In Noël Coward’s Private Lives – which largely consists of chinless men and women with cigarette holders being brittle and catty about Norfolk – the playwright and songsmith made one brilliant observation when the character of Amanda, hearing a tune playing, remarks, “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”.
Cheap music is pop music, of course. And we in Blighty have made it our own. America can claim to be the home of rock ’n’ roll, but what we call pop music – that scruffy, dazzling hybrid of vaudeville, folk ballad, dance music, rock, classroom hymns, street corner soul and classical music, that art form so plastic and pliable that it can embrace the wildest avant-garde experimentation and the most primitive and basic chants and beats – is a uniquely British invention.
A music that has no one stylistic constant, but a defiant, unsanctioned concept at its heart, the ability to speak to people, to affect people, to occupy people, to transform their lives or divert them for a moment, to console, to enrage, to amuse, to arouse. This is a music that happens without the approval of critic or teacher or politician or pulpit. It nods to history. It makes history. But it happens without anyone’s permission.
About six months ago, the controller of Radio 2 and 6 Music – and thus just about as grand a fromage as you can get in the world of music radio – called me into his office and asked me if I fancied writing and presenting a history of pop; a year’s worth of radio; 50 parts, each an hour long. I’d said yes before he got to the end of the sentence. I could see the box set on my shelf. It was weighty enough to stun an ox and the length of a snooker table.
Then, in the manner of the ornery little so-and-so down the ages, I said, “Yes, great, but how about I do this instead…” and proceeded to outline an almost entirely different idea. Almost entirely anyway.
If you’ve heard the first show or two of my series The People’s Songs, you’ll know that it is not a conventional history of pop. It’s not chronological. Each themed show looks at one aspect of British culture and history, and each elides into the next. But the tale isn’t linear. The picture emerges from each corner and each age, or like a dot-to-dot puzzle, or a mosaic. If I say so myself, it’s a daring approach. But I think it works. You tell me.
I wanted to hear a different kind of voice as well. The People’s Songs is just that; it features no interviews with musicians, “experts”, academics or pundits. There are no sagacious rock scribes talking about Pet Sounds, the influence of Woody Guthrie on Bob Dylan or the first Velvet Underground album. You will, however, find much about strikes, school, starching your petticoats, disco, the Cold War, coffee bars, the Three-Day Week, raves, riots, curry houses and road protests and hear Y Viva España, The Ying Tong Song and My Boy Lollipop. It’s a celebration of people and pop, not critics and rock. And it is unashamedly British in tone and focus.
At the beginning of the 20th century, a German writer called Oskar Schmitz would declare pompously, “The English are the only cultured people without their own music.” By the end of that century, this would sound like the veriest sauerkraut. From the Beatles to Bowie, Dusty Springfield to Dizzee Rascal, the Spice Girls to the Sex Pistols, these fair islands and their dominions have given us the pop songs that have made our heads and the world spin. But they also provide a thread, a lipstick trace that runs through our recent history.
Want to know what it felt like to struggle through during the dark days of the Blitz and rationing? Listen to Vera Lynn and George Formby. Want to hear the 60s actually swinging? Don’t bother with government white papers and The Crossman Diaries, listen to the yeah yeah yeahs and oooh oooh oohs of the Beatles’ She Loves You. For the authentic feel of strife-torn Britain and the tensions of the Falklands War during the first years of the Thatcher government, you’ll find them in the eeriness of the Specials’ Ghost Town and Robert Wyatt’s haunting Shipbuilding rather than well-intentioned pieces of political theatre or social surveys.
Hopefully, come next December, if you stay the course with us, you’ll have heard a history of Britain told through authentic voices and music that is often brilliant, sometimes crazy and always unforgettable. Buy the box set, too, and you need never fear a rampaging ox again.
The People's Songs is on tonight at 10:00pm on Radio 2