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4.1 out of 5 stars
The People's Songs: The Story of Modern Britain in 50 Records
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
This wonderful book covers seven decades of music, looking at songs that have tracked the changing times of the country. It is a people's history of modern Britain, told through shared musical memories and each chapter has an emblematic record. Of course, this book accompanies the radio series by Stuart Maconie, and, if you enjoyed that, then you will certainly like this too. It is not only a musical history of the country, but also a social history, encompassing many different aspects of our shared memories as a nation.

The book begins with "We'll meet again" and ends with hip-hop. In between, many different musical styles are represented, including skiffle, rock and roll, progressive rock, heavy metal, folk music, disco, Britpop and punk. Some songs are truly universally known, such as "She Loves You" by the Beatles - an euphoric beginning to the Sixties. Others are of importance for other reasons - "Move it" by Cliff Richard, which kicked off British rock or "Rock Island Line" by Lonnie Donegan, which started the skiffle boom and caused so many great future artists to form groups all over the country. Other songs are truly of their time, and not remembered widely now, unless you were actually around at the moment - for example, Dickie Valentine's "In a Golden Coach", which was hugely popular during the Coronation in 1953.

This is a fascinating account of the times and encompasses diverse events, such as package holidays, education, the home and family life, Thatcherism, Band Aid, talent shows and music festivals. It charts not only the history of the country, but that of our music; looking at the first singles chart, radio, those whose influence lasted and musical trends. From Joe Meek, the Beatles, Bowie, the Bay City Rollers, boy groups to pop divas, musicals and novelty records, all are covered in this celebration of our musical tastes. Stuart Maconie writes with humour and intelligence and this is a great read for music lovers.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
If I could give half stars this would be a three and a half star review. This book isn't bad, and if you are looking for a nostalgic, undemanding read, it's probably worth buying. It's just that it isn't as good as I hoped it would be.

This is a tie in to a BBC radio series and that is probably key to the weakness of the book which, without being a massive coffee-table endangering tome, is going to struggle to have the depth and richness of a 50 part radio series. I didn't hear the radio series, but the blurb about it on the BBC website suggests that it was centred around listeners's views. Crucially that is an element missing here.

On the plus side, Maconie is an interesting and engaging writer, although perhaps not quite at his waspish best. There is nothing here quite as funny or scurrilous as his comparison of Chris de Burgh writing Lady in Red and the leader of the Third Reich, a comparison in which the former fares badly. Furthermore any book of lists always generates the pleasure of disagreeing with inclusions and exclusions. One undoubted strength of this collection is the extent of Maconie's net which spreads from the Bay City Rollers to Black Sabbath, from My Boy Lollipop to Ebeneezer Goode. A fascinating exclusion is a song which, when I got to the end of the book, I thought, "How can he call this the people's songs and omit that?" However the book which claims to be the 50 people's songs only includes 49. For the radio series, listeners were invited to propose the final entry. Given the timing of the final show, the identity of the chosen song was utterly inevitable.

Being that eclectic is also one of the weaknesses of the book. The vox pops of the radio series probably gave it a coherence which this doesn't have. The stated aim in the introduction is that this will be the people's choices, the pop music which meant something to the people of Britain. That is certainly the case with some of the the choices which wouldn't appear in a classic rock history (We'll meet again, Don't cry for me Argentina), but that doesn't tell the whole story. The book is veers between that and
A straight history of British musical genres (heavy metal, punk, goth, rave etc etc)
A history of pale and interesting young men's music, Bowie's Starman, Bronski Beat, and of course the mandatory inclusion, under the Representation of Self-important Misanthropes Act 1986 which states that no British musical book can omit Manchester Miserablist Morrisey, of the Smiths
A social history of post war Britain, Silver Jubilee, miners strike, Labour's 1997 election victory
Songs included simply because the author likes them and/or the artist. The most glaring example of this is Solsbury Hill, excellent song though it is, justified on the wafer thin basis that people like to go on country walks to think things through.

