Recently, Stuart Maconie released ‘The People’s Songs’, a history of modern Britain through 50 records to tie in with a landmark year long BBC Radio 2 series of the same name. Louder Than War sent Fergal Kinney to discuss the project with Stuart and find out what pop records can tell us about Britain.
When Kevin Rowland released his controversial covers album ‘My Beauty’ in 1999, he explained his choice of commonly over-played, over-covered tracks like ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, ‘Daydream Believer’ and ‘The Greatest Love Of All’ by offering “If you asked me what I was into in 1970, I would have said reggae. But these were the songs that I would hear on the radio and they were the soundtrack to my life”. There’s a truth to this – the music soundtracking ones life isn’t necessarily the music unearthed on page 57 of Mojo, but the ubiquitous hits that unwittingly soundtrack everything from school to work via holidays, nights out, love and loss. This is what Stuart Maconie has tried to capture in new book ‘The People’s Songs’ and the mammoth Radio 2 series of the same name – a social history of post-war Britain told through pop records. Dodging cliché at every angle and bypassing the traditional turn-left-at-punk narratives of rock history, ‘The Peoples Songs’ is a history of pop set to a backdrop of post-war reconstruction, Attlee, immigration, industrial disputes, Thatcherism, Greenham Common, football, New Labour and the millions caught in the crossfire of a changing Britain. For the story of a British culture adapting to first generation West Indian immigrants; see Millie Small’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’. To understand the complexities and contradictions of not just the Falklands war but Britain’s relationship with its military, listen to ‘Shipbuilding’ by Elvis Costello. ‘The People’s Songs’ is not necessarily about the records themselves, but what they represent; the social changes they have reflected, pre-empted or indeed helped instigate.
So the People’s Songs is probably one of the biggest tasks you’ve undertaken in your career; it’s not only a book with 49 chapters but it’s a radio series that will span just short of a year; how did you come to be involved with such a landmark series?
About 2 years ago the controller of Radio 2 and 6music, a guy called Bob Shennan, came to me saying “We want to make a landmark history of pop, would you like to author it?”, and I said “Yes, brilliant, fantastic”, and then almost immediately said “Ah but could I do something a bit different than what you’ve said?”. I was really flattered to be asked, but I just thought that with the history of pop, there’s been several and it’s just such a massive subject and I thought it lacked a bit of focus really, I had to find something that would make it different. Something that interests me, which is a social history of Britain told through pop music, what interests me these days is sort of people’s culture, and how pop music is part of that really. And even though I’ve been a rock critic, and I’ve nothing against rock critics, I didn’t want to make one of those histories where rock critics sit there and say “Ah yes, of course, ‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘What’s Going On’ and Nick Drake are the best records ever made”. I was a bit sick of that, there’s so many rock histories like that and I just thought my mum could give you chapter and verse on that, you know what I mean; “progressive rock got bloated and we needed punk rock to come and…” you know, that kind of received wisdom, my mum could trot that out now. So it was just the idea that they weren’t necessarily going to be the best records ever made, although I think that most of them are pretty brilliant, but they were going to be records that people actually bought. Sorry to go on about Nick Drake again, I love Nick Drake, but nobody bought his records at the time so his impact on British culture in the 1970’s is negligible. If you want to know about Britain in the 70’s, ‘Y Viva Espana’ and ‘Part of the Union’ by the Strawbs tell you more about that period, and ‘Bye, Bye Baby’ by the Bay City Rollers. So it wasn’t to be an expert’s history or a rock critic’s history, it was going to be about records people bought and how they said something about the Britain we live in and come through. How they said things about politics, class, work, sex, religion, whatever. And to give the testimonies of the people who actually bought them, and loved them, or hated them, or whatever. So I went back to Bob and fortunately he loved it, and there was a little bit of nervousness when I said I didn’t want it to be chronological, that I wanted it to open up like an advent calendar, so it opens up randomly all over the shop but eventually it all gives a complete picture. When you do it chronologically, it’s so plodding – you expect that – and also, with the best will in the world some people would go “Oh well I’m not going to bother listening once it gets to 1977” or whatever. So I didn’t want it to be chronological and I didn’t want any rock critics in it and I didn’t want any musicians in it. I almost didn’t care about how the record was made, I can do all that in the scripted stuff, I can tell you how the Specials’ came to record ‘Ghost Town’, what I’d rather hear in the programme are people’s voices who were saying “I was a kid in 1971 in Coventry and that’s what the Specials said to me”, or “I was an evacuee in the war”, or “I was a Greenham Common woman”, and there was a bit of nervousness about it just because everyone’s used to doing it in a certain way. You know, you get Charles Shaar Murray on, nothing against Charles, I’ve been that person, but I wanted it to be something different. I think it’s really worked, I’ll say that because it’s not just me who’s put it together. It was my idea and I’ve written it, but a lot of the interviews and a lot of the production has been put together by two people I work with in Manchester, Ian (Callaghan) and Lorna (Skingley). I think it’s really shown that we’ve done something different to your standard rock documentary series.
