sun 14/07/2024

Justin Lewis: Don't Stop the Music - A History of Pop Music, One Day at a Time review - deft and delightful pop almanac | reviews, news & interviews

Justin Lewis: Don't Stop the Music - A History of Pop Music, One Day at a Time review - deft and delightful pop almanac

Justin Lewis: Don't Stop the Music - A History of Pop Music, One Day at a Time review - deft and delightful pop almanac

A history of pop told through daily capsules of fact

Justin Lewis: taking music one day at a timeCourtesy of Elliot & Thompson

This splendid book proves that trivia need not be trivial, and that a miscellany of apparently disconnected facts can cohere, if done well. It is in the proud lineage of the “toilet book”, a form sadly in decline in these days of the smartphone. Although modest in its ambitions, it provides entertainment, enlightenment and a sense of serendipity, transcending its bullet-point format to be more than the sum of its parts.

Justin Lewis has set out to tell a history of pop music not chronologically, but day by day from 1 January to 31 December, uncovering important – or sometimes delightfully unimportant – things that happened on those days across the years. Although he has been very even-handed in making sure all era and genres are well-represented, Lewis’s strong point is the 1980s, and his references to Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions and Tears for Fears catch the character of that decade.

Although whimsical, Don’t Stop the Music is painstakingly researched and scrupulously presented. Lewis is a stickler for accuracy: song titles, dates of release and dates of chart positions are rendered with a badger’s perfectionism. I longed to catch him out but didn’t notice anything I could fault. But his research is worn lightly, and what comes over is only a pleasure in sharing his discoveries. The sense of randomness could, in other hands, have been frustrating, but instead is one of the main sources of pleasure. The juxtaposition, on 30 April, of Elvis recording “Jailhouse Rock” (1957), Rock Against Racism being founded (1978) and Celine Dion winning Eurovision for Switzerland (1988) is just one example of many.

Don't Stop the MusicMost of the entries are short – some no more than a sentence, the longest no more than a page – and Lewis’s laconic style throws up some gems. “For ‘Tired of Waiting for You’… Ray Davies revisited a melody from his time studying at Hornsey School of Art – but had to write new words as he had forgotten the original ones.” Or: “1981: Prince performs his first-ever British concert… Among those watching is comic performer, naturalist and funk enthusiast Bill Oddie.”

There are many stories I could quote, but don’t want to steal Lewis’s thunder by revealing his best bits here. Suffice it to say I now know more about the connection between Micky Dolenz, Paul McCartney and Alf Garnett, or what links “Space Oddity” with Clive Dunn’s “Grandad”, or the identity of the rock legend who was the unlikely support act for The Monkees in 1967.

Lewis acknowledges that people will check out their own birthday first – I had no idea I was born on such an uninspiring day, although it did lead me to the counterintuitive revelation that Cliff Richard’s “Summer Holiday” was released in early February. But while this might seem a book to dip into – and that would be a perfectly good way to do it – reading it straight through also works. Since there is haphazardness built into the book’s DNA, you get the mosaic effect either way.

One of the big themes that emerges is how, for 40 years or more, the weekly charts gave a narrative to the world of pop music: who was up, who was down, who was new, who was on the way out. It also gave a way of statistically quantifying achievements: records sold is so much more concrete a thing than streams. I wonder if the loss of this chart narrative in recent years, along with the universal availability of pretty much all the songs in this book at the swipe of a phone screen – thus losing the “essence of now” that was what pop was all about – means the death of pop music in the way we understood it? Perhaps, but this book, chockful of chart-lore, is a monument to the times when pop mattered and legends could be incubated in the bedrooms and youth clubs of Britain.


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