Bob Stanley swings back in time to the roots of rock ‘n’ roll

Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne. Picture: Katja Ogrin

Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne. Picture: Katja Ogrin - Credit: EMPICS Entertainment

The Eccles British Library Writers Award annually hands £20,000 and a year’s residency to help authors search the US, Caribbean and Canada collections. One of this year’s winners is Saint Ettiene’s Bob Stanley

Somewhere between making films and releasing an album, journalist and Indie pop star Bob Stanley will research his next book.

Thanks to the award, the 52-year-old who is one third of dance band Saint Etienne will delve into the British Library’s archive to discover the roots of popular music.

The Highgate author follows up his pop music history Yeah Yeah Yeah with a look at what came before rock n roll.

Too Darn Hot charts the advent of Tin Pan Alley, recorded music, the Jazz age, Broadway and Hollywood.

“The award is incredibly helpful,” he says. “Setting aside whole days to research is tricky these days but it’s amazing they can help me explore the archive and pull out incredibly rare magazines and publications going back to the earliest recordings which would otherwise be difficult to find without going to America.”

His book starts in 1890 when songwriters and sheet music publishers set up in a Manhattan district and became the driving force behind popular music by allowing amateurs to play hits they had often created.

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“There had been no commercial music production of sheet music before but now you could go into a music shop and ask for a piece of music,” says Stanley

“Between the late 1890s and turn of the century, you had the first recordings the publishing houses setting up the music industry in New York and the first globally popular music, Ragtime.”

The syncopated rhythms in records like Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag sparked a worldwide dance craze. Meanwhile Britain’s PG Wodehouse helped forge the Broadway musical by collaborating with Jerome Kern on a series of New York shows. Kern would revise British musicals to suit American tastes and write songs that came to define the Broadway show tune.

“It’s odd to think that American music had no confidence in itself and was seen as gauche and not taken seriously, Jerome Kern came over, picked up music hall acts passed himself off as English and got work in Tin Pan Alley with Irving Berlin.”

1917 saw the first jazz record by the Original Dixie Land Jass Band, a white act from New Orleans.

“Jazz had been around for ages but most people in New Orleans thought of it as a live music,” says Stanley.

Jazz became the popular music just as technological developments ushered in radio.

“You could broadcast music to a farm in Iowa live from New York. I can’t even begin to think how otherworldly that would be.”

By the 1930s Bing Crosby was the biggest singer in the world and the first to pre-record his shows and master then on magnetic tape. He personally invested in recording technology supposedly because he liked playing golf so much it irked him to leave the course.

As Hollywood embraced talkies with The Jazz Singer (1927) songwriters headed west to write for the movies. Stanley is interested in the social changes as women went out for the first time alone.

“They left their homes in the countryside and came to cities where traditional ways of meeting weren’t there. I want to get hold of diaries and find first hand accounts of what that was like.”

Jazz dominated as the proper music in the 1930s but Stanley says: “It’s hard to measure what was genuinely popular, there were no charts or top 40 until the 1940s and they didn’t include black or country music.”

Until the terms were coined in the 40s, RnB was called “race music” and country “hillbilly music” but the war had a huge impact in mixing people from different backgrounds together.

“My previous book was about the birth of rock and roll to the digital age. Pop music wasn’t a term until the 1950s but there was popular music before that. There’s nothing that links the Great American musical and pop music and says how the different music fed into each other, the progressive influence of black music and country music into the mainstream.”

Stanley who has a one-year-old son and a famously extensive vinyl collection and magazine archive, say’s he won’t start collecting old 78s because: “it would be the end of my marriage.”

He’s about to make his own addition to the musical cannon with Brexit-inspired Saint Etienne album Home Counties, a reference to Pete Wiggs, Sarah Cracknell and Stanley’s origins in Chelmsford, Reigate and Horsham respectively.

“We are all from there and I am interested in how the whole of Britain feels odd. The lyrical inspiration was Brexit, going to towns like Amersham during the referendum campaign which had Leave posters everywhere, then coming back to London where it’s completely different. You think ‘this feels really odd’.”

The album was recorded at Snap Studio in Finsbury Park which has a collection of vintage keyboards guitars and effects pedals that they enjoyed playing with.

“I have always thought of myself as an amateur. I am not a trained musician, I am a journalist, I keep that in the back of my mind,” says Stanley referring to the band’s trademark sampling technique.

“I write with computers. We don’t sit down with a guitar and write a song like Paul Simon. It’s more about how the production sounds.”

The album will be released on CD and Vinyl but not until June because “vinyl is so popular the pressing plants are at full capacity”. Asked why the younger generation have embraced this quaintly outdated format he says: “I am a collector, I still pay £40 for a rare single that I can’t hear on Spotify, so I am not the right person to ask. I love having an original artefact, it feels more real, being able to hold the art work and put a record on, rather than just pressing a button, it’s almost intangible but you are investing more in it and it feels like the performer has invested in me.”