I think it’s that difference that makes it stand out, there’s a really refreshing irreverence towards that kind of traditional rockist history, even in explicitly comparing the Beatles and Brian Epstein to Stock, Aitken and Waterman; that would be blasphemous on BBC4 on a Friday night…
That’s exactly what I wanted, that is in a nutshell what I wanted to do. In that particularly episode I wanted to start with the really bold assertion that all pop music is manufactured. No pop music has ever emerged from the ground like a potato or whatever, all pop music is manufactured. The Beatles are arguably more manufactured than One Direction…well, no that’s ridiculous, but with the Beatles someone said “We don’t like that drummer, get rid of him” and they said “Fine”! All pop is manufactured, it’s an artificial thing, it’s not natural like water or fog. The Beatles themselves would probably admit that they were a creation, they were geniuses, but they were manufactured as well. So yeah, I wanted to be slightly blasphemous as you say, and challenge that accepted rock wisdom.
Was it important to make sure it was as much about what kind of a book you were trying to write as well as what kind of a book you were trying not to write? You take away any pretence quite early on by putting the Beatles and Millie Small, for example, on equal platforms.
Yeah, I mean it was really, I see what you mean, not in a negative way but it was as much defined by what I didn’t want it to be as what I did want it to be. Whenever people had asked me what I wanted to write I’ve always thought that I would like to write a one volume, readable history of British pop. But even so, lots of people have done that kind of thing, this is 49 linked essays really. Publishers get nervous when you say that because they say nobody wants to read essays, so you’ve got to have kind of a narrative, but really it’s 49 essays about 49 songs. We sat in a pub in Salford, me, Laura and Ian, drank beer and made the list. Some of the records picked themselves, some you cannot ignore. You’ve got to have ‘God Save the Queen’ in it, you’ve got to have a Beatles record in there, but then after that we thought about covering a very specific event like the Falklands War or the Troubles in Northern Ireland, but other times we wanted to just cover a concept. Pop documentaries normally see the pop musician as some kind of super-cultural genius and how they have some weird perception into the human psyche; I wanted to make it more social than that. I wanted to find what songs addressed the British at work, or their attitudes to their houses, all the things that don’t get mentioned. I’d rather have done a documentary about how British pop songs have reflected class or industrial relations than some mystical force in somebody’s mind, because they’re all just products of class or their generation. I wanted to make it much more rooted in people’s real experiences and less about supernatural geniuses.
Which records did you find particularly interesting to analyse?
