my favourite, even if I don’t always agree with him) but it’s clearly as definitive as anyone could wish for, and it’s highly readable too (although I hope they clear up the typos for the next reprint). Great photos too.
Posted in Books, Music, Review
Tagged All These Years, Brian Epstein, George Harrison, George Martin, John Lennon, Mark Lewisohn, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, The Beatles Tune In
English singer/songwriter/guitarist Anna Calvi doesn’t seem to be that well known to the great music buying public, possibly because she doesn’t fit neatly into any convenient marketing category, but on the evidence of last night’s gig at The Troxy in east London (a rather beautiful venue, incidentally, which looks like it was a probably a ballroom in a former life) she deserves to be a major star. Her restrained appearance, non-existent stage banter and tastefully minimal back-up band (drummer, keyboard player and percussionist, with the latter two occasionally taking turns on bass) don’t give much of a clue to what’s coming, but believe me, this was a full-on rock’n’roll monster of a set.
Calvi’s stock-in-trade is to set up broody, pulsing atmospherics in which her impeccably twangy electric guitar conjures up lovelorn encounters in oppressive badland locales before soaring operatic choruses dramatically raise the stakes – it’s impressive on record, but quite astonishing to witness live. Imagine the soundtrack to a desert-set David Lynch movie suddenly ramping up into a full-blown torch song and you’re getting somewhere close. Flame-haired divas whose lung-power can fill a hall without the aid of a PA system are not so unusual, but Calvi’s unique in being a genuine guitar hero too, with a technical grasp and inventive flair that would put a lot of prog-rock veterans to shame. She hardly ever resorts to mere strumming while she’s singing, usually picking out spare but ingenious riffs and counter-melodies but sometimes pulling off complex and quite alarmingly ferocious wig-outs. I don’t normally comment on or even notice the lighting at gigs, but here the lightshow complements the music with rare taste and effectiveness, picking Calvi and her Fender out in silhouette as she shreds her way through her solos. The dominant colour is red, which fits as Calvi’s songs seem be to be constantly evoking images of heat, passion and flame, and her choice of Springsteen’s “Fire” as a cover version couldn’t be more appropriate. The pacing, arrangements and dynamics of these songs are highly impressive: none of them seem to go on a second longer than they need to and they all seem as spare and pruned of extraneous layers of sound as they could possible be. The sound in the room is excellent, with Calvi’s powerful vocals ringing out even in the loudest passages and lots of lovely reverb-y space in the quiet parts.
After an encore featuring her rousing singles Blackout and Jezebel Calvi calls it a night…at this venue, anyway. A solo show follows straight on at a pub down the road for those lucky ticket holders not reliant on public transport to get home. She’s an amazing talent, and her profile might get considerably higher before too long: with this much command of the whole sultry/operatic thing surely a Bond theme sometime soon is an inevitability? See her if you get the chance.