England’s No.1…. through No. 50

Blame the Arctic Monkeys. Seems like the British music press can’t stop celebrating how wonderful British music is right now. Just a few weeks ago, the NME ran its list of the Greatest British Albums Of All Time – you know, the one in which Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I Am Not was deemed a better record than anything by The Beatles, Blur, Pulp, The Clash, The Jam, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Specials and The Who. Now it’s Mojo’s turn: in the March issue (yes, mum, my subscription finally came through) the ongoing challenger to Classic Rock monthly follows its Kinks cover story with a list of The 50 Greatest British Tracks Ever! (Exclamation mark is theirs.)

The Mojo writers take a somewhat more objective view than their colleagues at the NME, listing tracks chronologically rather than in any order of greatness, and limiting each artist to one song a piece. Some choices are painfully obvious – ‘A New England’, ‘Panic’, ‘A Rainy Night in Soho’ and ‘Common People’ among them – and some are quite surprising. ‘Wuthering Heights’? I guess so. ‘Sultans Of Swing’? Never thought about it that way. ‘Hurry Up Harry’? Wait, weren’t these meant to be the Greatest British Tracks Ever!? Meantime, you can argue that ‘That’s Entertainment’ and ‘Our House’ are no more or less quintessentially British than just about everything else by, respectively, The Jam and Madness, but you’re hardly likely to disagree that these acts warranted representation.

The most obvious omission among acts is the one that launched “lad culture” – which seems to me to have been the most overtly “British” youth development of the last 20 years. Yes, I’m talking about Oasis. Perhaps Noel Gallagher did not have his finger on the common man’s pulse, after all.

The Undertones the Best of British? Sorry lads, no Irish allowed.

But look closer – which might be easier to do from my distance back across the ocean – and Mojo‘s provincial prejudices are clearly revealed. There is by my initial scan, with the lone exception of Van Morrison, a complete and total lack of acts from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Can we really claim ‘Hurry Up Harry’ by Sham 69 as any greater than ‘Top Of The Pops’ by The Rezillos, ‘A Design For Life’ by Manic Street Preachers and ‘Teenage Kicks’ by The Undertones? Or is it just that a cockney accent somehow qualifies as more “British” than one which emanates from over the English border… When you’re employed as a magazine writer in central London, that is?

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3 Comment(s)

  1. snotty moore

    14 February, 2006 at 10:46 am

    This list deliberately consisted of songs which might be seen as carrying on the lineage of Davies, and in particular ‘Waterloo Sunset’, as the preamble didn’t make clear enough, so obviously the three tunes you nominate don’t fit that template. It should really have been billed as a collection of English songs- hence the presence of “Hurry Up Harry’, and its ‘cup of tea’.
    Plenty of Mojo writers live nowhere near central London, and few of them are Cockneys- some of them even reside in America, being Americans. I don’t see your point.

  2. 14 February, 2006 at 11:13 am


    I resolved today to answer all relevant recent comments, so I may as well start from the most recent. The point? Really the one that you made: This list – which I thoroughly enjoyed, much more so than NME’s subjective list of “Greatest” Albums – would have been better served removing Van Morrison and listing itself as the 50 Greatest English Tracks Ever!

    Mojo’s unwillingness to do so does raise an interesting ongoing question/conversation which I’ve returned to quite often over the years: The identity crisis of the English, who often feel they have to call themselves British to avoid being perceived as overly nationalist. We ran an interesting Pub Quiz on this subject a couple of years ago, and I learned a lot prior to that reading Jeremy Paxman’s book The English.

    Certainly no slur on the Mojo writers, many of whom I know to be good people. But I doubt I’m the only one who’s going to be asking that major question: Why call this list British when it was so evidently, almost purely English? Why not just celebrate the English songwriting tradition – and not slight the many equally talented Scottish, Welsh and Irish songwriters for failing to adhere to that tradition?

  3. snotty moore

    14 February, 2006 at 5:42 pm

    Actually, it might just have been an oversight. I agree with you about the quality of the list- there’s more than 25 years between Sham and Roots Manuva.
    Have you seen any of ‘Folk Britannia’? Now that is an interestingly flawed documentary series, which of course raises deep questions of what ‘native’ culture actually is.


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