16/12/2013

The People's Songs

Stuart Maconie
2013

When I was five, I had my tonsils out. This entailed a two night stay in hospital, and without parents staying over, either. Not a fun experience, particularly, but the silver lining was that, as a reward for being good, I got a record player (an old, portable, valve-powered Dansette type), a handful of singles from that week's top ten ... and a lifelong love of pop.

I loved those records, and still do. The intro of David Essex's "Gonna Make You A Star" always gives me an anticipatory shiver. I will go toe to toe with anyone who dares argue that "Love Me For A Reason" by The Osmonds isn't one of the best pop ballads of the last forty years. "This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us" sounds magnificently odd even today and remains a career pinnacle for Sparks. And, oh, best of all, one of the finest number ones of the seventies: "Sugar Baby Love", instant time travel in vinyl, plastic or bytes, a song that whisks me effortlessly back to my bedroom in Kenton where I would beat the purple carpet and dream of playing drums for The Rubettes.

I can hold my own with any rock snob but anyone lucky enough to have caught me in the right mood or with enough drink inside me will know that my passion is pop music: cheap, disposable, sentimental, trashy, exploitative and glorious pop music. The best pop marks a moment, a mood or a memory like nothing else, and it's intensely personal. What the songs above do for me, they don't do for you; what they mean to me, they won't mean to you; and what I hear, you can't. But what they do for me, nothing else can; what they mean to me is ineffable; and how they sound is utterly unique.

This is what pop music is really about and why, ultimately, it is far more important than the orthodox canon of classic albums and iconic artists that appear in weighty lists and turgid books. Which is why I like the idea of The People's Music so much. It operates from exactly this point of view, and picks fifty pop songs from the last sixty years that encapsulate a period in time or summarise a cultural shift. Maconie's introduction articulates much better than I can why pop history is social history, so central is it to so many people.

The radio series - sorry, landmark Radio 2 series (it says here) - is essential listening for any fan of pop. The book, introduction aside, is a little lacklustre by comparison. It consists of the scripts for each programme - as entertaining as you'd expect from Maconie - but, without the interviews that are the programme's raison d'etre (it bills itself as an "aural history", after all), each individual piece seems too short and somewhat disjointed. And of course the book can't include any music at all. Thank goodness for Spotify, eh?

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