Musical roots

A voyage of discovery charting the rise of a cultural phenomenon, from early 20th century music hall to the dawn of rock’n’roll

By Alexis Petridis By Bob Stanley





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 wideranging and learned, opinionated and funny. The prequel, Let’s Do It, 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. 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. He is never happier than when rescuing a figure from obscurity – such as Sam Mayo, who 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 rattles through anecdotes at a clip – and he has a fantastic eye for a head-turning fact. Down at the Old Bull and Bush – “the very soul of cockney London”, as Stanley puts it – was originally written by two Americans as an advert for Budweiser beer. The music industry, it seems, held its audience in contempt long before cynically manufactured pop reared its head: the degree of nose-holding involved in the first recordings of country music – aimed, said Variety magazine, at “poor white trash … with the intelligence of morons” – is something to behold. The moral panic caused by hot jazz in the 1920s is the model for every subsequent moral panic caused by pop: ostensibly about licentious behaviour and intoxication, but tacitly driven by fears about race, class and gender. Perhaps most strikingly of all, Let’s Do It makes clear that people have always been obsessed with the past. Its 656 pages are a perfect guidebook, filled with smart thinking and the kind of communicable enthusiasm that sends you rushing to the nearest streaming service, eager to hear what all the fuss was about. ALEXIS PETRIDIS IS THE GUARDIAN’S HEAD ROCK AND POP CRITIC