Bob Stanley’s Let’s Do It. The Birth of Pop Music: A History is a welcome and epic accounting of popular music, primarily from the UK and the US, from 1900 to the start of the rock ‘n’ roll era in the 1950s. Stanley also happens to be an accomplished musician as a founding member of alt-dance stalwarts Saint Etienne, and Let’s Do It is effectively the prequel to Stanley’s 2013 book, Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Modern Pop
This is a 600-plus page, possibly indispensable guide to popular music’s (pre-rock) history. Stanley painstakingly tells the stories of hundreds of artists, musical genres, subgenres, styles, trends, and technological advances. The index alone is 31 pages. The material is presented chronologically and segmented into 52 chapters on distinct subjects. Thus, one chapter is devoted to Al Jolson, for example, and another to post-war, big band jazz, and so on. The synopses of each topic and subtopic run from a sentence or two to longer for the more important subjects, such as the Age of Swing and Nat King Cole. The care put into every single one of these stories is evident. Even the briefest capsules feel fully formed.
Over the decades, once prominent stars, and some less prominent, navigate things popular musicians deal with, from creative highs to mental health problems to trying to keep up with shifting trends. There is the influence of technology, such as, for example, when early microphones forced musicians to crowd around it and perform loudly. A few years later, new mics unintentionally opened the door for a singing-whispering style to come into vogue. Wars impact the history told here, like causing a shift in consumers’ emotional needs or the members of big bands getting drafted for combat. It’s safe to say this book will fill many gaps in just about anyone’s musical knowledge; I certainly expect to continue to reference and revisit the book in the coming years.
I found Let’s Do It to be a thorough and encyclopedic reference guide, and it is a lot. There is a bit of a downside, though. That is, it is a thorough and encyclopedic reference guide, and it is a lot. There are so many summaries and details to process, from Irving Berlin to the Boswell Sisters to “The Cowboy Rhumba”, that at times all this information can become a bit jumbled. Let’s Do It might have benefitted from additional organization or themes to group things more memorably. Still, it does cover threads and trends that provide some depth and cohesion to our pop music history knowledge.
Despite the notoriously short shelf-life for so many things pop culture, Stanley notes that some songs indeed have serious “legs”. For example, one pop song from the early 20th century, “Colonel Bogey”, arose from a real-life golf match involving an army colonel and even led to the coining of the golf term, “bogey”. During World War II, the song’s lyrics were adapted to mock Hitler. In the ’50s, it was used as the theme in the popular war film, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). It would also be featured in 1985’s “Brat Pack” film The Breakfast Club (the kids in detention whistle the song in solidarity). Finally, it ends up in a recent ad for a German digestif.
In other examples, a largely unknown singing star from the 1930s, Marilyn Miller, directly inspires later artists such as poet and writer Dorothy Parker and punk-songwriter-poet Patti Smith. The late ’70s/’80s ska-punk icons, the Specials, covered a song popularized by the decidedly dated, big-band jazz man of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, Guy Lombardo. For music and pop culture history buffs, this is fun and fascinating stuff.
Some serious social issues are illuminated as well, as music history will do. Stanley occasionally offers some brief editorializing, but he mostly notes trends already making themselves clear in the text, such as the regular reoccurrence of issues of race and class, as well as a basic “snobbery” of the music industry establishment. Thus, as an example, before the rise of radio in the 1920s, music was, as a general concept, considered effeminate; women made up the vast majority of music students and concertgoers in America. At other times, the upper classes exclude perceived undesirables from the monetarily successful world of popular music. This often, however, leads to those outsiders making far more interesting and vital music, be it working-class Brits and the emergence of music hall, or African Americans and the blues.
Not all of the genres, subgenres, and trends covered in Let’s Do It me hopping onto the internet to give them a listen. Early on, Stanley notes, for example, that “whistling” songs were big for a minute in the early part of the 20th century. Interesting for novelty and historic purposes, but…no. The first song I did look up, however, was “Tiger Rag”, by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band out of New Orleans in the 1910s, which Stanley singled out to contrast the emergence of jazz with the outgoing ragtime. Especially in that context, “Tiger Rag” is remarkable and exciting. It made me enthused both for history and the almost miraculous nature of jazz.
In sum, Let’s Do It is filled with momentous events and notable factoids. It is dense, thoughtfully written, and the deepest of deep dives into an important aspect of music history. That makes Stanley’s work here pretty vital.