Stuart Maconie's books are always lively, fun, informative and entertaining. He's previously written about the North, the South, history and about his youthful exploits, and after some recent 'heavy' reads, I was in the mood for some entertainment. Maconie is remarkably well-read, often insightful and always eloquent, and when writing about British culture and music, very much on home turf. This book, "The People's Songs" is a postwar history of Britain, told through fifty songs. Apart from one glaring omission, that I'll come to in a moment, is a rip-roaring tour of two-generations of history and culture, as refracted through the prism of popular music.
It's all here; from the comedy records of the 1950s (Ying-Tong-iddle-i-Po!), though the birth of skiffle and rock and roll, through the blues boom of the sixties. Changing attitudes (J'Taime), changing fashions (The Beatles), the rise of the 'teenager', Mods and Rockers. Feminism, The Irish Troubles, multiculturalism, and the rise of gay-rights from Brian Epstein to Bronski Beat's 'Smalltown Boy', are summarised; along with the political, musical and economic backdrop against which these songs were made. From psychedelia, to prog-rock, to punk, to heavy-metal, so ska, and indie, and manufactured boy-bands; via talent-shows and muddy-festivals; the shape of post-war British music is rather neatly mapped out. Maconie seems to have an appreciation for a vast array of different musical styles; there are not many aficionados who are as at home appreciating Paul McCartney and George Formby as they are first Judas Priest and then Morrisey via Rick wWakeman! That is nothing of not a diverse set of appreciations.
The chapters on Thatcherism, seem through the lens of The Specials "Ghost Town" is particularly strong, and Maconie does not write as a pundit seeking objective distance from his subject, but rails against the devastation to manufacturing industry which occurred in the 1980s. The for-and-against stuff on Live Aid/Band-Aid is fascinating too.
There's something fascinating about reading analysis of music and times that one has lived through. I am ashamed to admit that I went through a punk phase. It was 1977, I was six years old and one of my neighbours had a much older sister who was a fully uniformed punk, with plenty of vinyl albums from the Sex Pistols and others. Playing these seemed very grown up and impressive; and even better lots of them were presented in red, green or multi-coloured vinyl; whilst all my Dads classical LPs were boringly black! Obviously I had no idea at the time what the culture, either politically or musically was; but these days I'm, far more likely to be found listening to something in an unfathomable time-signature, of the kind that punk was supposed to have discredited!
Like his others, Maconie's book is fast-paced, easy-reading, that engages, informs and provokes much thought. The problem is that there is a huge and gaping anomaly in the book which needs to be mentioned. When he says "the people's songs"; who are the people he is talking about? I couldn't help but think that the 'people' he had in mind were mostly people rather like him; left-of-centre 'progressives', with a strong agenda for gay-rights and multi-culturalism; and a deep suspicion of a perception of the establishment. My point is not that these are not important parts of life and music in postwar Britain; and should be overlooked.. far from it. Any compendium on music and culture that didn't look at these things would be woefully deficient. Rather, it is that there is little coverage of people who don't slot into this right-on agenda; are these not "people"?
In particular the massive role of Christianity in British music and culture is systematically excluded from the account. It's not that Christians don't appear in the pages; it is simply that they are without fail anti-entertainment Puritans, weirdos, or eccentrically dressed Bishops. While the burgeoning interest in Eastern religions is covered (George Harrison); oddly, the Christian canvas on which these developments were painted is excluded. My complaint here is not that I am an offended Christian, pleading victim status and turning into a latter-day "Mr Angry from Purley". (Do you remember him, he used to get so angry he would throw the phone down, every afternoon on Radio One in the 1980s?). Rather, it is that I am annoyed historian, who thinks that this is just bad history. Read, for example Calum Brown on secularisation, to see the extent to which Christian thought and discourse was the norm for most Britains until well into the era Maconie discusses. Or read Nick Spencer on the Christian foundations of British law, language, politics, culture, justice system etc. While today the established churches are at a low ebb, perhaps it is hard for us to imagine the extent of participation and influence they had well into the 1970s. I'm willing to bet that the number of people who embraced TM, or were in the gay clubs of the 80s, or who participated in the national passtime of attending music festivals; pales into insignificance compared to the volume of people whose culture and music was informed by Christianity. The coverage last week of the death of the US preacher Billy Graham was startling; in terms of the incredible numbers of people who queued to hear him in London and Glasgow especially. Yet the thought that a chapter entitled "Just as I Am", about the 1950s faith culture, might be included is ridiculous. These are the "peoples songs", but not the songs of all the people.
I was a little perplexed as to why Christianity has been so completely airbrushed from history by Maconie. I read somewhere that he had been brought up in Catholicism, but has rejected it. Perhaps that has something to do with it. That's hardly the point though; I do not expect every author I read to agree with Christianity - in fact I read a huge amount from those who specifically reject it. What I do think should happen though, is fair-minded and reasonable representation of what we know to be true. The irony of course is that the outsiders and minorities who he champions throughout the book, are now the elites, who control the media. and it's those with the old-fashioned views who need brave voices to welcome them into mainstream culture. I can't believe that Maconie is ignorant of all this. we do live in an age which is extraordinarily ignorant of history in general and Christianity in particular; but he seems far too well read, and erudite for this to be simply that. Is it actually just good old-fashioned prejudice, directed at the new easy-target? I don't know.
It was while pondering these things that I stumbled across J. John's letter to the BBC. It said amongst other things that:
Vergangenheit The Crown
It was after I read this, that I noticed that Maconies book says, "As heard on Radio2" on it. John certainly seems to have a point, in this case at least.
It was the only thing which spoilt my enjoyment of this otherwise charming, incisive, witty and well-researched book. From Vera Lynn to Slade, these fifty songs cover an enormous amount of history, times and places, with a deftness of touch which is admirable. I couldn't put this book down, I didn't quite read it in one sitting, but its only taken a few days to steam through its 400+ pages. Despite my ranting reservation above, Maconie is a delight to read, as he effortlessly guides the reader from The Kinks, to Bowie, to Black Sabbath, to New Romantics, and Acid House, and Grime; as he leads a grand tour from postwar austerity, through the decades of transformation, the conflict of the 70s, into Thatcherism and beyond.
I've been digging out some of the music from the different eras he had described, and playing it to my kids; just as my Dad once played The Goons to me! This morning I treated them to The Specials, "Ghost Town". I'm pleased to report that they were suitably impressed. When I was ten, my best mate's older brother sought to broaden our musical horizons with such things. Simon - you're efforts were not entirely in vain!