Do I listen to pop music because I’m miserable or am I miserable because I listen to pop music?
John Cusack as Rob Gordon in Hi-Fidelity
What was the first pop song? Well it’s almost impossible to say of course, but there are plenty of contenders. For us the first pop song we can remember hearing was probably No Limit by 2 Unlimited; though if we’re honest, whilst we can’t be sure (trust nobody kids!), pop music probably existed before that.
To settle on the first pop song, you must first work out what exactly is a pop song. The term didn’t come into usage until the 1920’s, and didn’t come into wide usage until after the Pop Art movement in the 1950’s. However, plenty of songs prior to either of those could potentially be considered pop songs, both in the sense of popular and it’s more confusing modern term, when it’s as much about the style of the song as how many units it shifts. A personal favourite contender is Summer Is Icumen In. If we rule out religious music as not particularly “poppy”, Summer Is Icumen In, was one of the first widely sung non-secular songs. Sung in a round it sang of the joys of summer, from the merrily singing cuckoos to the prancing bullocks (farmers, please correct us if we’re wrong but prancing has never been high on the agenda of any bullock we’ve ever seen). However the track pre-dates the printing press by 150 years, let alone being available on a slice of seven inch vinyl, it wasn’t even widely available as sheet music, so despite its popularity we’ll move on to some other contenders.
The likes of Greensleaves, and the frankly delightful sounding A Frog He Would a-Wooing Go were two of the first songs to be widely available as sheet music, however it was another, huge-sheet-music-hit-maker that perhaps has the best pre-record claim. Prior to 1892’s After The Ball, the idea of selling a million copies was frankly ludicrous, however such a big hit was this particular musical score that it sold over five million in a single year. Surely even One Direction haven’t smashed it out of the park quite like Charles Harris did? Such was his svengali-like clutch on manipulating the sales figures; he even sent out a young, baritoned singer to perform it in clubs across the states, giving him a slice of the royalties in return for the huge promotional gains.
Did pop music truly exist before the music charts though? Arguably it was only with the advent of counting sales, that selling records and being “popular” even really became a thing. The first chart topping single in the UK was Al Martino’s track, Here In My Heart, although the initial chart was only compiled by the NME ringing up 20 Record Stores and asking them what their biggest sellers were that week, so you could argue the chart might not have been quite advanced enough to reflect popular culture. Over in the States the first chart topper was the slightly more famous, Mr Frank Sinatra who, sharing the credits with band leader Tommy Dorsey, took the track I’ll Never Smile Again to top of the Billboard chart in 1940. Frank is certainly a contender for the first pop star, an appearance from Frank caused similar pandemonium and levels of screeching teenagers as The Beatles and Take That would later replicate.
Of course the best pop song ever is Be My Baby by The Ronettes, and that’s not even arguable, don’t even be saying Hey Ya or Crazy In Love at us. However if we’re talking the first-pop song, well for us it’s Old Blue Eyes, though we’re going to dust off our original sheet music version of Summer Is Icumen In just to check.
All that talk of pop music was of course to get around to the welcome return of one of the most classically poppy pop bands around. The School, are everything a pop band should be, except for the fact, without wanting to sound rude, they’re not all that popular.
It’s been three years since their last album, 2012’s Reading Too Much Into Things Like Everything, but from the opening moments of their new album Wasting Away And Wondering’s first track Every Day it’s clear that those three years off have been spent honing their sound and not reinventing the wheel. The guitars still chime with shades of Camera Obscura, the organ still buzzes a classic pop melody; they remain masters at taking the beautiful simplicity of a pop song and dressing up in rich, ornate arrangements, whether that’s waves of strings, the clanking of glockenspiel or delightfully punchy horns. Even the lyrics, are classic pop, they’re ruminations on young love where, “every day that is wasted with you, is a day never wasted at all.”
Herein lies that conundrum at the heart of whether you’ll love or hate The School. For every person who loves the handclaps and retro-gazing production there’ll be one who thinks it’s too twee and find the revivalist qualities pointless. The School are not a band pushing music forward, they’re a glimpse into the past, a band who heard Burt Bacharach and The Shangri-Las and thought we can do that just as well, and they do. What The School have mastered is simply classic pop, beautifully delivered slices of pure nostalgia.
I Will See You Soon is upbeat indie-pop, all buzzing synths, handclap inducing drums and the jauntiest basslines this side of Paul Simon, there’s also, without wishing to sound too much like Alan Partridge, a truly classic organ breakdown. Put Your Hand In Mine is a swaying string-laden thing, with a touch of a more innocent Pulp. Whilst the excellent Don’t Worry Baby is a winning combination of piano and strings, in many ways it’s classic Phil Spector. All strong, dismissive lyrics, where there’s, “no kisses for me because I don’t need you anymore” and singer Liz in her state of loneliness will happily, “close my eyes with a smile upon my face” all delivered with a downbeat harmonious quality.
The biggest departure from their sound here is He’s Gonna Break Your Heart One Day. A dark, crunchy guitar riff with shades of Richard Hawley, crashing drums playing out a beat not unlike a doom-metal version of Be My Baby, and distant mournful Spanish trumpets. The lyrics are all of boys who’ve done you wrong, “don’t hold his hand, don’t kiss goodnight, he’s going to break your heart one day.” It’s a strutting tango, a moment to stick a rose between your teeth, slap this cad round the chops and castanet your way into the distance, never to return. It’s a frankly fantastic track!
They’re arguably at their best when they embrace their clap-happy pop-side, when they say to hell with it, we’re twee, we’re pop and we’re proud. Closing track, My Arms They Feel Like Nothing, is pure sing-along melodies, simple rhythmic drums, and beautifully, glorious trumpets. It’s the sort of song that will leave crowds conga-lining their way out of venues across the land with giant grins permanently attached to their faces. Elsewhere the albums lead single, All I Want From You Is Everything, with its twanging surfy-guitar, and a starring role from the low pulsing bassline, is catchy enough, even before it’s wonderful breakdown that has audience-participation written all over it, the harmonies are frankly brilliant.
Wasting Away And Wondering isn’t an album that is likely to win The School many new fans, or that hugely expands on their old work, but it is unquestionably the best album they’ve ever released. The closest they’ve ever got to writing the classic pop album that they so clearly adore, an album that could sit alongside Belinda Carlisle, Dusty Springfield and even The Ronettes, and if you can’t find any joy in a perfect pop-song, then you’re missing out of one life’s most perfect simple pleasures.
Wasting Away And Wondering is out September 4th on Elefant Records.