Stuart Maconie: The People’s Songs – The Story Of Modern Britain In 50 Records


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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