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.

What I Should Have Read In 2022

It’s time for the annual namecheck for 10 books which I didn’t get round to reading in 2022 but I think I should.  Perhaps they are books I’ve intended to read since publication or titles that passed me by and which I’ve only found out about recently in end of year lists.  Since publishing last year’s list I’ve got round to reading 30% of them, which is a lot lower than I would have expected.  I do have 5 of them on my bookshelves or on my Kindle so hopefully I will get round to them in 2023.  Here are the ten titles in alphabetical order of author’s surname.

Too Much – Tom Allen  (Hodder Studio)

This is the second time comedian and TV presenter Tom has made this list.  I did read his debut autobiography “No Shame” (2020) early on in 2021 which I described as “well-written, funny, significant”. This second work has his response to the death of his father as the central theme.  Graham Norton’s three words to describe this are “Funny, candid and measured.”  It’s a very British thing to process feelings about grief through humour and it is something which fascinates me.  I look forward to seeing how Tom has achieved this. 

A Tidy Ending – Joanna Cannon (Borough Press)

When am I going to get round to reading this author?  I don’t know how many times I have had “The Trouble With Goats And Sheep” recommended to me and I have had it on my shelves for years.  I’m not sure I fancy “Three Things About Elsie” but this 2022 novel seems up my street and I have bought a Kindle copy.  It’s described as “dark comedy” which is something I approve of.  The Mail On Sunday said “Cannon’s shrewd characterisation, sparky observations and subtly menacing plot makes this a darkly funny and delightfully sinister read.” Whereas I rarely believe what The Mail On Sunday say I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt on this one because reviews are consistently good.  It made the Times Thrillers Of The Year list. Right, next year is going to be the year I catch up with Joanna Cannon.

Without Warning And Only Sometimes – Kit De Waal (Tinder Press)

I haven’t read anything by Kit De Waal’s, although “My Name Is Leon” has been on my radar since publication and there is no reason why I would not get round to this,  especially once I have read this memoir which made it to number 39 on the Telegraph Books Of The Year list.  The only book in her house when growing up was a Bible, the possession of her Irish, Jehovah’s Witness mother.  Of her childhood in 1960’s/70’s Birmingham, Kit has said; “We were the only black children at the Irish Community Centre and the only ones with a white mother at the West Indian Social Club.” Cathy Rentzenbrink has said of it “I loved it and couldn’t put it down.  Both joyous and heart-breaking, it captures an era and is also a beautiful tribute to sibling love, and a completely compelling story of how one girl became a reader.”  This just sounds like the perfect memoir to me. 

Exit Stage Left- Nick Duerden (Headline)

I’m fascinated by the subject of this non-fiction work.  Fame in the entertainment business can be intense and also fleeting.  This book looks at what happens when the adulation disappears.  Nick Duerden interviews a whole range of artist across the music business in a book which featured on Sunday Times, Guardian & Telegraph best books of the year list and according to Surrey Life Magazine “… is a candid and at times, laugh-out-loud look at the curious afterlife of pop stars.”

The Trees – Percival Everett (Influx Press)  

It was only a few years ago that I made a determined effort with the Booker Prize to read as many as the shortlisted titles as possible before the winner was announced.  In order to fit them in I had to actually read from the longlist trying to make an educated guess as to what would stay in the running.  This has dwindled over the last couple of years to just reading the winner.  This year I didn’t even fancy that but this was the title from the shortlist which piqued my interest.  I already have an unread Percival Everett title on my bookshelves “Erasure” from 2001 but this new title promises much.  The Telegraph called it “grotesquely entertaining” and the NY Times applauded its combination of “unspeakable terror and knock out comedy”.  It deals  with racism and police violence and yet it is funny.  I’m fascinated to see how the author pulls this off.  I think it would be a powerful impressive read.

In Perfect Harmony – Will Hodgkinson (Nine Eight Books)  

Another music-based non-fiction title this time examining how in the grimy industrial strife of the 1970s we became awash with sunshiny pop music.  Punk, disco and reggae may have been more cool but it was this more mainstream music which dominated  record sales and radio playlists.  This promises to be both a social and popular cultural history which appeals in the same way that Bob Stanley’s “Let’s Do It” did this year.  It also made a number of best of lists in the British press.  Suzi Quatro describes it as “A colourful picture of the entire 70s in Great Britain” which sounds right up my street. 

Vladimir – Julia May Jonas (Picador)

This American debut fiction title made it to number 40 in the Telegraph Books Of The Year and caused quite a stir on publication.  It’s a tale of obsession and has been talked about as “Lolita” in reverse as a female academic in her 50s falls for a young male novelist.  The Boston Globe described it thus; “Vladimir goes into such outrageous territory that my jaw literally dropped at moments while I was reading it.  There’s a rare blend here of depth of character, mesmerizing prose, and fast-paced action.”  I think this is a book which sounds like it will cause a much greater impact in the UK when the paperback arrives (scheduled for Feb 2023).  It sounds like a page-turning and head-turning debut.

Mercury Pictures Presents – Anthony Marra (John Murray)

This historical novel also attracted plaudits this year and was a Book Of The Year in both the Sunday Times and The Observer.  It’s a tale of a woman who moves from Italy under Mussolini to Hollywood where she becomes an associate producer at a movie studio.  The blurb describes it as “an epic story of love, deceit and reinvention”.  Ann Patchett says it is “full of history, comedy and horror.  It’s a great literary read.” Sounds good enough to me. I don’t know of American author Marra but he has been compared to literary greats such as George Orwell, Nabokov and Kafka, which does seem a very broad comparison but suggests that there’s a bit of a genius at work.

The Guncle- Stephen Rowley (GP Putnam’s)

I’ve got a bit confused by this book as to its availability over the year.  I just wasn’t seeing it around like I had expected to. It looks like it was published in the UK in April but I’m sure I knew about it long before then.  I’m assuming that this was because it was a big American title which gained a lot of attention in the US in 2021, reaching the shortlist in the reader chosen Goodreads awards but took a while to appear over here.  I think when I was looking for it only a US edition was available. It’s a feel-good, funny novel and we can all do with some of those this winter about a once-famous gay sitcom star having to take over the care of his niece and nephew (hence the title).  Author Timothy Schaffert describes it as “Delightful, sharp, and very funny.  The Guncle is the cocktail equivalent of the fourth sip of your martini while you sit poolside at sunset.”  We might have to swap that for a cup of tea and sitting with a blanket over your knees deciding whether to put the heating on but I think you’ll get his point!

Portable Magic – Emma Smith (Penguin)

Subtitled “A History Of Books and their Readers” from the critical appreciation being heaped on this non-fiction work it looks like Emma Smith has done what she set out to do.  Colin Burrow in The Guardian described it as “Thought-provoking …fizzing with jokes…Smith does it all with such a light touch you barely notice how much you’re learning.”  Lynne Truss says “Emma Smith’s terrifically knowledgeable and thoughtful Portable Magic helps us understand every aspect of what our beloved books stand for.  I for one am very grateful.  What a delight this book is.” Books about books, I’m know I’m probably preaching to the converted if you are reading this but I’m sure you will agree with me that this is worth seeking out.