It started as a major Radio 2 series and then a book and now Stuart Maconie has turned The People’s Songs into a live show which he is bringing to the Crucible Theatre on Wednesday next week.
He reveals that the impetus for this came from Sheffield-based promoter Mike McCarthy. “He and his partner, Warren Lakin, had the idea of doing a tour,” he says. “I consider myself a writer as much as a radio presenter and like most authors the most public thing will be a reading in a bookshop. So I have had to up it a bit, it feels like stand-up comedy and I am enjoying it.”
The People’s Songs tells the story of post-war Britain through 50 songs, all selected on the basis of their relevance to an aspect of life over seven decades from Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again to Bonkers by Dizzee Rascal.
Where did he start in planning this “landmark” radio series?
“I began talking about it with my two producers, Linda and Ian, and then we went to Paul Heaton’s pub in Salford - there’s another Sheffield connection - until we had come up with a list,” recounts the presenter of Radcliffe and Maconie Show The Freak Zone on BBC Radio 6 Music.
“Some of them picked themselves like the Beatles’ She Loves You or The Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen. Then for a lot of others they came from thinking about an event or an issue or section of British culture or history we might want to talk about and then we would look for a song which illustrated that.”
And so growing up as a young gay is expressed by Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy
Each one is accompanied by testimonies of people for whom a particular song is important and they aimed to get a cross-section of views. “For The Threat of Nuclear War episode where Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Two Tribes provides the backdrop to the Cold War era we had someone who was at Greenham Common and a nuclear submarine commander,” says Maconie with satisfaction.
One thing the exercise highlighted was the insularity of today’s generation of songwriters. “It’s all about their love lives... where’s the record about the banking crisis or the war in Iraq?”
Of all people, Paul McCartney’s first post-Beatles record was Give Ireland Back to the Irish in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday in 1972, he points out. “I don’t want to seem to be going on about a mythical golden age, though, and to me Bonkers by Dizzie Rascal sounds the essence of modern urban Britain.”
Not everyone agrees with his choices. “In Dundee this guy asked why there was no Rolling Stones song. I replied that I didn’t think they said much about Britain, and were just bringing American blues to Kent and that the Beatles were more significant. He wasn’t having it and said She Loves You was nothing but a nursery rhyme.”