The BBC love nothing better than analyzing the strange and nebulous concept of “Britishness”, and next year Radio 2 will be bringing us a new series called The People’s Songs. Stuart Maconie has been tasked with telling “the story of Britain in 50 records” and he’s just announced his first ten, which each represent a topic he’ll be delving into deeper. Here’s the list:
‘We’ll Meet Again’ – Vera Lynn (1939)
‘Rock Island Line’ – Lonnie Donegan (1954)
‘She Loves You’ – Beatles (1963)
‘My Boy Lollipop’ – Millie Small (1964)
‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ – Procul Harum (1967)
‘Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus’ – Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin (1969)
‘God Save The Queen’ – Sex Pistols (1977)
‘Two Tribes’ – Frankie Goes To Hollywood (1984)
‘Ebeneezer Goode’ – The Shamen (1992)
‘Rehab’ – Amy Winehouse (2006)
Photo: Dean Chalkley/NME
The list is intended to focus on the music’s cultural impact, rather than attempting to actually define “Britishness”, which presumably explains what the definitely-not-from-around-‘ere Serge Gainsbourg is doing on the list. While there’s a few outré choices, the list is also light on the dance culture that for many people defines their musical and social life much more than what gets played on the radio. In the week that Ian Dury’s ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ became the anthem of the Paralympics opening ceremony, it’s also striking how initially controversial songs like ‘God Save The Queen’ and ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ are now safe enough for the BBC to install in their canon. We can only hope that Lowkey and Riz MC’s banned raps about Palestine will one day be held up as anthems as well.
Most of the fun of these lists is initiating debate, so I’ve come up with my own list of songs that have had something to tell us about Britain over the last century. While it’s difficult to argue with Vera Lynn as the defining voice of WWII, her contemporary George Formby brought the British sense of humour to the airwaves. ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’ might be 76 years old, but it’s still funnier than The Midnight Beast. Thirty years later, as the Sixties reached their zenith, what could be more British than the most hedonistic band of their or any other generation acknowledging that not only could they not get no satisfaction, they can’t even always get what they want?
British culture comes together on the dancefloor, and The Clash sketched the introduction of reggae to London on ‘(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais’. Twenty years later acts like Ganja Kru helped drum and bass become a defining force in British music, while Panjabi MC’s ‘Mundian To Bach Ke’ isn’t just an iconic Bhangra crossover track but one of those songs that’s so woven into the backdrop of British life that it’s difficult to imagine a time when it didn’t exist.
Both grime and dubstep have become musical landmarks since emerging from turn-of-the-century London, while the music that often has the most to tell us about Britain is made by artists like The Fall, Pulp and Plan B who speak with passion and anger about social class. Just as ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ and ‘God Save The Queen’ unsettled the great and good before being acknowledged as part of who we are, it’s often songs of protest which capture Britain at its righteous best.
‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’ – George Formby (1936)
‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ – The Rolling Stones (1969)
‘(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais’ – The Clash (1978)
‘The Classical’ – The Fall (1982)
‘Common People’ – Pulp (1995)
‘Super Sharp Shooter’ – Ganja Kru (1995)
‘Mundian To Bach Ke’ – Panjabi MC (1998)
‘Fix Up Look Sharp’ – Dizzee Rascal (2003)
‘Midnight Request Line’ – Skream (2005)
‘Ill Manors’ – Plan B (2012)