The First Review . . . Stuart Maconie, The People’s Songs (Ebury Press, 2013)

Just to be awkward . . .  this is nothing to do with sf&f at all . . .

Stuart Maconie, The People’s Songs (Ebury Press, 2013)

Stuart Maconie is always worth reading, even though in his book Pies and Prejudice he’s wrong about Chester and Harrogate . . .and specifically he’s a music presenter in the old fashioned sense. That is to say, he loves the stuff he’s playing; he’s genuine and he has a wide taste in music . In this book he takes 50 (or 49: there’s a reason which is to do with the fact that the listeners to his radio show were to choose the 50th) songs which mean something to the British psyche: not great songs, but songs which reflect something about what it feels to be British. Some of these songs are songs which you hate at the time, or despise because they’re commercial, but after the passage of years they become first a guilty pleasure and finally you actually like them. This is pop music which “which wears its demotic, romantic, exhibitionist heart on its sleeve”.

He begins with Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet again” a song of utmost sentimentality that nevertheless captures the anxiety and fragile hope of a nation at war. Then there’s Winifred Atwell, a Caribbean woman singalong piano tunes were mammoth hits and whose 1953 “Coronation Rag” was something of a praise-song to the new Queen Elizabeth and who is probably not even known enough today to be unfashionable.(Like the later Millie of “My Boy Lollipop”, here because the song symbolized the growing fashion for Caribbean styles of music like blue-beat, file under “novelty” and forget. Maconie also lists Cliff Richard’s anemic “Move It”: the first British rock-and-roll hit. It’s not that he’s wrong to note its importance – indeed he’s right; I guess that my quibble is that Cliff’s “brooding, animal presence” (Maconie’s words, not, I hasten to add, mine) is overshadowed by Hank B. Marvin’s guitar. Though Maconie notes that Marvin’s influence “cannot be overstated either”, I think more could have been made of how Cliff’s early hits are carried by Marvin’s guitar – and the Shadows’ instrumentals were wonderful mini-symphonies. Rightly, perhaps, the influence of Joe Meek and the Tornadoes “Telstar” is brought to the fore, as pioneering electronic music and the science fiction influence. Nice to see Delia Derbyshire getting a name-check in this context, too.

“A Whiter Shade of Pale” sums up psychedelia, and “Shipbuilding” the ”Falklands” years, though the Who’s “5.15” is maybe not the best song to encapsulate the mod movement (Also from Quadrophenia, “Cut My Hair” is a better song though Maconie’s choice was the single, and he’s talking about singles rather than album tracks) and in fact Maconie says little about the song itself. Any of the Who’s first three singles might have been better here. And there’s Bowie’s “Starman”. The thrill which hit a generation of 14 years-olds when Bowie sang “I had to phone someone so I picked on you” straight to camera and “smiles flirtatiously, points and twirls a beckoning finger at every mesmerised, outsider kid in the land” is one of those moments in pop history, like buying the Velvet Underground’s first album when it was first released, or being at the Sex Pistols’ first gig, that even people who weren’t there remember vividly. I certainly wasn’t there, and had encountered Bowie much earlier*, but yes, this all makes sense to me.

Many of the later songs I have yet to have opinions about (read: they don’t resonate with my life particularly strongly), and there are always quibbles (see above) about some. Maconie’s point, I’ll re-emphasise, is that these are not always great songs – “Things Can Only Get Better” is probably debased by being picked up as the “New Labour” theme song, though it isn’t a desperately good song in the first place. The point is, though, that is was such a “song for the moment”, as the Specials’ “Ghost Town” (a better song: at least, I can still remember how it goes) encapsulated the discontent of the Thatcher years. But this is a neat social-history-told-in-music of the past fifty or sixty years, and an entertaining read as well as being a good soundtrack.

*all right, if I must be snobbish: through hearing “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” (David Bowie and the Lower Third) on pirate radio in the 60s. Maconie references pirate radio through “Whiter Shade of Pale” and, more lengthily, through Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga” describing the liberation given by offshore stations such as Radio Caroline and Radio London. My quibble here is that Maconie is describing more fully the phenomenon of “songs about radio” and the sentiment offered by Elvis Costello in “Radio, Radio” (“I wanna bite the hand that feeds me”) It could have been interesting to look at some of those songs which became hits through being played on the pirates, or even those which were played endlessly and never became hits, such as the Bowie track, or David McWilliams’s “Days of Pearly Spencer”, or anything by Kaleidoscope or Episode 6 or Eclection.

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