In Perfect Harmony – Singalong Pop In 70s Britain – Will Hodgkinson (2022)

Here’s a book from my “What I Should Have Read in 2022” list.  Its focus is 1970’s pop music.  Looking back from our 21st Century position when we think of the 1970’s we probably give greater importance to punk, glam rock and disco which certainly made a lasting impression in terms of visual style but did not last that long as a market force.  The music with the most longevity throughout the decade can be classed as singalong pop.

Will Hodgkinson studies an era where the first number one of 1971 was Clive Dunn’s “Grandad” and rounding things off so helpfully 10 years later was St. Winifred’s School Choir and “There’s No-One Quite Like Grandma”.  So did nothing change during the 1970s?  Still celebrating grandparents!  Why did singalong pop exert such mass appeal for the whole of the decade.  The author explores this and basically it is because Britain was so grim during this time that we needed pop music to lift the spirits!

Perhaps the inspiration for much of this came from an American song from the late 1960s, “Sugar Sugar”.  This was marketed as being by a cartoon group, recorded by anonymous session singers and was disposable bubblegum music at its finest and importantly, was a massive worldwide hit.  For a time, the song became more important than the artists.  The UK responded to this by session musicians recording singles and then considering the formation of a group to perform afterwards – take a bow Edison Lighthouse, Brotherhood Of Man, Bay City Rollers, the whole range of singles put out by Jonathan King, or 10CC in embryonic form.  One session singer Tony Burrows famously appeared in three (some say four) different acts on the same episode of “Top Of The Pops”.

And then came glam- stomping, singalong music geared towards and enjoyed by a younger audience- led by Marc Bolan, whose innovative influence on British pop has now been somewhat lost followed swiftly by Slade, Wizzard, Suzi Quatro, Mud, Sweet et al, with an even younger audience being feted by Messrs Osmond, Cassidy and Jackson.  Will Hodgkinson explores and analyses all this with interviews, contemporary views and what was going on at the time.  A sudden powercut plunging British homes into darkness could be enlivened by a family singsong of “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep.”

This is a phenomenon mainly but not exclusively British and also had something to do with huge audiences for TV light entertainment shows, TV advertising jingles and theme tunes and pop music as a regular feature of children’s TV  but mainly a country that ricocheted between Heath, Wilson and then Callaghan as Prime Ministers in a time of strikes, inflation, high unemployment needed something to feel cheered up by.

Given all that can we expect a New Seekers, Boney M, Tony Orlando and Dawn revival in 2023?!! Just nobody mention Gary Glitter….

In Perfect Harmony was published by Nine Eight Books in 2022.

Fire Island – Jack Parlett (2022)

In the nineteenth century it provided poetic inspiration for Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde reputedly visited.  In the 1930s it became the summer home for a trio of artists who some describe as “The Fire Island School Of Painting.”  Literary and artistic giants saw it as an escape to write or to party- Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Noel Coward stayed here.  American poet Frank O’Hara was killed on the beach here.  Patricia Highsmith got drunk here.  David Hockney looked pale here, Derek Jarman made a short film, James Baldwin came to write (and felt out of place).  Perhaps the first example of gay pornography to filter into the mainstream was filmed here in 1971.  It developed into a symbol of hedonism where the landscape and fantastic views felt slightly at odds with the loud disco music from tea dances and cruising.  The Village People sang about it offering us a “funky weekend” as long as we “don’t go in the bushes.” Edmund White and Andrew Holleran used it as a setting to enrich their fiction.  AIDS decimated it, for a while it became a ghostly memorial with ashes of those taken sprinkled into the sea.  It became a film location in that first-wave of AIDS related films like “Parting Glances” (1986) and “Longtime Companion”(1989)- important movies which proved so difficult to watch.  It became once again part of the well-heeled gay circuit with accusations of elitism and poor inclusiveness and it has recently been the location in the available on Disney+ in the UK bright and brash gay rom-com “Fire Island” (2022).  I’ve always been fascinated by the contradictions of this place – Utopia for some, Hell for others.

