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Festival of Reading: Review: Yagoda's 'The B-Side' a thorough, only slightly cranky history of early pop music

You run a risk, when lamenting how the music these days ain't what it used to be, of sounding like a bitter old crank.

Just flip through Ben Yagoda's new book, The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley & the Rebirth of the Great American Song. Yagoda provides examples throughout of artists, critics and industry players bemoaning the popular music that knocked songwriters like Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin and the Gershwins off the top of the charts.

Here's old-time showman Billy Rose on the stars of the '50s rock revolution: "It is a set of untalented twitchers and twisters whose appeal is largely to the zootsuiter and the juvenile deliquent." And here's Frank Sinatra: "Rock 'n' roll smells phony and false. It is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons and by means of its almost imbecilic reiteration, and sly, lewd, in plain fact, dirty lyrics."

So does Yagoda's book also qualify as bitter-old-crankery? A tiny bit, perhaps. He admits he's "sympathetic" to the idea that the Great American Songbook is "a towering achievement in the history of this country, equal to or greater than any of our other cultural or artistic endeavors."

But The B-Side is no 300-page harangue of modern noise. Rather, it is a thoroughly researched overview of early popular music, from its birth as a commercial commodity to its demise at the hands of those duck-tailed and poodle-skirted bobby-soxers.

And as encyclopedic as The B-Side can be, that historical arc is its most compelling strength. How did popular music arise in America? How did the songs we now know as standards come to life? How does a style of intelligent and lyrical music, which for decades dominated not only in concert halls and on the radio, but on Broadway and in the movies, slowly sputter out and die?

Sometimes the answers are illuminating, particularly how technology shaped the earliest days of the music industry — the four-minute capacity of the 78-rpm wax disc, introduced in 1902, molded publishers' and songwriters' conception of how a popular song should be structured.

It's also amazing just how shady the industry was even from the outset. Since sheet music was the form's most popular medium until the 1920s, publishers lorded vast power over songwriters and composers, and, in an early form of payola, spent untold thousands, if not millions, on "pluggers" who would spread their songs to lounges and dance halls around the country.

As the industry grew, things got messier and more complicated, with endless bickering and lawsuits among songwriters, labels, publishers and personalities. There is little salaciousness to The B-Side, just a thorough documentation of the many ups and downs experienced by lyricists including Jerome Kern (The Way You Look Tonight), Hoagy Carmichael (Stardust) and Ray Evans (Mona Lisa) as they bounced from Tin Pan Alley to Broadway to Hollywood. Fans of old movie and musical scores will find the book as enlightening as those of pop music.

At times Yagoda's lists of names and songs become dizzying, particularly in music's earliest days. It isn't until he reaches the '50s and '60s, and the artists and titles become more familiar to modern ears, that casual readers will hear the book's full soundtrack in their heads. But he does make you want to dive deeper. It's not a bad idea to read The B-Side with Spotify at the ready, so you can sample and contextualize songs as you go.

Ironically, The B-Side's most interesting character may be Mitch "The Beard" Miller, a powerful executive and composer reviled for his meddling ways and controversial taste. (He shepherded longtime adversary Sinatra's gimmicky Mama Will Bark into production.) He offers one of The B-Side's most perceptive observations about rock 'n' roll's encroachment into the landscape that made him: "In twenty years, when Junior has grown into a sedate married man, father and pillar of the community, he will ... be distressed no end by the songs his son admires."

Lament the demise of the Great American Songbook all you want. But like the lyrics of Porter, Rodgers, Berlin and Ira Gershwin, Miller's sentiments will ring true forever. You don't have to be a crank to see that.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley & the Rebirth of the Great American Song

By Ben Yagoda

Riverhead Books, 310 pages, $27.95

Ben Yagoda will speak at 11:30 a.m. Oct. 24 in the Barnes Pavilion, Poynter Institute.

Festival of Reading: Review: Yagoda's 'The B-Side' a thorough, only slightly cranky history of early pop music 10/14/15 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 14, 2015 1:05pm]
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