Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Pop as it looked to Nik Cohn in 1969 and as it looks to Bob Stanley in 2013

When Nik Cohn wrote Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom in 1969 it was sub titled "pop from the beginning". At that point the beginning was only twelve years earlier. It seemed a long time then. Now we realise that's about as long as it's been since Oasis last had a big record. I was looking at the copy on the left which I bought in 1973. It has an afterword grudgingly revising the odd judgement from three years before. When he'd first written it the Beatles hadn't broken up and Woodstock hadn't happened. At a time when rock seemed to be getting bigger and better he wasn't afraid to contradict the conventional wisdom, describing Crosby Stills Nash & Young as "gutless and mindless", saying that Led Zeppelin had "reduced blues playing to its most ham fisted level" and repeating his belief that "rock had seen its best moments". This was controversial stuff in the early seventies.

Cohn's book was short enough to put in your back pocket and catchy enough to commit to memory. Its style had a huge effect on all those people who wrote for the inkies in the 70s. And Cohn's greaser aesthetic, which valued PJ Proby ("the great doomed romantic showman of our time") above Bob Dylan ("he bores me stiff"), was equally influential.

I bet Bob Stanley's read it. If he hasn't he should because his book Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop sets out to do a similar job over forty years later. Cohn was a child of the fifties and therefore his judgements were different from mine. Stanley's a child of the seventies and therefore his are different again. That doesn't matter. It can go on like this forever, with people looking at the history of pop through the lens of their own age.

There's a lot more music, a lot more is known about the stuff that was there when Cohn was writing his history and, most interestingly, there are things we only realise when many years have gone by. Such as, and here I'm quoting things I just happen to have marked in the margin, Hank Marvin may have been a Geordie and Cliff Richard may have come from Herts, but they both spoke with the same RP accent they thought entertainers should have; Jim McGuinn changed his name to Roger because he wanted to be a pilot; Simon and Garfunkel were called Tom And Jerry because it was one little guy and one long guy. The musical points are no less arresting: the Rolling Stones recording of The Last Time was "an incredible sound for a group from Kent" (I think I was familiar with the concept of the Stones before I was familiar with the concept of Kent); Bruce Springsteen described Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill's "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place" as "every song I've ever written" (which it is); Motown in the 60s is a glimpse of what would have happened in America if the Beatles hadn't; the apex of the Beatles' genius is the second side of A Hard Day's Night. That last one's an easy sell to me.

I'm only 200 pages in. I'm talking to Bob at the Old Queens Head next Wednesday as well as Mark Lewisohn. By then I'll have finished it. I'm enjoying it. I can guarantee it won't finish like Nik Cohn's history of pop did in 1969.
Very soon you'll have pop composers writing formal works for pop choirs, pop orchestras; you'll have pop concerts in halls and the audience all sat in rows, no screaming or stamping but applauding politely with their hands; you'll have sounds and visuals combined, records that are played on something like a gramophone and TV set knocked into one, the music creating pictures and patterns, you'll have cleverness of every kind imaginable. Myself, though, I'm not interested...


  1. Awopbopaloobop *is* an absolute gem. I’ve read, re-read and given copies as gifts or used them for stocking filling

    With only a twelve year timescale to cover, there's less compression of events. The importance of The Twist for example (rock ‘n roll would have gone the way of the hula hoop if hadn’t been for the Twist becoming a hit with Ney York’s swanky Peppermint Lounge set). He writes wuth a refreshing lack of (current) received reverence for his subjects. Cohn’s thumb-nailing of Pete Townshend relying on Daltry to act out his conceptual archetypes (noted several years ahead before Tommy) And his wily eye for the future make it almost a Rock Almanac

  2. Apologies for the shocking typos. I've got a broken shoulder, so it's one handed typing at the moment.

    That's no excuse for poor proofing I know - blame that on the lack of +1 readers.

  3. Hank Marvin is a Geordie? You learn something everyday.