This thin strip of land some 32 miles in length off the Long Island coast is perhaps the second most recognised gay location after The Stonewall Inn.  Its cultural and literary significance has lasted for decades and alongside the thousands that adored it there are detractors with very valid objections as well as confusingly detractors who also adored it- this is the enigma of Fire Island.

And the person who has decided to record this cultural and literary history in this new publication from Granta is a 30 year old British man.  This is a good idea, it gives a fresh perspective on an area bogged down in its own history and inconsistencies.  Jack Parlett visited first whilst researching the poet Frank O’ Hara who wrote, partied and died here.  Parlett experienced the same feelings of alienation and belonging which has affected so many of its visitors over the years and in this work subtitled “Love, loss and liberation in an American Paradise” he incorporates memoir to explain why.

From the relaxed development of Cherry Grove with its communal mix of renters including families and lesbians and gay men to the growth of the more hedonistic, wealthy white gay male dominated area of The Pines (together with its cruising area The Meat Rack) Parlett effectively tracks developments and their significance in gay history and sensibilities.  There’s a potent mix of the literary and academic, the political and the positives and contradictions of this location.  It’s imbued with a nostalgia for past times – I found myself thinking I would have liked to have visited at that point in time, oh and at that point in time….which makes it an intoxicating subject for a historical examination.

I loved the idea of this book, I loved the British perspective which added another layer and Jack Parlett has handled his material well.  I might have liked visual representations for some of his references but a few seconds on Google will find things and no doubt saved the publishers from forking out for reproduction rights.

Fire Island was published in 2022 by Granta in the UK.

A Little Devil in America – Hanif Abdurraqib (2021)

Ohio resident Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist and music critic and is both critically acclaimed and a good commercial proposition in his homeland.  This non-fiction work is something we’ve been seeing a fair bit of recently- a mash-up of memoir and analysis.  At times it feels like a collection of essays but I don’t think it is.  Linking the pieces together is the theme of the black performer in America and coming from that is the significance of dance.  Saying it like this, however, is very much simplifying matters.  Abdurraqib, being a poet sees things in terms of metaphor and the notion of dance and performance is used to touch on many aspects of the American experience, and especially the African-American experience.

Also, being a poet Abdurraqib does not see things the way many of us do, he has the ability to zoom in on a detail and expand out from that.  It’s often a moment in a life he finds fascinating and what it tells us about that particular life and the environment in which it was lived and that in itself is intriguing.  In terms of the performers examined there is a very good range and I find much of his writing illuminating.  With Aretha Franklin, he examines her funeral, and what the “sending home” of the ritual says of a life and then moves backwards to the filmed version of her live gospel recording “Amazing Grace”- the biggest selling gospel live album of all time.  With Whitney Houston he focuses on the response of the black audience and how that changed.  There’s a lively section about the antagonism between two demonstrative performers, Joe Tex and James Brown.  The issue of “blackface” is dealt with through William Lane known as Master Juba who Charles Dickens saw perform and how casual racism caused a latter day TV tribute by Ben Vereen to this black minstrel who performed in blackface to become meaningless because his performance was cut inappropriately. 

People who have not fitted in to what was expected of them are examined including Sammy Davis Jnr, Michael Jackson and the always amazing to read about Josephine Baker.

This is where this book is the strongest for me, a white British reader, I can see the common threads and follow the arguments.  When the author veers away from this central theme I miss the tightness of the structure although I am still impressed by the writing.

And the writing is impassioned, creative, energetic and very often enthralling.  Culturally, very few will get all the references initially because of the broad timescale Abdurraqib employs in this work.  If this looseness of structure and digressive style which I have mentioned before (most recently in “Gay Bar” by Jeremy Atherton Lin) is going to become commonplace I’m just going to have to get used to it because to ignore it would mean missing out on impressive, quality writing.

A Little Devil in America was published in the UK by Allen Lane on 30th March 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.