Slum rock

Not Abba: the real story of the 1970s

Dave Haslam <em>Fourth Estate, 359pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 000

The writer and club DJ Dave Haslam grew up in the West Midlands and reached adolescence in his own private version of Jonathan Coe's The Rotters' Club - all IRA bombs, bigotry and industrial strife. His last memory of Wolverhampton, he says, involves getting lost en route to a concert organised by Rock Against Racism, headlined by the feminist punk group the Au Pairs.

Nearly three decades later, he goes back to the city to visit a theme bar called Flares, where the walls are etched with words such as "boogie", "fab" and "glam", and where the DJ plays Boney M's "Rivers of Babylon", Sylvester's disco hit "Mighty Real" and - but of course - Abba's "Dancing Queen". In vain, Haslam implores him to play something by Hawkwind or X-Ray Spex, but the man is having none of it. "It's just relentless," Haslam complains. "Thrown-together disco hits and boogie oogie-oogie . . . it soon just feels very, very depressing."

And so he establishes the central contention of Not Abba: that, far from being some rainbow-coloured era of mindless pleasure, the 1970s were tough, dark and nigh-on dystopic. Moreover, though most people were listening to Mud, the Rubettes and Abba, the law that says grim lives give rise to great art duly kicked in, and the decade produced some of the most splendid British music ever created.

As in Manchester, England, his admirable cultural history of his adopted home city, Haslam cuts his subject into free-flowing chapters that move at speed between politics, music and personally rendered social history. The pace is breathless; Olga Korbut takes her place next to Bloody Sunday, which is succeeded by thoughts on Marvin Gaye and T Rex. The exercise is at least partly driven by a quest to tie music to the social forces that inspired it, and on this count Haslam plays more than a few aces. For an understanding of how the sparkling 1960s gave way to the perilous 1970s, he advises a crash course on the early work of the Midlands heavy-metal pioneers Black Sabbath, the initial vehicle for Ozzy Osbourne - who characterised their output as "slum rock". Similarly, the passages about the Birmingham reggae band Steel Pulse serve as a primer on the inner-city tensions that so dramatically exploded early in the following decade. Musicians are cast as lightning rods, directing the frenetic currents of their time into records that still have the power to transfix the author.

So huge is the story, however, that 300-odd pages cannot do it justice. The melding of music and history occasionally feels arbitrary and some of Haslam's prose has the dull ring of stuff written in a hurry: The Joy of Sex is curtly described as a book that "detailed a choice of sexual positions". Neither is the narrative assisted by flights into old-left vocabulary - of the political clout wielded by the unions, Haslam writes: "Individual unions were acting in the interests of their members, but not necessarily other workers." But the most glaring drawback is the paucity of interview material. Haslam's original sources number just eight, and there is not an important musical figure among them. The reminiscences of a member of the Liverpudlian disco act the Real Thing are interesting enough - but in the absence of any members of, say, the Sex Pistols, they contribute to an awkward imbalance.

That said, by restricting his direct in-quiries either to fellow fans of that era's music or to figures who won fleeting success, Haslam manages to tap into a compelling social-historical grid. And such is his argument: that beyond the moronic dazzle of retro-culture, there lurk stories in danger of being forgotten. I take his point, though as someone who cut his teeth a decade later, I am not sure Haslam's generation has unique cause for complaint. My own memories of monetarism and the miners' strike can't compete with iconography built around the Rubik's cube and rah-rah skirts; were I to spend an evening at any one of the ever-increasing number of 1980s theme nights in Britain, I doubt the DJ would entertain my requests for the Redskins and the Style Council.

Still, thinking along those lines, this book may well have started something. Not Duran Duran, anybody?

John Harris's most recent book is So Now Who Do We Vote For? (Faber & Faber)