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The People’s Songs: The Story of Modern Britain in 50 Records Paperback – 27 Mar 2014
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"One of the most insightful and purely readable books on pop music I think I have ever encountered" (Marcus Berkmann Daily Mail)
"An unequivocal pleasure and highly recommended" (Marcus Berkmann Daily Mail)
"The blend of research and conjecture is impressive" (Will Hodgkinson The Times)
"Maconie succeeds in being at once elegant and approachable, definititive but also self-deprecating" (Guardian)
"A fine writer: sharp, funny, tender and thoughtful" (Spectator)
An original book to accompany Stuart Maconie's landmark Radio 2 series: a history of post-war Britain through pop musicSee all Product description
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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.
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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