The People’s Songs

4 Aug

Peoplessongs

The image above is of the book by Stuart Maconie, published in June by Ebury Books (and, incidentally, the print versions in hardback and paperback are cheaper than the e-version at the time of writing). The People’s Songs is not simply a book though, it’s also the title of an ambitious, year-long BBC-led multi-media project with its own web presence (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01l9qb8), audience engagement strategy and extended programming (50 hour-long episodes) on the UK’s most popular national radio station (BBC Radio2)

The idea is a brilliant one, which probably only the BBC could pull off: a social history of Britain over the past 70-odd years told through its popular music, starting with We’ll Meet Again at  the end of World War 2 and extending to the present day. Even the title echoes, whether deliberately or accidentally, an earlier BBC flagship oral history initiative (The People’s War).

In each chapter of the book, Stuart Maconie takes a song (not necessarily a good song, not always the highest-selling song but a popular – even junky in some cases – song) and writes about the conditions – whether social, economic and political that made it a favourite at the time. The actual song may or may not feature heavily. So, for instance, Robert Wyatt’s version of Costello’s Shipbuilding is the way into an essay on the Falklands war; the Strawbs’s Part of the Union introduces musings on Britain in the early seventies while Dizzee Rascal’s  Bonkers brings things up to 2012.  The songs are by British (rather than North American) artists although clearly the American influence is evident throughout and the choice is sufficiently elastic to include Australian and Jamaican artists (Kylie Minogue and Millie Small). These two chapters are among the best in the book – leading to essays on the manufactured pop act (in the case of Kylie) and on early West Indian immigration (in the case of Millie).

Stuart Maconie is a good choice to front these programmes (and write this book) – he has a music journalist and broadcaster’s breadth of awareness of the songs and youth cultures but is also more widely read, curious and informed. It also helps that his perspective and musical taste overlaps my own more often than not! There are times though when you wish he’d had a tougher editor to redline the occasional repetitive cliche and trim his fondness for lists but overall, he’s an engaging, cheerful, guide. I’ve found his previous books Cider with Roadies and Pies and Prejudice) ideal light readingfor long train journeys and on this outing, his writing ismore thoughtful.

The format is such that it’s as easy to flit back-and-forth through the book as it is to read it sequentially – and while my method was to check out my own favourites first, it was some of the other chapters which proved more interesting because of their very unfamiliarity!

The fiftieth song – and the end of the series – remains to be written as it will be left to the radio audience to decide – so do check it out and get involved.

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