15/03/2019


Last Night in Soho (Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich) 1968
For last night in Soho I let my life go
I emerged from Leicester Square Tube into the sunlight and headed towards Soho. It is not an extensive district, a square mile or so lying roughly between the boundaries of Oxford Street, Regent Street, Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue, but it has played a significant part in British pop music since the early 1950’s. In fact it is like a geological slice cut through to show the different ages. There was skiffle, with the London Skiffle Centre opening in Wardour Street in 1955 and Chas McDevitt starting his own coffee bar Freight Train on the corner of Berwick Street and Noel Street in 1958, following the success of his recording of the same name. There was early British rock and roll, with the 2 I’s coffee bar in Old Compton Street, the launch pad for artists from Tommy Steele to Cliff Richard to Jet Harris, and El Condor on Wardour Street, where Marty Wilde played. There was jazz, with Ronnie Scott’s Club opening in 1959 in Gerrard Street, moving later to Frith Street. There was British pop and rock with the Marquee on Wardour Street and Denmark Street, Tin Pan Alley itself. There was rhythm and blues and ska with the Flamingo Club in Wardour Street, where Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames and Shotgun Express with Rod Stewart played. In 1965 there was folk and blues with Les Cousins on Greek Street, where Roy Harper and Donovan and Nick Drake all appeared. Later in the 70’s there was punk at the 100 Club, where the Clash and Stranglers played.

Given this heritage it is not surprising to find a raft of songs about Soho across the years. Al Stewart, who was living in Lisle Street in Soho when he recorded his first album Bedsitter Images in 1967, brought out a song called Soho (Needless to Say)  recalling his time then as part of his 1973 album Past, Present and Future, which also included songs about Nostradamus and Hitler’s invasion of Russia. Nothing if not eclectic. In 3 minutes or so, he throws in pornographic bookshops, strip clubs, pinball arcades, winos, prostitutes, roaming football supporters and jazz musicians on the breadline It echoes Paul Simon’s picture of Soho from his 1965 Blessed track, which listed “meth drinkers, pot sellers, illusion dwellers.. penny rookers, cheap hookers, groovy lookers“ as presumably the people most likely to be seen when wandering round the area. Al Stewart, however, tops it by coming out with a line  which has a non-sequitor so great it leaves the listener baffled by what it is supposed to mean: “The sun goes down on a neon eon, though you'd have a job explaining it to Richard Coeur de Lion”.

The Kinks 1970 hit, Lola, had a similar take on Soho with the story of a transvestite encounter in the kind of club where champagne tastes like coca-cola. The Pogues turned a wet evening in Soho into a love song in their 1991 Rainy Night in Soho track. Two years later Kirsty MacColl brought out another love song set there , the evocative and poignant Soho Square. Following her death in 2000 when a speeding powerboat illegally strayed into a diving area off a Mexican beach, a memorial bench to her was placed  in the square, with a plaque reading  "One day I'll be waiting there / No empty bench in Soho Square" The Cuban ambassador to London, amongst others, attended the ‘opening’ of the bench in 2001. Now you can come and sit and watch the pigeons shiver in the trees and remember what a talented and under-rated singer-songwriter she was, once described by Billy Bragg as “the missing link between Sandie Shaw and Lily Allen”. Soho Square has become one of those places I look at differently because of a song. Previously it seemed a rather tatty little piece of ground ,full of pigeons and just a place to pass through on the way from Oxford Street to Greek Street or Frith Street. With Kirsty MacColl’s words in my head I look for an empty bench and see if the pigeons are flying.

There is another song that often comes into my head at those times I pass through Soho, Last Night in Soho from 1968 by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich (DDDBMT). It came out just around the time I left home and headed for London, with Soho just a name that caused sniggers and winks at school. Actually, my main experience of it initially  was making my way to the record shop Musicland on Berwick Street, where, as the 60’s turned into the 70’s, the shop became a beacon of underground and pyschedelia music, where you could listen to records in a booth with the smell of incense and patchouli in the air and  pay extra (59/6 as opposed to 32/6)  to get an early version of the latest American import by Tim Buckley or Ultimate Spinach. Elton John and Bernie Taupin apparently used to frequent the place around the same time so maybe I passed by them one Saturday afternoon. It was only much later I discovered that the site had been occupied a decade before by a coffee bar, Freight Train, set up by skiffler Chas McDevitt after his hit of the same name.

