Two Radio 1 DJs, two children’s publishers, two Books of Pop.
Perhaps more so even than the other volumes on the shelves at The Pop Music Library, neither of these books was intended to be pored over with great seriousness 30-40 years after publication. With their short chapters, profuse illustrations and famous cover stars, it’s easy to imagine the two titles wedged on the racks for the older pupils’ quiet reading time at primary school; each book appealingly up-to-date, and safe enough to capture the kids’ interest without dwelling on the seedier side of rock’n’roll. The two books evidently fulfilled a need at the time, but once that had passed, they might just as easily have been cast into the wilderness of the end-of-term jumble sale and come to rest alongside last year’s PE kit, victoria sponges wrapped in cling film and a couple of the art teacher’s more experimental canvasses.
I have clear memories of both Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart and Peter Powell but will admit never to being much taken with either. Ed Stewart was on Radio 1 for the duration of the 1970s, but even during that decade – surely the peak of his career – he always seemed to me too old for the work. I’m sure he didn’t actually present Top of the Pops whilst wearing a blazer, but he might almost have done. Peter Powell, on the other hand, was relentlessly down with the youth. I picture him with the sleeves of a white blouson rolled to the elbow, back-announcing something by Mr Mister and declaring it just a great record. The seven years separating the publication of these two books therefore seems like a very long time.
It’s impossible to know the extent to which either DJ had a hand in the writing of their respective books, but it’s safe to assume a professional was drafted in for much of the hard work. In amongst the hackery, what emerges of the personality of Powell made me wonder whether my view of him had been unduly harsh. His passion for the new actually gives him the more refined musical taste: he’s upfront about his enthusiasm for new wave bands and lists Reel to Real Cacophony as one of his favourite albums. And he’s nothing if not diligent when explaining his preparations for presenting Top of the Pops, noting that he always watches bands in rehearsal and talks to them before planning his links for the live recording.
In the back cover blurb of his book, Stewart promises “anecdotes that you might not have heard before about your fave raves”, which suggests all manner of sensational detail. In reality, his anecdotes don’t stir much interest beyond a declared admiration for the professionalism of The New Seekers and the revelation that he thought Lynsey de Paul was “one of the most gorgeous girls [he’d] ever seen” when he bumped into her in his agent’s office.
Stewart’s book is very much of the fab-facts-for-fans type, and therefore a throwback to an earlier model. We’re treated to information about the cultural and cuisinal preferences of Slade’s Jimmy Lea (Brigitte Bardot; Neil Young; egg and chips) and left breathless with excitement when we find out that David Cassidy “weighs nine stone”. The mode of expression the book employs is charmingly dated; Stewart notes his admiration for the young Michael Jackson by describing him as “an incredible performer with tremendous jazz feeling”. And then there’s this on one of Marc Bolan’s famous acquaintances:
A great friend of Marc is Ringo Starr. They met when Ringo was making ‘Born to Boogie’ and they’ve been great pals ever since.
This makes Bolan and Starr sound more like Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings and Darbishire than the pair of unstoppable brandy-quaffers we now know them to have been. But still, it’s good clean fun and I can’t say the book didn’t teach me anything: we can add to the list of pop stars who started out at art school both Gilbert O’Sullivan (Swindon) and the “gorgeous” Lynsey de Paul (Hornsey). Oh, and apparently Elton John once had an Alsatian called Bruce.
In contrast, Peter Powell’s book is a more focussed discussion about the workings of pop. This is pop as a business; witness the thorough glossary with its entries on ‘Faders’, ‘Merchandise’, ‘Plugger’ and ‘Royalties’. We learn too about the role of Promotions, Sales and A and R departments, the unpredictability of the hit record, of bands who concentrate on albums (Vangelis, Yes), and of bands who – inexplicably – achieve success in another country (“Flintlock, for example, are big stars in the Far East”). The book is illustrated with line drawings by one Dave Bowyer. After going misty-eyed over a picture of a record shop which actually contained records, I also found much to enjoy in the pinpoint sartorial accuracy of this imagined scene from Top of the Pops:
Certainly neither of the two books could be considered in any way an essential read, but each has its throwaway charms. Stewpot’s is the jollier account of pop music, whilst Powell’s is the drier and more factual. Powell makes you want to become a sound engineer, but in a final analysis, it’s the prematurely-aged Ed Stewart who makes you want to be a pop star. And for this, we must hope that the generation of younger readers who read the book the first time around were grateful.
PS The Peter Powell book is padded out with quiz questions, some of which would have been rather challenging for a younger readership. For example, can you name five jazz-rock bands other than Weather Report? (I mean, what 12-year old would even have got Weather Report?) But on first flipping through the book I too found myself stumped by the picture below from Powell’s opening chapter on notable performers from the 1970s – can you guess who it is?