Music journalist and presenter Stuart Maconie sets sail on a mission to discover what makes nation’s best songs so memorable
What’s an anthem?
The Oxford Dictionary defines it as a rousing or uplifting song identified with a particular group, body or cause.
Stuart Maconie defines it slightly differently.
“An anthem has to have a very whistle-able tune, memorable and easy, with quite vague lyrics,” he says.
The long-time journalist, broadcaster and author has given the subject a lot of thought over the past few years, so it’s probably wise to take his word for it.
He was approached last year by a cruise ship company, Royal Caribbean International, which is launching a new ship next year called Anthem Of The Seas. To accompany the announcement, they asked him to carry out some research to find the country’s favourite anthemic songs.
The timing was good, with Maconie having just finished The People’s Songs, his series that told the social history of Britain through the medium of popular music, broadcast on Radio 2.
There’s also an accompanying book, called The People’s Songs: The Story Of Modern Britain In 50 Records.
“It’s a very easy read,” says the 52-year-old.
“Well, I like to think so. I would say that, wouldn’t I?”
Ask any music critic to name the most culturally significant or important records of the past 50 years and chances are you’ll get a very different list than if you asked the majority of people on the street.
“Critics are always going on about Nick Drake,” he says, referring to an artist who famously sold next to no records during his all-too-short lifetime, but has, since perhaps the mid-Nineties, enjoyed a renaissance.
“Now Nick Drake’s absolutely great, don’t get me wrong, but if you want to know what Britain was like in the Seventies, listen to Slade, not Nick Drake.
“Nick Drake’s impact on British culture and society was negligible.
“The same with Nick Cave, who never, ever gets a bad review, but the man and woman on the street don’t know who he is.
“So in the same way The People’s Songs book was trying to get away from that rock critic list, I wanted to get away from that way of thinking with the list of anthems.”
Maconie says he can’t abide musical snobbery, and approached the task with as open a mind as possible.
He put together a longlist, and then asked the public to vote to produce the top five.
While One Day Like This by Elbow and Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run were on there, the final five consisted of The Beatles’ Hey Jude, Robbie Williams’ Angels, U2’s Beautiful Day, so beloved of football fans thanks to its tenure as the theme to ITV’s The Premiership highlights show, Nimrod by Edward Elgar and Jerusalem, which consists of William Blake’s short poem set to music by Sir Hubert Parry.
“Robbie Williams’ Angels is not a song I would ever play for fun at home, but I can see some craft there, it punches all the right buttons for people,” says Maconie.
“The same with Beautiful Day by U2, although as a piece of stadium rock I can appreciate why it’s brilliant.
“Hey Jude is on the list because it was the first song to feature the long, drawn-out chorus at the end that everyone can sing along to.
“Also, it’s quite vague,” he adds. “You think you know what Hey Jude’s about, but you don’t.
“Paul McCartney wrote it for Julian Lennon, after John left him and his mum Cynthia.
“The lyrics are quite like a nursery rhyme, but then there’s that line, ‘The movement you need is on your shoulder’, which adds a sense of mystery.”
When it comes to Elgar’s Nimrod, Maconie is less complimentary, citing anything by Vaughan Williams as being more anthemic, and Jerusalem, the anthem of the Women’s Institute and sung so passionately at Last Night Of The Proms each year, is basically misunderstood.
“It’s not patriotic, Jerusalem, even though it’s sort of become the national anthem for people who don’t like singing God Save The Queen.
“Jerusalem is actually saying that things have gone wrong and we need to recreate England.
“It’s almost a protest song, based on the story that Jesus came to England.
“The lyrics are wondering if that can have been true, because it’s all been downhill since then.
“In all honesty, I can see how each of the five songs on the list are brilliant, even if they’re not all my idea of fun, and most of all, I can appreciate that most people’s idea of an anthem isn’t the same as mine, which would basically be something by Gentle Giant or Sun Ra.”
Such is the way Maconie tends to go from one project to the next, a conversation with a producer at the BBC has led him to an interconnecting radio programme examining anthems in classical music, which will be broadcast on Radio 2 in the New Year.
After that, however, he’s heading back into research mode to get started on his next book, the sequel to the bestselling Pies And Prejudice, which is tentatively called The Pie At Night, detailing northern evening traditions and pastimes.
“I went to Blackpool Illuminations the other week, and tonight I’m going to West Yorkshire where I hear I can find the north’s best chippy.
“I’m hoping it’ll be out early 2015, so I’ve got a lot of days and nights out ahead of me before then,” says Maconie.
““The beauty of something like this work I did on anthems, or The People’s Songs, is that I could do it all at home, but my other books, like Pies And Prejudice and the next one involve me going out to places to experience them.
“I went to Stalybridge Buffet Bar the other day, so at least I can say I’ve seen some things.”
Stuart Maconie is working with Royal Caribbean International to celebrate the announcement of their newest ship, Anthem Of The Seas. For more information, visit www.royalcaribbean.co.uk He can also be heard weekdays on BBC Radio 6 Music, 1-4pm
Stuart Maconie was born in Whiston, Lancashire, on August 13, 1961.
While teaching English and Sociology at Skelmersdale College, he started writing for NME, eventually landing a full-time job on the magazine and moving to London to become a music journalist.
His autobiography based on this time, Cider With Roadies, was published in 2005.
He’s also written for publications like Q, Elle, The Times and The Guardian, and his other books include Adventures On The High Teas: In Search Of Middle England and Never Mind The Quantocks.
He’s a keen walker, particularly in the Lake District, and supports Wigan Athletic Football Club.