Later I had a job at a shop near Grosvenor Square where deliveries sometimes took me through the streets of daytime Soho, past the illicit bookshops, porno cinemas, signs for Large Chest for Sale and the flashing lights of the strip clubs, where performers would on occasion anxiously ask the time as they rushed from one performance to another. Malcolm McDowell was playing a schoolboy rebel in If at that time but in later years in films like Our Friends In The North and Gangster No1 he made his  own the kind of gangland figure of 1960’s Soho behind the clubs and bookstores. There is a very atmospheric black and white film from 1963, The Small World of Sammy Lee, starring Anthony Newley as a strip club compere needing to find £300 by the end of the day to pay off a debt and fend off a beating and roaming around the area of Greek Street, Dean Street and Wardour Street in his efforts. The x-rated  film posters of the time declared “Soho-Stripped Bare” and the film captured perfectly the seedy side of 60’s Soho.

It is this Soho that DDDBMT sing of in Last Night in Soho, the story of a reformed gang member trying to go straight but throwing his new life and love away for one last job. DDDBMT occupied the same kind of musical niche in the 60’s that Slade did in the 70’s, though they were much more firmly part of pop. Both groups had a showman lead singer, a sound and image that appealed to both boys and girls and across ages, a string of catchy songs that couldn’t help but  make you smile, and enough live presence and musical ability to make it clear they were no manufactured outfit. Tich’s prowess with the fuzz-box guitar and balalaika was commented on at the time by Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix and drummer Mick had a highly impressive way of twirling his drumsticks as he played. The groups were also as distinctly English as Carry On films and never really cracked the USA market, though  Quentin Tarantino  regarded them as one of his favourite 60’s groups and used Hold Tight on the soundtrack of his 2007 film Death Proof. DDDBMT were, however, hugely popular in Germany and remained so  for the rest of their career.

What DDDBMT lacked, though, were  songwriters in their ranks and all of their 13 hits were written by Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley, who  first had success with the Honeycombs and Have I The Right. The songs for DDDBMT were of two types. The first were catchy sing-alongs, almost football chants, driven by  stomping drums and droning fuzz guitar: You Make It Move, Hold Tight, Hideaway, Okay, Touch Me, Bend It ,the last beloved by schoolboys who could go round singing ‘Bend it, bend it, just a little bit’ while waggling their finger like Dave Dee on Top of the Pops. The song was rewritten as a ‘clean’ version  for the USA release to make The Bend sound like a new dance, when Little Eva, of The Locomotion and Turkey Trot fame, recorded it.

The second were a string of little kitsch dramas set to music. There was Zabadak, with its African drums and made-up language; The Legend of Xanadu, the tune basically rewritten a year later as The Wreck of the Antoinette; Don Juan. They were all enjoyable pantomime and Last Night in Soho fell into this  group, a story set in the seedy side of Swinging London with a suitably dramatic musical backing. Dave Dee later reckoned it to be their best song but it turned out to be their last Top Ten hit. A year or so later Dave Dee left for a solo career that never took off. The rest continued as a quartet rebadged as DBMT for a while, getting rather ‘heavy’ whilst growing hair and beards and recording a couple of protest songs with Tonight Today and Mr President , a track that also  featured early use of the moog synthesiser. They were no more successful than Dave Dee and threw in the towel after a while, though returning on the nostalgia circuit some years later with a new ‘Mick’, whose real name was John. Howard and Blaikley had a shorter run of success with the Herd, the launch-pad for Peter Frampton, giving them  their first hit From The Underworld, a song based on the mythical story of Orpheus and Eurydice. They then rather spoiled things by going serious with a concept album by  Flaming Youth about the evacuation of a dying Earth, featuring a young Phil Collins. Nobody  remembers it now, not like Bend It or Have I the Right.

Last Night In Soho and the rest of DDDBMT’s work came at a time when pop and rock were starting their divergent paths.. Rock headed off to albums instead of singles, serious intent, critical analysis, and musical virtuosity taken to extreme at times. I remember attending a University concert around 1971 by Arthur Lee and Love, one of whose classic songs was Alone Again Or, a 3 minute track complete with mariachi band arrangements, strings and Spanish guitar touches. What we got was a new line-up, a 20 minute drum solo by George  Suranovich and a 15 minute bass solo from Frank Fayad. I can’t remember who played lead guitar but he probably did a solo too. If I had  been to see Genesis a couple of years later , I would have heard a bass pedal solo. By contrast pop, for some years at least, was banished to teeny-poppers and Top of the Pops, not worthy of comment by the new wave of rock critics who thought they were really rock stars, tended to get snooty about what was and what wasn’t valid and produced lists and books on 100 Essential Albums, which usually reflected their own record collection. In 1972 in a discussion about musical tastes I found myself in an imaginary H.M Bateman cartoon entitled The Student Who Admitted He Liked the Kinks More Than the Grateful Dead.

