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Book Review: Please Please Me by Gordon Thompson and Dusty! Queen of the Postmods by Annie J. Randall

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I’ll admit it, there’s always at least one book about British pop culture on my bedside table, whether it’s a tell-all Beatles bio or some esoteric volume of Kinks arcana. We navel-gazing boomers love to read about our own pop past, which is probably why the normally sober Oxford University Press has seen fit to publish these two critical histories on what I (totally dating myself) still call the British Invasion.

The OUP imprint, however, demands a modicum of academic high-mindedness, and the first pages of Gordon Thompson’s Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out worried me. Three-hundred-plus pages of dry ethnomusicology was definitely not what I’d bargained for. I scanned the list of interview subjects and couldn’t find a single surviving Beatle or Rolling Stone there, let alone a Kink, Animal, Yardbird, or Who. Where was all the “inside” dirt I was hoping for?

Well, luckily, once Thompson gets past his intro — once the grownups stop paying attention — he plunges delightfully into the music itself, and delivers a different kind of inside scoop: behind-the-scenes detail on how the record industry of the time actually worked. Forget those oft-quoted headline stars; what Thompson scored instead was exhaustive interviews with several of the period’s top producers, engineers, arrangers, session musicians, and songwriters. The result is a rich and surprisingly nuanced portrait, a vivid fly-on-the-wall view of how those iconic records of the 1960s got made.

Thompson’s got a wonderful ear for rock music – I found myself continually running over to my CDs to replay some track he was writing about, and hearing things I’d never properly paid attention to before. Want to know who really played drums for the Dave Clark Five? Who really wrote “The House of the Rising Sun”? Who sang the backing vocals on the Who’s “I Can’t Explain”? How Donovan’s classic hit “Hurdy-Gurdy Man” gave birth to Led Zeppelin? It’s all here, along with fresh takes on historic moments like George Martin’s original signing of the Beatles and the weekend when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards reluctantly wrote their first song.

After Thompson’s book, I turned with high hopes to Annie J. Randall’s Dusty!: Queen of the Postmods. As a longtime Dusty Springfield fan, I was ravenously curious about this corner of '60s Britpop history. I adore Dusty, one of the greatest-ever singers of “white soul,” captured in hits like “Son of A Preacher Man” and “I Only Want To be With You.” Randall’s quite good on tracing Dusty’s Motown roots, which went even deeper than the Mod generation’s trendy obsession with American R&B. Where Randall really opened my eyes, however, was in fleshing out Dusty’s embrace of a less well-known genre, the European pop aria (just think of Dusty pulling out all the melodramatic stops on her classic tracks “I Close My Eyes and Count To Ten” and “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me”). The histrionic hand gestures, the platinum beehive wigs, the sparkle-draped evening gowns, the thick mascara and frosted lipstick – every element of Dusty’s iconic '60s act melded these two performance styles with verve and vitality.

I’ll confess I wanted more biography – Dusty’s tormented sexual history, her struggles with a male-dominated music industry, her raging insecurities, her sad death at age 59 from breast cancer in 1999, all would make great copy. But that story’s already been written (though Randall tut-tuts about the sensationalism of Springfield’s authorized biography Dancing With Demons). And after all, this is Oxford University Press – I should have known I wouldn’t get salacious details. Still, it would have served her readers well if Randall had at least sketched in relevant details of the life story. The result is an odd disjointed book at times.

When Randall’s analyzing a Springfield recording in detail, she’s spot on. (Her section on the great 1968 album Dusty in Memphis is particularly illuminating.) Then, annoyingly, Randall gets mired in semiotic jargon, talking about Dusty’s performances in terms of discourse, camp aesthetic, and signifyin(g) – the book gets unreadable for pages at a time. Randall’s intent on proving some academic point, but she definitely loses me, and I can just imagine Dusty rolling her mascaraed eyes at this hamfisted reduction of her on-stage magic.

Randall claims to be a Dusty fan herself, but at points I have to wonder – her enthusiasm rarely comes across, certainly not the way Thompson communicates his love of the music he writes about. If you’re already a Dusty Springfield fan, of course, this is an essential book. Thompson’s book, however, has a much broader appeal. He gets to the heart of pop music’s collaborative nature, something that’s just as true today as it was during the British beat revolution. For all of us boomers who still harbor dreams of becoming rock stars ('fess up, now), Please Please Me is just the ticket.

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About Holly Hughes