That’s interesting, I loved doing a piece on ‘Part of the Union’ about work; I came to this conclusion that American and British pop songs are almost completely different. You look at British songs about work and they’re nearly all negative – there’s a tradition from Ray Davies and the Small Faces of saying “If you’re going to work in an office, you’re an idiot”. You know, ‘Smithers Jones’ by the Jam…
The idea of getting away with as little work as possible…
Exactly, ‘Matthew and Son’ by Cat Stevens, saying who would want to be the kind of square who gets the train to work in a morning? But I thought “Hmm…not everyone can be a pop star”, and that loads of people’s lives were just dismissed in usually quite a sneering song. You look at American songs about work and they celebrate the working man, there’s a tradition from Springsteen to Glen Campbell celebrating the ordinary working man and their experience. Even ‘9 to 5’ by Dolly Parton, it’s saying work is something noble and not to be embarrassed about. It had never occurred to me before. And even things like ‘Give Ireland Back to the Ireland’ by Paul McCartney, amazing! Paul McCartney’s first solo single with Wings and it gets banned because it’s calling for the troops to be pulled out of Ireland. This is cuddly Paul McCartney, as everyone sees him, cuddly Paul who comes up with the nice show tunes that your mum likes and then with his very first record by his new band they can’t even say the title on the BBC – they have to say “a record by Paul McCartney”. This is an explicitly political song but it’s the kind of thing that just never gets mentioned in those traditional rock histories. Y’know, the early 70’s were all cheesy, and flares, and ABBA, but I’m not going to rehash that history – analyse it for a second and there’s an alternative history of pop to be written.
You’ve said it’s a social history of Britain, and through being social it’s definitely politicised. You make it quite explicit in the book that you see things like what was labelled the permissive society in the 1960’s, or increased gay rights, or alternative lifestyles as good points in British history whilst taking quite a negative view of the Falklands war, or Thatcherism or even laddism. How conscious was that decision and was there a caution you had to exercise, particularly with being on the BBC?
That’s a good point – well – I was aware that if it was going to be a social history it was going to have to tackle political points. And I knew I had to be even handed, for example when we did the ‘Two Tribes’ show we got a nuclear submarine commander on it saying that he thought we needed nuclear weapons and was proud to do what we did, and I thought it was important that we didn’t just get one particular kind of voice – the voice of protest – but that we got a guy who said that he thought punk rock was rubbish, you know, not just the typical things. I wanted it to be even handed, but I wanted you to be in no doubt…the fact that it’s a people’s history is implicitly political, or even explicitly political in a way. I was aware that there could be issues with the BBC but I tried not to be explicitly political or give an opinion, just addressing an issue. It was interesting, Thatcher died on the week of the ‘Part of the Union’ show, which was all about industrial relations and was full of stuff about Thatcher and the miner’s strike. And I know that BBC managers poured over it, and I was very pleased they had the guys to put it out because there was nothing in it that was anti-Thatcher in sentiment, it was purely sociological. But we put it out with a warning at the beginning explaining that it was recorded before the death of Baroness Thatcher, and there was a few weeks where it coincided with things that were going on in the news, and I was quite chuffed about that. I felt like Elvis, you know, they couldn’t show him from the waist down, it was like that. We were too raw and powerful to be broadcast! The BBC these days is a very embattled corporation against the forces of the Daily Mail, and it would have been very easy to just take it off, so I was very pleased about that.
It struck me whilst reading the book that pop music doesn’t only reflect changing attitudes but is actually quite good at pre-empting them, you look at a single like ‘Smalltown Boy’ by Bronski Beat being a hit at a time when attitudes to homosexuality saw homophobia still very prevalent even on ITV on a Saturday night; do you see pop music as a good barometer of social change or is that just a myth in itself?
