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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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VINE VOICEon 7 June 2014
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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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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VINE VOICEon 21 June 2016
In the introduction to this book, Stuart Maconie explains that he has chosen 50 pop songs which will illustrate changes in society. He then focuses on them one at a time and relates the song to societal change. It's a big ask to use such a restricted structure but it works really well with the narrative moving between general history and the music industry. He also has a factual and easily accessible style which works well in this format of short chapters.
Like most people, I enjoy music but often find that this type of book can be very rock focused with the author being swayed by their opinion of what is a "classic" record. Stuart Maconie doesn't so this - the songs are not necessarily his favourites and they are not all amazing songs but they are all chosen to illustrate some sort of progression in the industry and how this mirrors society.
The book took a while to read as I decided to listen to each song as I went through which I really enjoyed - there were one or two that I hadn't come across before but most were very familiar and great to hear again. Many genres are visited and I particularly enjoyed the contrast of song when moving to a new chapter - eg a heavy metal song sits next to a folk song.
There are many great stories, some of which I have heard before (the organisation of Band Aid) but many which were new to me (the naming of the Bay City Rollers), and there is something in here for everyone. The stories are all presented in a gently humorous way which kept a smile on my face.
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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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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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on 23 February 2015
There are quite a lot of 'I was there' moments in this book and quite a few 'so that was what it was about'! It well written in small bites and explores the relationship of 50 top popular songs to the culture of that time. I know it has 50 songs in the title but does go much further than this.

Its a book that you can really empathise with, moving from such masters of the art as 'Lonnie Donnegan' through to 'Amy Winehouse' and many points besides. There is mentions of progressive rock, brit pop and much, so much more. An excellent, interesting and very readable book.
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on 17 March 2015
I missed the radio series that this is based on, and I enjoyed the chance to read the book instead. Inevitably it left me wanting to hear the songs while I was reading - where is accompanying compilation CD?! If only there was such a thing. I don't know if I was imagining it, but it did feel a bit like I was reading a radio script rather than something that was originally intended to be a book. Maybe a tad more editing was needed? But, I like Maconie, and I enjoyed this book so I think it's well worth 4 stars.
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on 17 June 2013
Stuart Maconie writes so beautifully (unlike me) - the book is very funny and full of interesting and thought provoking facts linking music to our lives in Britain over the past 50 years. Everyone with an interest in modern music and our social history should buy this.
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on 26 April 2014
Some people may stick their noses up at 'pop' music but by definition something that is popular is also influential. Stuart Maconie has taken the simple idea of reflecting Britain from the 40s to the present day through a personal choice of songs that played a part in the culture of the time.

This isn't a list of best selling or even the best songs along the lines of 'Greatest hits of...' (insert band/era/genre as appropriate). You won't usually find 'The Ying Tong Song' or 'Y Viva Espana' on lists like that but they're in this book for reasons eloquently explained by Maconie.

It's not a challenging read but it's nevertheless a fascinating insight into pop culture from its inception.

Not to be missed.
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