Exhaustive, exhausting history of pop music.
Like so many popular histories that aim for comprehensiveness, this plodding assemblage staggers under its own weight. Even though he claims that “this book is not meant to be an encyclopedia,” in trying to tell the story of pop, music journalist, DJ and Saint Etienne founding keyboard player Stanley gets so swamped in name-checking every band and song title that he loses the plot and characters. Instead of focusing at some intelligent length on key figures, genres, trends or shifts in tastes, he is more concerned with touching on everything than doing justice to anything. He’s all about connecting the dots, usually patching them together with well-worn anecdotes or conventional wisdom. The book’s real juice is in Stanley’s scattered opinions, which range from the unusual to the obnoxious. His Brit-skewed viewpoint offers less-than-reverential takes on the Clash and Elvis Costello and stirring defenses of The Monkees, Sex Pistols and Abba, and he delivers a cogent and interesting history of the Bee Gees. Among his many questionable judgments: that “New Morning” (1970) is possibly Bob Dylan’s best album or that Bob Marley’s music was as “musically simplified as the Bay City Rollers.” Stanley, however, does score the occasional apt phrase: Joy Division was “modern pop viewed through night vision goggles—grimy and murky.” Abba’s hits “sound like a music box carved from ice.” The author also writes of the Smiths’ “bedsit bookishness” and Belle and Sebastian’s “librarian chic,” and he correctly notes that “indie” has now “stretched out to become a meaningless catchall term.” Unfortunately, all these scattered perceptions fly by in a hazy, numbing blur as Stanley hits the pedal on this breakneck trip through the past 60 years, and his tone becomes increasingly grating.
Like the print version of an endless, time-filling BBC series—even the most interested readers will likely do a lot of fast-forwarding.