Another disappointment after the descent from breadth into lack of coherence is the fact that one would guess that the target demographic, particularly as this was a Radio 2/6 project, is people in their 40s to 60s, but the book contains very little that has not been repeated many times before and is not already well known to a large proportion of the readership. Again, I suspect the problem here is that the missing new material was in the popular interviews in the radio series. That said, it is always entertaining to be reminded that the guitarist on 60s hit Telstar was George Bellamy, father of Muse's Matt.

One of the pleasures of listening to Maconie is his iconoclastic view the world. Here he seems to adopt some boringly currently trendy views. Prog was actually quite good (thoroughly sound position). Live Aid is rubbished to an extent as ineffective, mainly serving to promote the careers of washed up rock stars, and amazingly being responsible for the birth of celebrity culture and middle class music festivals. Gosh, and I thought it was a bloke trying to do some good after being shocked by a catastrophe. Oasis, rather than being musical magpies who produced two stonkingly good albums and little else of note, were in fact single handedly responsible for the downfall of decent society and the growth of lad culture.

While giving views with which one can disagree could actually be one of the pleasures of the book, lazy inaccuracies are less ambiguous. In the second chapter, there is the stunningly crassly inaccurate description of the Queen of Tonga as being from the Caribbean. He also quotes Jon Savage linking Nick Hornby with laddishness. Anyone who has actually read Fever Pitch knows that while it could be accused of contributing to football becoming more middle class, it is very definitely anti-lad.

In summary, while this book has its faults, it is very readable, and reading it really made me wish I'd heard the radio series. So a request to the BBC, if issues with rights allow it, can we have a download or a CD box set please.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 17 December 2013
The People's Songs is typically Maconie; warm,funny,moving,insightful No-one writes so well about this quirky country of ours and the music we love and which touches all our lives in some way, even though we don't always know it at the time.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on 15 August 2013
Stuart Maconie has done a great job of doing what a clever pop song does: capture something pithily, astutely and wittily, without being too pompous or overbearing, yet without compromising on opinion and passion, and with an occasionally brilliant turn of phrase. This is to music what Andrew Marr's History of Britain Since 1945 was to modern British history; easy to enjoy, of course open to criticism from those who like to see everything as much more complex than the general public can cope with, but (to use a very British phrase), really rather good.

Yes, there will be some who feel that he should have focussed on the miners strike more, or that x or y's significance is underplayed and z's overstated, or that some of the links between song and topic are a bit questionable (though nothing like as tenuous as some of the generalisations and interpretations occasionally made by some of the more serious music journalists out there).

If you are the kind of person rarely if ever buys one but would be very happy to find a discarded copy of Q or Mojo magazine in the seat pocket on a long flight, then you will probably love it. If you are the kind of person who has subscribed to the NME for more than 5 years and have used the word 'important' when talking about pop music in the last three months, then you probably won't.
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on 17 July 2015
Stuart Maconie’s new book is the print version of the current Radio 2 series of the same name. Lifting its format brazenly from the acclaimed A History Of The World In 100 Objects of a few years ago it’s a series of essays, each one of which deploys a popular song as a jumping-off point to examine an aspect of the social and cultural history of postwar Britain. I have to admit that going in I was a bit cynical about this approach – can a three minute pop song ever really cast that much light on the complexities of the welfare state or multi-culturalism or sexual revolution? – but I ended up wolfing down the 400-plus pages of the book over one weekend, thanks partly to the convenient bite-sized length of the chapters but mainly to seasoned journalist Maconie’s winning way of wearing his formidable knowledge and research of the minutiae of both the recent history of the UK and the business of making records so lightly. All of these essays are packed with information and insight, with hitherto unsuspected connections between seemingly disparate events, individuals and trends being revealed all over the place, but it’s all done in a highly readable manner with plenty of pretension-deflating humour and sympathy with the under-appreciated heroes of the era to carry you through. Plus, the choice of records used to illustrate the themes is frequently surprising and refreshingly counter to the top-down, music-critic-approved, lists of the great and the good that are still being handed down in the pages of Mojo and Uncut – while it was probably inevitable that we’d get to hear about She Loves You (teenage liberation), God Save The Queen (70s malaise) and Ghost Town (mass unemployment) here this might be the first time any book has offered up serious analysis of things like Spandau Ballet’s Gold (Thatcher ascendency), Don’t Cry For Me Argentina (the little-commented on mass popularity of musicals) or Y Viva España (the proletariat being able to afford foreign holidays). Maconie has a ball with all this stuff, and takes every opportunity to give some limelight to genres and movements that usually remain underground, and not in a hip way (witness the inclusion of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, Jethro Tull’s Living In The Past and Hudson-Ford’s Part Of The Union). His story starts with Vera Lynn singing We’ll Meet Again and is left on a cliffhanger with the forty-ninth entry, Dizzee Rascal’s Bonkers – the final choice will be decided by a vote among readers of the book and listeners to the radio series. I’m going for Half Man Half Biscuit’s A Country Practice.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 20 July 2013
I really enjoyed this as a trip though recent social History. My only grumble which is what stopped it bring five stars is he abrupt ending. I know why it was done but it was still frustrating.
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VINE VOICEon 24 April 2014
I am a fan of Maconie's writing style and this book, while necessarily episodic, rambles enjoyably through the history of what can loosely be called 'pop' music, reminding you of artists, songs and movements half-remembered. Anecdotes, historical context and insight are all here, in the familiarly readable style that Stuart's fans expect.

