YEAH! YEAH! YEAH!: The Story of Pop Music From Bill Haley to Beyonce, by Bob Stanley. W.W. Norton & Co., 599 pp., $29.95.
Popular culture, like politics, has a center.
It's where "The Big Bang Theory" and "NCIS" meet Justin Timberlake, and Luke Bryan and folks watch "Frozen" with their kids.
Yes, the edges might be more interesting, more forward-thinking, more tweetable, but the middle, where most people meet, is important, too.
Music's middle is what British journalist Bob Stanley chronicles in "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyonce," and he accomplishes it with the effectiveness and ease of a Brill Building songsmith.
"People who develop a love affair with pop music usually do so by age 10 or 11, maybe 12 at a push," he says. "At least that is the oldest you can be and still fall in love with any guitar, any bass drum, soak up the whole of the Top 20, and love it all without question."
His love of pop music is clear, considering he decided both to study it meticulously and perform it as part of the well-respected dance band Saint Etienne. Few music historians are as ambitious as Stanley, who tackles nearly 50 years of pop songs in "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!" but rarely gets bogged down in extraneous details or boring stories. He has plenty of hits to cover. He keeps moving.
On The Beatles' "Hard Day's Night": "The songs, conceived in a hotel room in a spare couple of weeks between up-ending the British class system and conquering America, were full of bite and speed. There was adventure, knowingness, love, and abundant charm."
On Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come": "This was the America you didn't see on TV, everyday injustices you never heard about. It was an act of divination, shot through with hope and optimism; it's really too sad that it was Sam Cooke's epitaph."
On Abba's members: "a striking but sulky blonde, a slightly saucier brunette who most of the time looked like she'd just baked a cake, and two men -- definitely not boys -- who were stereotypical seventies uncles."
But Stanley is at his best at connecting the dots between genres and putting moments into perspective.
For example, he easily explains how Elvis Presley was surpassed by The Beatles: "By 1965, the year of 'Rubber Soul' and 'Like a Rolling Stone,' the erstwhile King Rocker was singing 'Do the Clam' and 'Petunia the Gardener's Daughter.' No wonder he was looking for a way out."
And by looking at music that is popular rather than music that is cool, Stanley gets to connect a lot more dots in "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!" than other examinations of the same period. "I wanted to argue that the separation of rock and pop is false, and that disco and large swathes of black and electronic music have been virtually ignored by traditional pop histories," he writes, adding later that disco should be considered as political as punk.
It's a good theory and one he defends well. However, once Stanley gets into the '80s, an era the 49-year-old experienced firsthand, "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!" starts to get a bit wobbly.
Rather than the tirelessly researched history distilled into interesting stories and clever opinions of the first half of the book, some of Stanley's biases start to show. Sometimes, that's good, as evidenced in his lovingly detailed chapter on the house scene in Chicago and techno scene in Detroit.
Sometimes, though, his opinions stop you dead in your tracks.
Can he really think Betty Harris, Bettye LaVette and Gladys Knight are all greater than Aretha Franklin? Can he really argue that U2 peaked with "War"? Is Beyoncé really worth mentioning in the book's title, but only worthy of two passing references and one paragraph in the book?
Apparently, yes. He tries to head off some criticism of his criticisms, writing, "Maybe you'll think it's harsh to bunch Bruce Springsteen in with Boston, but the Boss was no stranger to the power of an electronically processed drum kit ... or a dreamy synth wash." However, when he misses that Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." actually questions American priorities instead of blindly supporting them with "Oliver North on drums," it feels like a cultural blind spot.
Those moments can quickly be forgiven, though. "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!" tells the story of American and British pop music almost as engagingly as the songs themselves.