No, I think it’s made me absolutely more convinced about what a brilliant, lively art form it really is. I came to the conclusion in the end, and I think I put it in the book, that I don’t think any other art form has reflected its time better than pop music. If you want to know about Britain since the Second World War, listen to pop music. More than drama, more than cinema, more than literature – in those you get a very idealised, subjective picture. You might get a Ken Loach film, and I love Ken Loach, but it doesn’t tell you as much about Britain in the early 70’s as a Bay City Rollers record. I think you’re absolutely right that pop music is often one step ahead of the curve; Millie Small in 1963 with ‘My Boy Lollipop’, that record comes along a long way before Britain had anything like a multicultural society. But that record is just a brilliant record, so before we have any black judges or politicians we get a 16 year old girl from Kingston, Jamaica being taken to the heart of the country because her record is brilliant. In the same way you spoke about ‘Smalltown Boy’, absolutely, at that time there weren’t really any gay film actors, or at least they couldn’t come out in Hollywood. Homosexuality has been driving the engine of pop music since the 1950’s, since Larry Parks; gayness and pop go hand in hand. All through the 80s, you know, Bronski Beat, Boy George, explicitly gay pop icons in the way that cinema would never have. I do think pop music is way ahead sometimes.
Records like ‘Shipbuilding’ or ‘Ghost Town’ have very ready made associations with their immediate background, it struck me as I got towards the end of the book that artists seem a lot less willing to write about contemporary issues…
Absolutely, absolutely. It’s quite a common complaint these days by ageing post-punk journalists…like myself… to say pop is apathetic. I don’t think it’s apathetic necessarily, it’s politicised in different ways, but I do think that there doesn’t seem as many pop songs that are like pamphlets. That element seems to be slightly lost, which is a bit of a shame. ‘Shipbuilding’ is a direct response to an event, so was ‘Ghost Town’, and I can’t think of when really that was the last time there was a song in the charts that was like a pamphlet or a broadside, that were about getting a guitar and sending out a message as quick as possible. ‘Ghost Town’, ‘God Save the Queen’, they are absolutely of their time. I think post-rave and acid house it was more about a kind of lifestyle expression, people calling for tolerance or whatever. Bruce Springsteen did an album about 9/11 (2002’s ‘The Rising’) but I can’t think of many contemporary songs that have been a reference to…you know, the Olympics or 7/7. ‘Part of the Union’ is about industrial relations in the 1970’s, ‘Y Viva Espana’, is about package holidays, we don’t seem to have songs that address issues anymore and that’s quite sad. I don’t want to ring my hands too much about it but it’s slightly sad.
To play Devil’s advocate, you could argue that less politicised music is a result of the perceived failure of the political music of the 1980’s, you know, the Style Council, the Housemartins, Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg…some now see that their style of political songwriting has dated badly and never really worked, so run in the opposite direction. That’s just one opinion…
I think you’re right, people still feel very embarrassed about ‘Red Wedge’; attempts to politicise people in music. Even though I think it’s about time we rehabilitated that. ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ might be the last pop song to address an issue, and that’s a long time ago. I mean, you do get people like the Levellers but it’s not big hit singles. I agree with you though, I think people run scared from it because they think it’s old hat, a bit schoolteacherly, even nowadays Billy Bragg’s new album is full of love songs. I think maybe it’s not as fashionable anymore. But maybe you could argue that the kids nowadays are doing it for themselves and don’t need pop songs because they’re out there getting kettled. Maybe it’s that, I don’t know. It’s an interesting point.
It was interesting that you mentioned the Olympics before, reading the book I was reminded of Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony; you both tried to do quote similar things on different scales in telling the story of Britain through pop music. That was a definite history of Britain through pop music.
Absolutely, the last book, ‘Hope and Glory’, which was picking ten significant days in British history and how they’ve affected us, and that and this – when I saw the Opening Ceremony I thought “Have Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce seen our list?”. And what I did feel straight away as completely vindicated, when I saw so many records that we were going to do in the series played in that Ceremony I felt completely vindicated. And I do think it has very much that feel about that. I since met Frank Cottrell Boyce and saw that he was very similar to me in what he wanted to write about, he’s from a similar background and wanted to say that our pop culture history is a people’s history really. It’s very much a massive shared experience for people in Britain in a way that it may not be for the French or the Germans, and we were coming from very similar places. I was quite chuffed. But I did think that people were going to say that I’d nicked it from the Opening Ceremony, which I hope they don’t.