Of course, being an ex-NME writer, Morrissey's name is dropped with a deafening and deadening clang into almost every chapter (or at least it seems that way), but don't let that put you off. At least, unlike many veteran music journalists, he is capable of writing interesting and appreciative passages about styles of music that many would dismiss with a tired old one-liner.

While addressing the Punk movement, too, he appreciates the phenomenon, but doesn't slavishly toe the "Year Zero" line that so many of his contemporaries have made a lazy living from since the mid-Seventies.

Good stuff, then. Not his best book, but it should recapture a scent of whatever era defined your formative years.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 16 December 2013
Pop music is, ultimately, far more important than the orthodox canon of classic albums and iconic artists that appear in weighty lists and turgid books. Which is why I like the idea of The People's Music so much. It operates from exactly this point of view, and picks fifty pop songs from the last sixty years that encapsulate a period in time or summarise a cultural shift. Maconie's introduction articulates much better than I can why pop history is social history, so central is it to so many people.

The radio series - sorry, landmark Radio 2 series (it says here) - is essential listening for any fan of pop. The book, introduction aside, is a little lacklustre by comparison. It consists of the scripts for each programme - as entertaining as you'd expect from Maconie - but, without the interviews that are the programme's raison d'etre (it bills itself as an "aural history", after all), each individual piece seems too short and somewhat disjointed. And of course the book can't include any music at all.
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on 7 August 2014
The title of this book is very slightly misleading. Whilst it does indeed pick out 50 (or rather 49) songs to illustrate the changing nature of Britain, it does so in a way that brings in other songs into the discussion, so as the reader might discover other tracks to look up.
Some of the choices are almost self-selecting, for example, The Specials' "Ghost Town" to illustrate the unrest in the early 1980s. Others are not so. I would not have chosen "My Boy Lollypop" as a particularly pivotal recording, but the author weaves this seemingly light pop into wider concerns like the Windrush immigrants, the formation of Island records, and the role of West Indian immigrants in British life in general.
This is more than just a music book, and if you have any interest in the popular social history of Britain, I can recommend it wholeheartedly.
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on 4 June 2014
Stuart Maconie is becoming something of a specialist in writing non-fiction that hits the right balance between humour and seriousness. He avoids the jokiness of the 'Travelling Across the Congo with a Soda Syphon' type of book, giving the weight to his subjects that they deserve, but with plenty of self-deprecating humour. In this, he follows up his radio series with what is basically a series of essays that illustrate a key moment in modern history using a particular song. This isn't a 'best or most important songs of post-war era' - sometimes, the essays only touch briefly on the song. If you are a fan of music writing, humour and social history, this is a book Im sure you'd enjoy. The only gripe I'd have is that the book was full of typos and could have done with a better editing job - maybe later editions will fix that.
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