Book Review: Will Hodgkinson – In Perfect Harmony: Singalong Pop In ’70s Britain

Chirpy Chirpy. Cheap Cheap.

It’s all very well for pretentious rock snobs like me to prattle on about Gram Parsons, Big Star, or even The Clash, but that’s not what people were really listening to in the 1970s. Hodgkinson, top music critic for The Times and regular Mojo contributor, celebrates the records that people actually exchanged money for at a time when money was as hard to get as it’s about to be, arguing quite reasonably that “if a song chimed with the mood of the nation, doesn’t it say something about the time and place it came from”.

During the era of the three-day week, strikes, and – Oi, Oi – energy shortages, British ears turned en masse to cheery and optimistic fare, and who could blame them? I, and many, others would contend that the 1970s is the greatest era of recorded popular music, where everything from reggae to rock reached its apogee – and the records just sound better – but here giants like Bowie and Roxy Music are mere background figures, over shadowed by the hit machines of Slade and Sweet. There’s a fair and decent case to be made for Slade’s strikingly coiffured and perma-grinning guitarist Dave Hill as the greatest rock star ever. The reasonably minded are now picturing Hill, perhaps dressed as a nun from outer space, and nodding. If the rest of you aren’t convinced, the story about him accidentally buying a gaff beside a girls school or the one about the photoshoot in the bath with the Japanese model will put you straight. “Never argue with having a total laugh” was Hill’s admirable approach.

“To the art school-educated Bowie/Roxy Music fans,” or those pretentious sorts we mentioned in paragraph one, “Slade might have seemed hopelessly recherché; the kind of people for who a shag carpet in the bathroom and a personalised number plate on the Roller were the height of sophistication” but, as our guide points out. they were “the people’s band”. Mind you, Hill was reduced to hiring out that Roller with the ‘YOB 1’ number plate as a wedding car later on, but his immortality had long been assured by then.

Punk does happen but, much like the swinging sixties, it doesn’t happen for the majority so it doesn’t warrant the same space as The New Seekers, Tony Orlando or the “lingering ennui” of The Carpenters. Social changes like package holidays cough up fare – Sylvia’s ‘Y Viva Espana’ – that haunt the dreams of those of us who were there because this kind of thing didn’t just affect the Brits. The woman who ran the nursery school I attended must have gone off for a bit of sun at some stage as I can remember dancing around to that classic in her front room, all those years ago. My own folks even purchased one of the James Last’s 190 (!) album releases, perhaps hoping to cop a bit of his accessible glamour in an era when it was in short supply.

The differences between the 1970s and the “new age of plastic” of the 80s are illustrated by comparing the main characters of TV high watermark Minder; Terry was the seventies, “forever bringing chirpy young women back to his dingy flat and being the kind of honest, ordinary Joe who you know would pay his union dues and join the picket line” and Arthur “with his flashy camel coat and clumsy attempts at sophistication” was the eighties incarnate. The decade of polyester and cheese is bookended by the huge hit singles ‘Grandad’ and ‘There’s No One Quite Like Grandma’ and while it’s hard to find much or anything to appreciate in either of those records, Hodgkinson has, on the whole, made a decent case for “bubblegum as high art.” On quiet reflection, I think I’ll probably stick with London Calling and Grievous Angel, but In Perfect Harmony is an illuminating and marvellously entertaining delight.

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