Tag Archives: Bob Dylan

Bob Stanley: Yeah Yeah Yeah – The Story Of Modern Pop

YeahYeahYeah

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.

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Have Moicy! Another cult classic I’ve only just got to grips with

Time to talk about the album that I’ve derived the most pure unalloyed pleasure from over the last few months. Have Moicy! is a 1976 release that I’ve been vaguely aware of for decades but only got to listen to for the first time in January, and if nothing else it’s certainly a candidate for the album having the most convoluted recording artist credit outside of the hip-hop genre: Michael Hurley and The Unholy Modal Rounders and Jeffrey Fredericks & The Clamtones.

I first heard of Have Moicy! way back in the pre-internet 80s, when I  was relying on only the weekly music press and one or two reference books for information and opinion about bands and records. By far the most authoritative and austerely self-important looking of these tomes was Robert Christgau’s massive and tightly packed Consumer Guide to the rock albums of the 1970s, in which the august New York critic had compiled his super-dense and often sardonically opaque reviews of more or less every major (and many many minor) release from the decade in question. Most of the reviews didn’t make much sense to me as a teenager, and still don’t now, but Christgau also helpfully graded every album on a scale from A+ to E-, which gave me some kind of starting point to work out whether he liked them or not. Not many albums in the book got a grading of A, and the top mark was vanishingly rare, so the records that achieved it tended to stick in my memory – the two original New York Dolls albums, Marquee Moon by Television, an Al Green album I think, and a few others, including (to return to the point) Have Moicy!, which Christgau describes as the best folk album of the rock era. A mere 25 years later after reading the review I got round to downloading the album after I noticed it was available from emusic.

Michael Hurley is an American singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who’d been sporadically issuing collections of pleasantly laidback folky material since the early 60s. The Unholy Modal Rounders, led by Peter Stampfel, were an off-shoot of folk/psychedelia duo The Holy Modal Rounders, who shared some lineage with legendary proto-punks The Fugs and also at one point included respected playwright and actor Sam Shepard in their line-up. Jeffrey Fredericks was the leader of Vermont group The Clamtones, who played in a style that would probably be referred to as alt-country or Americana these days, and wrote (but didn’t release) many accomplished and irreverent songs in the early 70s. What these three pretty disparate acts had in common was that by 1975 they were all signed to, or in the orbit of, folk label Rounder, which meant that when somebody (possibly Stampfel and Robin Remaily of the Unholy Modal Rounders) had the idea of setting up some sessions to record the best songs of the three acts, with the combined musicians functioning as the backing band, Rounder was able to release the resulting recordings without getting entangled in too much red tape.

The sessions took place over two days and resulted in seventeen songs, thirteen of which ended up on the record: four each written by Hurley, Fredericks and the Rounders, with the thirteenth being a highly idiosyncratic cover of the pre-war jazz ballad Midnight In Paris. The finished album is riotously entertaining – the best term I can find to describe the music is “hillbilly”, in that there are prominent fiddles and banjos and quite a few references to all-night parties and campfires and women walking out on drunken husbands in the lyrics, but much of the joy of the thing is the way it lurches between styles as every new song comes up. The closest point of comparison in my collection is Bob Dylan and The Band’s The Basement Tapes, but there’s none of the earnest beardy respect for tradition that you sometimes get the whiff of from that collection. The wildest of the three main vocalists is Peter Stampfel, who sounds like he’s voicing a cartoon coyote and gets to sing the loosest and most obviously comical songs, such as the closing Hoodoo Bash, a description of a Mardi Gras style occult ceremony. Michael Hurley’s contributions are less manic and more radio-friendly, but still include the eyebrow raising Slurf Song, which seems largely concerned with the digestive processes of someone eating beans and spaghetti. Jeffrey Fredericks’s songs may be the real highlights: they’re bright and melodic with toughly funny and subversive lyrics. His Robbin’ Banks, a celebration of “bein’ illegal”, is my favourite from the album and seems to have lodged in my brain permanently with the occasionally embarrassing side-effect of making me burst out into song while walking to work. The musicianship is as organic and spontaneous sounding throughout as you’d expect given the brevity of the recording sessions, but it’s also surprisingly tight and disciplined. Either the groups did more rehearsing than they’re letting on, or they’re a lot more professional than their reputations might suggest. Anyway, a brilliant album. Should have got to it sooner.