Phil: Does a song transport you back to a place in time?
If it does, then you’ll probably enjoy Stuart Maconie’s latest book, The People’s Songs. Although nominally about music, it’s really a history of the UK from World War 2 to the present day focussing on youth culture. We kick off with Vera Lynn and the sentimental songs that everyone wanted during the war years and finish in 2012/13 with Dizzee Rascal and Bonkers.
The concept is sound enough but sometimes the author’s position firmly ensconced in the media bubble as assistant editor at NME shows through. I’m never convinced that punk (for example) was as important to the world as it was in London. Even those heavily in to the scene at the time like Danny Baker have suggested that the whole thing was overplayed by a metropolitan media.
Which makes you wonder how much the music reflected the time and how much it drove the mood. For example, Ghost Town by the Specials is a fine reflection of the period but in the same year (1981) we also bought two different versions of 9 to 5, Antmusic and Girls on Film. Duran Duran came from Birmingham, The Specials from Coventry – 25 miles apart by road but separated by a million miles in terms of musical style.
There’s a distinct hint of shoehorn in the way some tracks are tied in to the histories. Maconie likes to make sure we get some Smiths so there is space for a few quotes from Morrissey. I’m assuming the singer has some incriminating photos of Maconie as he pops up in every book with no hint of derision no matter how ridiculous he is being. Some of these aren’t so much People’s Songs as songs that tie in with the period and say something about it.
Overall though, this is an enjoyable read. I had the advantage of knowing most of the songs, but if you don’t then you’ll probably be scurrying for YouTube to fill in the blanks. Take it as a history of pop culture and enjoy the many tangents the text heads off in. The 50 chapters are bite-sized and idea for commuting or grabbing in short bursts of reading when you don’t have time to wallow in anything longer.