Sharp notes that 'provoke a barney'

31 Songs - This is Uncool
October 31, 2003

Pop music is now middle-aged and has been mainstream for a long time, but there is still a sense, as Nick Hornby observes in 31 Songs , that it wasn't supposed to last this long. These two books both use a list structure to try to make sense of our persistent attachment to the format.

Both are personal choices of pop music favourites; there is little attempt at objectivity, and not a sniff of jazz or classical. The content of those lists, though, is hugely different. They have only one song in common, which, you are unlikely to guess, is Frontier Psychiatrist by The Avalanches.

Hornby, although he has 469 fewer entries than Garry Mulholland, seems to include more obscurities. Even John Peel admitted he did not know 11 of Hornby's 31. This does not particularly matter, because his subject matter is overwhelmingly autobiographical. He uses each song as a means to discuss "life", and his life and the (admittedly large) place that music occupies in it.

This generally works well. At his best, he is very persuasive. He makes you appreciate apparently throwaway pop such as Nelly Furtado's I'm like a Bird for the light, joyous song it really is. In endorsing The Beatles' Rain, he relates how in Victorian London people used to burn phosphorus at seances in the hope of seeing ghosts, then equates this with our modern obsession with rare B-sides and unreleased material; in listening to them, he argues, we are trying to hear the likes of The Beatles as they sounded before they became overly familiar.

However, Hornby has set out his stall thus: "I wanted mostly to write about what it was in these songs that made me love them, not what I brought to the songs." But it is not long before the personal memoir starts to overwhelm the musical analysis, indicating that he missed his intended mark.

It also suggests Hornby is rather self-conscious, concerned that he should not write the kind of book we would expect of the author of High Fidelity and Fever Pitch . One half of him wants to shrug off the cultural stereotype the other half has created. For in a way, through his very success, Hornby has come to represent something he is ambivalent about. In noting that something is being lost from our literary and music culture because all retail chain stores carry the same stock, he adds: "Yes, before any smart-arse points it out, I too am sick of seeing my books everywhere I go shopping."

In fact, he is good on the effects of cultural ubiquity. A fan of Zero 7 and Röyksopp, he decries their omnipresence as background music on TV and in shops, turning them into cliches. "This may partly explain the teenage fondness for the profanities and antisocial attitudes of hip-hop," he suggests. Little danger of stumbling upon them in The Body Shop - which would be very, well, uncool.

Which brings us to Garry Mulholland. This is Uncool , being list-based music discussion by a thirty-something Londoner, complete with highest chart positions and lovingly reproduced dog-eared record sleeves, comes from a world straight off the pages of High Fidelity .

It is conceived as a British equivalent of Dave Marsh's The Heart of Rock and Soul (1989), which catalogued the singles judged to have had most impact on America. Mulholland's is a wonderfully enthusiastic and fairly eclectic (though rarely obscure) collection. He provides insight into the context and musical content of most selections and is particularly good on the rise of black music in its various guises to the position of dominance it now holds over our singles chart, in the form of hip-hop and R&B.

Mulholland is a standard-bearer for rave, rap, The Specials, The Smiths and The Pet Shop Boys. And he is broad minded enough to overcome his misgivings about Britpop and include five entries each from Oasis and Blur.

Beyond the specifics, two themes run throughout. The first is implicit in the title: he argues that the simultaneously sprouting punk and disco movements were not, as commonly assumed, natural opposites. He locates "the serrated edge hidden inside the elegant threads" of Chic's Le Freak , and credits artists such as Ian Dury and the Blockheads for crossing the two movements. Their convergence shaped future music trends: from postpunk to the New Romantics, through to The Happy Mondays and The Prodigy. Ultimately, the dance music scene of the 1990s drew on both influences. After all, he observes: "Disco didn't die. It just called itself house instead and rock fans were too thick to notice."

His second theme is to put his choices in their wider context: like Hornby, Mulholland presents us with plenty of autobiography, but he also explains a track's musical and political significance. This is no doubt why he has plumped for a book of singles, for through radio (and video) play, they have a mass impact.

Personal lists such as these are not intended to be definitive. They are there, as Mulholland puts it, "to provoke a barney", and both these books will appeal to anyone with a keen interest in the popular music of the past four decades who enjoys that kind of challenge.

Oliver Craske is a writer and publishers' editor specialising in popular culture currently writing a book on rock photography, Rock Faces .

31 Songs

Author - Nick Hornby
Publisher - Penguin
Pages - 196
Price - £6.99
ISBN - 0 14 101340 0

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