You’re inviting people to pick the fiftieth and final ‘People’s Song’ of the series; could you explain what it is you’re looking for and perhaps illuminate us on some of the suggestions?
Well, we’ve had suggestions that we should do Christmas…it’s a good idea…
It’s a bit easy…
It is a bit easy…we’ve had a few like the British and food, which would interest me. Some have got the idea about picking an occasion or issue or mood – maybe even the Olympics – and some have suggested the British and religion or food, but one or two have been brilliantly niche and said, you know, I think you should pick something off the first Crass album…you know, addressing a tiny culture that I didn’t even know existed like the Welsh vegan hip hop music of the late 1970’s, you know, “was there one?”. It could be a record that you think we’ve missed or an issue. But it just occurred to me that if I’m going to be saying it’s a people’s history it’s only fair to let people pick one. If you want to catch up on anything it’s all on the website or of course, in the book.
There’s one song, or at least one band, in the book which seems to encapsulate a lot of the book, and that’s ‘How Soon is Now’ by the Smiths. They seem to have a lot of the Englishness of ‘We’ll Meet Again’, the androgyny of ‘Starman’, the politicisation of something like ‘God Save the Queen’, and it seems in rock history terms that their stock has really grown in the last few years, even down to the Culture Show special in the last month, they seem to be becoming celebrated almost on a par with the Beatles; what is it about them that seems to make them increasingly engrained on the national consciousness?
That’s a really interesting question because I think with time, as you say, their stock does rise…I loved them from the word go but even then something about them got people’s backs up who didn’t like them. I’ve never met anyone who impersonated Arctic Monkeys or couldn’t’ believe that someone liked them and did an impression of Alex Turner, easy as it would be to impersonate. I was working in an office in Bolton at the time and straight away all the jerks in the office were like “Oh, that Morrissey, oh he’s so sad I think I’m going to cry”, like Kate Bush…you could tell that people had hit home because you had straight away unfunny comedians doing shit Kate Bush impressions on the telly
It’s like Bernard Manning’s Morrissey impression…
Yeah, there’s a lot of that, and as much as he’s becoming increasingly difficult to apologise for – I feel like all us old Morrissey fans certainly have lost patience with him because each week he seems to do something really stupid, and as I get older I realise that Johnny Marr is the cool Smith, though I think everyone’s realising that. But there’d never been a frontman like him before. There had never been a frontman who talked about those subjects, in that way, looking like that. He was the antithesis of the rock frontman. All frontmen until then had been vaguely kind of “Hey ladies, come on”…and this guy was completely unfathomable but completely uncool but yet cool because he was in a great band. That Morrissey and Marr combination was one of the great alchemical combinations ever in rock music. This pair of people who were of a one, yet completely separate. This bookish wallflower and this cool street kid from Manchester. The more time goes on you look back and they absolutely came out of nowhere, in the way that truly great music and talent does. Owing nothing to its time yet completely summing it up, and everything about them was so romantic and cool. I often get asked who my favourite band is and I’d have to say the Smiths and Chic. So when the other week at the Ritz in Manchester Johnny Marr got up on stage with Chic to play ‘Le Freak’, I just went to a place I forgot pop music could take me to it. Like how those girls felt like during Beatlemania. I wanted to throw myself off the balcony because I didn’t know what to do with my excitement; I thought it was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. My two favourite bands on stage together. So yeah, I think you’re right, as time goes by people realise what an incredibly special band they were, the sheer difference of them.
‘The People’s Songs’ is out now on Ebury Press, and the radio series of the same name is broadcast on BBC Radio 2 on Wednesday nights at 10pm.Here is one line of indented text.
Interview by Fergal Kinney, all words by Fergal Kinney. You can read more by Fergal here, including reviews of Shane Meadows’ ‘Made of Stone’ and the Specials at Manchester Apollo as well as in-depth interviews with the likes of the Cribs, the Courteeners, the Strypes and Stephen Street.