The Soundtrack of our Lives: How pop songs reflect and shape culture

Aug 31 2016

Music and song have an amazing power over us and is one of the most powerful tools in brand building (read more here, here and here). Music and song are also barometers of cultural change, and this is what Stuart Maconie explores in his book The People’s Songs, a very readable cultural history of modern Britain. He traces cultural change through 50 of the country’s most popular songs, starting with We’ll Meet Again from 1939 and finishing with Bonkers from 2009 (a span of 60 years).

We’ll Meet Again was popularized by Vera Lynn, often called “the forces sweetheart”, and resonated powerfully with soldiers leaving for the battlefields of World War II as well as their loved ones. The song has a powerfully upbeat and optimistic tone and is simple, yet touching and sentimental and still popular today, making the now Dame Vera Lynn the oldest holder of a number one record in the UK charts on its 60th anniversary in 2009 (she was 92).

Move It, written by Ian Samwell and sung by Cliff Richard represents the 1950s (it was released in 1958) and is considered the authentic first rock and roll song from outside the USA. Cliff Richard himself declared it “my one outstanding rock’n’roll classic”. The song represents a shock to UK society and a wake-up call for British teenagers that changed the UK for ever.

Move It is followed immediately by Telstar from 1962, representing the beginning of the modern telecommunications age, the globalization or the world (images from the other side of the world could be beamed via the new satellite) and the 1960s space race. At this time, Great Britain was still the scientific and technological power house of Western Europe and arguably the world.

The 70s is represented by David Bowie inevitably, among other singers, and Stuart Maconie chooses Starman from 1972, which was his break through song (he was previously only known for Space Oddity, a later reflection of the space race, which most considered a one-off). The strange, sexy and ambiguous appearance of David Bowie on Top of the Pops singing Starman in the summer of 1972 was truly the start of modern pop culture. Appearing alongside acts like Gilbert O’Sullivan and songs like “Puppy Love”, David Bowie’s androgynous look, spiky orange hair and ghostly, thin appearance was revolutionary, but the song still used some of the oldest song-writing tricks in the book like the octave leap from the start of Somewhere Over The Rainbow (in the transition to the song’s chorus).

The song Two Tribes by Frankie Goes to Hollywood from 1984 reflects the height of the Cold War between USA and Russia (the video showed Reagan and Kruschev in a boxing ring) and mixed contemporary music styles with the influence of soviet classical music and the introduction of emerging production styles (Trevor Horn). Britain was obsessed by the arms race and the threat of nuclear war and this song and others were the result.

Cigarettes & Alcohol by Oasis was released in 1994 at the height of Britpop and their battle for chart supremacy with Blur (Blur won). The song reflects an emerging “lad” culture, that showed in TV sitcoms such as Men Behaving Badly and magazines such as Loaded.

Finally we get to the Noughties, represented by Bonkers by Dizzie Rascal as well as others. Bonkers was originally released in 2009, and made even more famous by its inclusion in a medley of British music at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic games held in London (which also included Elgar, Bhangra and the Arctic Monkeys). Dizzee Rascal represents the very best of the British dream (the UK’s version of the American dream), having gone from inner city youth (and borderline criminal) to national treasure living in a country house bought with the money he has made from his music.

In The People’s Songs, Stuart Maconie traces the key trends, shifts and landmarks of modern British culture in a very readable and relatable way. If you have any interest in cultural history, modern Britain or music you will love this book.


The People’s Songs: The story of modern Britain in 50 songs by Stuart Maconie

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