For Stuart Maconie fans, this book might sound as if it’ll be his masterpiece. In his earlier memoirs and travelogues, he’s proved himself a fine writer: sharp, funny, tender and thoughtful — often all at the same time. In his previous book to this, Hope and Glory, he made a creditable if slightly heart-on-sleeve attempt at British social history. And, as anybody who’s listened to his radio shows will know, few people combine such a serious knowledge and love of pop music with such a refreshing lack of snootiness about it. Not only that, but in the introduction here he tells us that he’s always wanted to write ‘a reliable, authoritative one-volume history of British popular music that would avoid rehashing the received wisdom’.
But then, in the next paragraph, comes the first sign that our high hopes won’t necessarily be fulfilled. ‘For various reasons,’ adds Maconie, ‘the above isn’t quite the book you have in your hand now’ — which turns out to be a piece of understatement in a book that normally favours hyperbole. (Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic, for example, are described as disco music’s ‘Shakespeare, Bach and Einstein rolled into one’.)
Meanwhile, those unspecified reasons soon became fairly easy to spot — starting with the format. In the Radio 2 series that the book accompanies, each of the records, and the slice of history they embody, receives an hour’s worth of airtime. Here, they each get a few pages. Now and again, Maconie does achieve the required miracles of concision — on, say, the rise of lad culture in the 1990s (where the song is Oasis’s ‘Cigarettes & Alcohol’) or the coming of the package holiday (Sylvia’s ‘Y Viva España’, whose original, rather sentimental lyrics were cunningly translated for the Brits into something a bit saucier). Understandably, however, the concision works less well for the effects of Thatcherism or 30 years of the Northern Ireland Troubles.
In the circumstances, then, it’s not surprising that Maconie often fails in the quest to avoid received wisdom. Admittedly, some of his musical judgments are bracingly, and persuasively, heretical — such as his attack on Pete Seeger’s sneeringly unpleasant ‘Little Boxes’ and his suggestion that Joe Dolce’s ‘Shaddap You Face’ kept Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’ off No. 1, not because the public are fools, but because it was a much warmer and less pretentious song.
Yet, for the social history aspects, he reiterates the usual stuff about how everybody bought television sets to watch the Coronation, how the early 1960s saw an explosion of working-class talent and so on. (Nor is he heretical enough to note that the reason for that Sixties explosion was grammar schools.)
Finally, and perhaps most glaringly, the book bears the hallmarks of a rush job. Some passages are taken verbatim from Hope and Glory. Many others have the sketchy, cliché-dependent feel of a first draft. Quite often too, Maconie prefers the word ‘arguably’ to actually arguing something — while towards the end the number of factual mistakes also increases: among them, that Mary Hopkin’s ‘Those Were the Days’ was a Paul McCartney song and, more outrageously still, that Kylie Minogue wore her gold hot pants in the video for ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’. (The video in question, I hardly need tell Spectator readers, was for ‘Spinning Around’.)
I wouldn’t want to give the impression that this book is anything like a complete washout. There are plenty of arresting, pub-friendly facts and moments of genuine critical insight, including the idea that the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ has elements of real, if disappointed patriotism. Maconie is also good at drawing out unexpected links — quoting, for instance, Keith Emerson on the crucial influence of Winifred Atwell on his keyboard work.
In the end, though, such pickings are just not fat enough for a book of this length by a writer of this quality. The People’s Songs would certainly serve as a solid introduction for someone who knows little about pop music. People who know more will have a pleasant enough time dipping in. Even so, we’re surely within our rights to expect something a lot more from Stuart Maconie — and to hope that one day he might still write it.