‘From his earliest years,’ P G Wodehouse wrote of himself in his memoir, ‘America had been – to this pie-faced dreamer – the land of romance.’ And, as soon as he got a chance, Wodehouse booked his passage to the Promised Land, where he drew on his love of W S Gilbert to help shape the invention of musical theatre. More than half a century after Wodehouse first travelled to America, the same sense of awed fantasy was still evident on this side of the Atlantic. ‘From England, America merely symbolizes something,’ David Bowie commented on his first trip to the country in 1971. ‘It doesn’t actually exist.’
Our guide through the popular music of those years, from ragtime to rock ’n’ roll, is Bob Stanley, musician, curator and – above all – fan. He has form. His book Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop came out nearly ten years ago and was instantly, and rightly, acclaimed as a classic of music writing. Now comes the prequel, an attempt to tease out the diverse strands of American music – barbershop quartets, jazz, blues, country, Hollywood, the Great American Songbook – while showing how they all intertwine.
Despite the publisher’s claims, the story Stanley tells is not a new one. Ian Whitcomb’s After the Ball (1972) and Tony Palmer’s All You Need is Love (1976) set the standard, and the first half of Peter Doggett’s Electric Shock (2015) covered the same ground. But it’s a tale