Sunday, 16 October 2011

Sounds of the 20th Century: real music, false memories, and why the 70s weren't actually that great

One of the things I'm learning in the 21st century is that radio is often better than television, and the internet is often better than both.
Meanwhile, back in the 20th century, it's 1979. Or it will be on Thursday, when a radio series called Sounds of the 20th Century gets to episode 29. They started in 1951 and they're going on til the end of the century: one year, one hour, a mixture of pop culture, pop music, politics and a little slice of archive zeitgeist.

It's not the first time that similar programmes have been made, on radio and TV. It's the first time, though, that's it's been done since Twitter was invented, and the #sottc hashtag signals a cult following. The Thursday night live tweeting involves people my age, people younger than me, and people older than me. For an hour a week, we're friends. And everyone's take on the year is different.

And sometimes I've realised that my take on the year has been wrong all this time. I've been slightly shocked at how different the way I remember things can be from how they actually happened.

I started listening to the series when they got to 1958, because that's the year I was born. And because I love 50s rock'n'roll (should have started listening sooner... roll on the repeats).

The funny thing about the 1960s shows was that the music, for the most part, still sounded fresh - but the archive clips sounded prehistoric. Hilariously so, at times. (Tracklistings for each programme are on the Sounds of the 20th Century blog.)

The funny thing about the 1970s show was that the archive clips still sounded prehistoric. And that bloke with the 1940s BBC accent (Pathe? Movietone?) was still doing the voiceovers on the news reports.

It's very easy to get nostalgic about the 1970s, if the decade spanned your formative years. But actually, I would never go back there again. As I've mentioned before, the 70s was definitely a different country when it came to women's lives. And it wasn't that great for working people generally, either.

A lot of that passed me by at the time, because I was young, didn't know any better, and didn't read newspapers.

I knew about pop though. And the progress of music through the decade paralleled my own journey through adolescence. Glam rock as I entered my teens and became old enough for youth culture. Punk as I left home and got a bit of autonomy. And a kind of transitional phase in 1974, the year I did my O levels, where rock took over from pop in the charts and in my life at around the same time.

But it wasn't as simple as that. My perspective isn't the only one. Or even, it turns out, very accurate.

For example, until I saw a documentary called Once Upon a Time in New York: The Birth of Hip Hop, Disco and Punk, I never realised that those three genres were concurrent, and connected (I always bought into the 'disco sucks' orthodoxy). But that's because I'm white, middle-class and British.

And this series has made me think twice, too.

The programme doesn't always play the records that I expect, because the songs that mean the most to me don't always match what the mainstream remembers.  For most people, 1978 was Baker Street, not new wave. 1977 was Fleetwood Mac and Donna Summer, not God Save the Queen. 1976 was If You Leave Me Now and Blinded by the Light, not punk... And  there was no sign of David Cassidy in the 1972 and 1973 programmes.
And even the music that I remember, I seem to remember wrong.

I think of Mud and Queen (who I both loved, in different ways) as occupying two different worlds (youth club discos; my first live gigs): actually, they had hits in the same year.

I think of the Village People as an '80s act, but of course you could never have brought out YMCA after people knew about Aids. Actually, it was number 1 in 1978.

And I think of the 1980s as being rubbish: in a couple of weeks, I'll probably find out I was wrong about that too.

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