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05May

Let’s Do It by Bob Stanley review – a voyage through pop’s origins

Prewar stars and genres come to life in a joyous account that draws uncanny parallels with the present

Bob Stanley’s first book, 2013’s Yeah Yeah Yeah, looked like a completely insane undertaking: the entire history of pop music – from the first British chart in 1952 to the rise of Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love – in one book. Astonishingly, it worked. It was wide-ranging and learned, opinionated and funny, and justly critically acclaimed. Clearly that success emboldened its author: the prequel, Let’s Do It: The Birth of Pop, feels even more ambitious. It attempts to tell the story of pop from the turn of the 20th century, when the term was first used – a 1901 advert in the Stage for a sheet music lending library promised “all the latest Pop. Music” – to the rise of rock’n’roll. It feels vastly broader in scope, by necessity encompassing everything from music hall to Muddy Waters. Because Stanley continues the stories of pre-rock’n’roll stars long after the rise of rock’n’roll – one later chapter is titled Adventures in Beatleland – a book that begins in Victorian London ends, more or less, in the present day: a huge timespan to cover, even in 600 pages.

As with its predecessor, it shouldn’t work, but it does. Yeah Yeah Yeah seemed like the product of a lifetime spent devouring and considering pop, but Let’s Do It is clearly more of a voyage of discovery for its author. An inveterate record collector, Stanley’s writing crackles with the exhilaration of a man who’s encountered a whole new world of vinyl to obsess about. It adds a fresh excitement to some well-worn stories: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra. Never happier than when rescuing a figure from obscurity – whether it’s Jeri Southern, a contemporary of Peggy Lee whose career was undone by stage fright, or Sam Mayo, who billed himself as “The Immobile One” and seems to have been Edwardian England’s equivalent of Morrissey, lugubriously intoning songs called I Feel Very Bad I Do and Things Are Worse in Russia – Stanley can also muster enthusiasm even when he doesn’t particularly like what he hears. He hasn’t got much time for Al Jolson, a “bellowing ham” in blackface, but he can work out what people must have seen in him.

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