Friday, March 14, 2014

Review: 'The People’s Songs: The Story of Modern Britain in 50 Songs'


I subsist on a pretty steady diet of books about pop music because I like to help Psychobabble’s dear, dear pop-obsessed readers make informed book purchases and because I’m a pop-obsessed reader too. Yet reading book after book after book after book and The Beatles, Stones, Who, and so forth, I do crave an invigorating break from the norm, something that ventures beyond the usual bio, day-by-day diary, or song analysis.

Stuart Maconie mostly hits the spot with The People’s Songs: The Story of Modern Britain in 50 Songs based on his BBC 2 radio series. Each chapter uses a particular very popular song (not necessarily a critically acclaimed one) as an entry way into discussing a particular aspect of British culture or history from World War II to the present. I say mostly because some of these chapters are typical of pop books. A number of them cover familiar territory by address specific music genres: prog (under the auspices of Tull’s “Living in the Past), psychedelia (Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”), skiffle (Lonnie Donegan’s version of “Rock Island Line”), disco (The Bee Gee’s “You Should Be Dancing”), metal (“Sabbath’s “Paranoid”), goth (The Cure’s “The Love Cats”… an atypically jolly example of the genre), etc.

The People’s Songs really gets interesting when it deals with Britain’s story beyond pop music, when Maconie sets an exploration of the country’s Jamaican community on the shoulders of Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop”, uses Bowie’s “Starman” and Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” as examples of homosexuality’s mainstreaming in a country where it had been outlawed as recently as 1967, establishes Wings’ “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” as a platform for a talk about The Troubles or Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding” as one for the Falklands War. Throughout it all, Maconie presents himself as the people’s writer, chatting humorously, entertainingly, evenhandedly, and mostly informatively across all topics. This time I’m using mostly because there are a few lazy errors that may flag others I’m too ignorant to recognize. For example, he repeats the myth that the Stones were playing “Sympathy for the Devil” when Meredith Hunter was murdered at Altamont, when any of the band’s fans can tell you they were really doing “Under My Thumb”. More significantly, he partly includes The Tornadoes’ “Telstar” in his book for being the first British single to hit number one in the States when that distinction actually belongs to Mr. Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore”.

One might reasonably argue that a few boners like that are acceptable in a book so busting with information, so broad in its musical and cultural scope. For serious pop book readers, it may be the only one that gets you skimming through the chapter built around The Beatles’ “She Loves You” and sharpening your focus to read about how The Shamen’s house-music triffle “Ebeneezer Goode” became a lightning rod for a government crackdown against rave culture.

Get The People’s Songs: The Story of Modern Britain in 50 Songs at Amazon.com in hardback nowor pre-order the paperback here:

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