Does the popular music of recent years tell us anything about the social history of Britain?

by Ian W Halliday, March 1979

The first problem in writing on this is: what is popular music?
And the second: when did "recent" years start?
Popular music is, I suppose, the music liked by most of the population. The best way of finding out what that is is by consulting record charts; but is this really good enough? Popular music of long lasting quality is generally slow to sell and would not feature in the charts as prominently as an ephemeral title. And should you consult both single-play and LP charts?

If you examine the best selling records of the past few years, you will find that the vast majority of the songs are simply meaningless lyrics put to six bar tunes. These songs in themselves tell us nothing about social history - but the fact that commercial rubbish is guaranteed high sales does however tell us that the record-buying public are not bothered about the current economic, political or whatever situation. When they are listening to music, they want to escape from the crises in the world.

This tells us about the record-buying public. But most of these are under thirty years of age, and an extremely high proportion are still undergoing education. Only occasionally will the older people venture to such places as the HMV Shop or Rox Records. When they do, they are more likely to buy classical music, or records to give as presents to the younger people. So again we see the problem of identifying popular music.

Another difficulty is that some singers or groups have mass following which, while large, are small compared with the whole population. In the last year or so, about five LPs have entered the charts at Number One on the first week of issue, which means that people conclude that they are extremely popular. But in fact it is the mass following. This shows that people like to be in groups of fans with their friends. At the grammar or public schools, it is liable to be the less commercial accepted music and the more commercial new music which has the greatest following - whereas comprehensive or secondary modern schools tend to favour the more commercial music. From this we can see that popular music is divided into strata: you can tell what sort of person somebody is by the music he listens to, if not exactly, at least to a slight extent.

Only occasionally do songs protesting at things break through the surface of commercialism or mass following. If it achieves popularity, it becomes one of those two: if it does not, it is not popular. That is why it is so difficult for musicians such as Bob Dylan or Tom Robinson to reach the top, stay there and still sing protest songs. Bob Dylan's recent material has, I find, been devoid of message, and TRB have not been around long enough yet for people to see where they are going. Few protest songs slip through the net, and most end in oblivion.

The media told us in 1977 that punk rock was the protest music for now-people. It had a hard-hitting image and style which attacked all forms of democracy directly. It gained popularity, they claimed, because the vast majority of working class youth were fed up with the commercial, sophisticated music and the commercial, sophisticated society. They wanted the return to basic music and straightforward society.

What nonsense! The working classes continue, mainly, to like the muzak produced by such groups as Abba and Boney M or the Bee Gees, while it is the middle classes who have fallen for the music of such groups as the Stranglers, the Jam and the Sex Pistols, groups who, incidentally, by achieving a large following, have defeated their original stance, which was against the big bands.

These bands are now as commercial, showing that there is no way out from our commercial society, showing how the more you strive to leave any system, the closer entwined to it you actually find you are.

(21) Very good. Clearly constructed and expressed. March 6 1979. RLJ

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