 Seen in historical perspective, the strict division being established between pop and rock by the late 1960’s seems bizarre, leading to the under-estimation of some pop, and the over-rating of some rock, bands. It was also hard for bands to pass from one to the other though a few managed it, but not DBMT. The 60’s pop Small Faces successfully metamorphosed  into the 70’s rock  Faces with some changes of personnel and Status Quo passed from being a psychedelic-lite pop outfit into the 3-chord boogie band beloved of 70’s head-bangers, but most pop groups were more effective staying just that, rarely impressing when they grew long hair and  moustaches and strayed towards extended guitar solos, double albums and serious lyrics. Humble Pie, the ‘super-group’ formed round Steve Marriot , never produced anything as memorable as All or Nothing or Itchycoo Park 

What is more, the single became overshadowed by the album as far as critical appraisal went for much of the next decade, until punk re-established its validity In 1969 you could completely  miss a  gem like the singles I’m the One Love Forgot by the Pretenders (a New Jersey  r n b group with Pat Tandy singing lead, not the Chrissie Hynde outfit), or The Picture Matches Mine by Laura Lee, (an uncharacteristically gentle song from a Detroit soul singer who pioneered punchy feminist anthems like Wedlock is a Padlock in the early 70’s). Both passed by unrecognised while every ‘serious’ music publication proclaimed that you must spend 1 hour and 18 minutes of your life listening to Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica double album, as a University flat mate of the time  frequently did.  Devotees of this album always say, ”Don’t think of it as music, more a work of art” or  “You won’t get it the first time.” Er...no.

The split between pop and rock, however, meant that lines were drawn and it was years before the audiences of either side felt able to cross over again. Even the Beatles couldn’t escape, with Paul McCartney labelled ‘Pop’ and John Lennon ‘Rock’. It was silly really. Take these 2 sets of lyrics from songs 2 years apart. “You’ll hear my words on the winds, across the sands, if you should return to that black barren land” They are from The Legend of Xanadu by DDDBMT and therefore pop fluff for teenage girls that might turn up in the pages of Valentine or Jackie. Then there is “Ah, ah, We come from the land of the ice and snow, From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow.” They are from The Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin and are man-size rock lyrics you could drive a truck and eat a Yorkie bar to, maybe even rip someone’s eyeballs out to.

DDDMBT remain classic pop, with tongues firmly in cheek. However, the Soho of their song, with the protection racket gangsters, shuttered bookshops and clubs serving champagne that tastes like coca-cola at extortionate prices to hapless punters seems just around the corner if you go down Frith Street with Last Night in Soho in your head.





24/08/2018

Old Shanghai



There are  places which have always carried an irresistible air of far away and exotic mystery for me from an early age, including both China and Shanghai. Emile Ford and the Checkmates had a hit in 1960 with a version of On a Slow Boat to China which just reinforced the idea of China being so impossibly far away it was almost imaginary. This notion was confirmed by Christmas trips to the Pantomime which often turned out to be Aladdin and where China was again an exotic, distant locale that merged into a fairy story with magic lamps and lanterns and songs about noodle soup and poodle soup at the supermarket in Old Peking. About the same time I was taken to see the film Inn of the Sixth Happiness,  supposedly set in pre World War 2 China at the time of the Japanese invasion. The fact that it was actually shot in Snowdonia passed me by, as did the oddity of the Mandarin of Yang Cheng being played by a white British actor, Robert Donat. I did, however, wonder how and why all the Chinese child refugees were singing This Old Man in perfect English as they marched to safety behind Ingrid Bergman. It just added to the notion of China being a very strange country.
Shanghai itself remained even more akin to a fairy tale place to me, a notion helped by an old book from the genre of ‘rattling good yarns’ called Shanghai Adventure that I found about the house and from family stories about a great grandfather and sea captain named Damnation Joe, who had  gone to sea as a midshipman at the age of 15  and sailed the seas to  Rangoon, Cape Town, Sydney and Columbo, bringing home a parrot that could swear and a crocodile. He also sailed one of the fast tea clippers from China and I sometimes imagined him in Shanghai strolling past the shipping offices along the Bund dressed in white linen and pipe-clayed shoes –or maybe even carried in a sedan chair - whilst barefooted Chinese labourers loaded the matted tea chests onto the ship. The reality was probably nothing like that but just the name ’Shanghai’ seems to inspire romantic notions. Take some of the songs about the place. John Denver rhapsodised that “Shanghai breezes soft and gentle remind me of your tenderness” in his 1982 track Shanghai Breezes. Ed Harcourt imagined moving to Shanghai “to  swim beneath the ocean, watch the red sky…and have our own rickshaw cart” in the Shanghai track on the Here Be Monsters album. Joe Jackson dreamt of  being “ by the river in Shanghai. The colour of the sky is something I've never seen” in his Shanghai Sky track from 1986.
Looking across the skyline with the Pearl Tower, the Jin Mao Tower, the skyscrapers and towering office blocks stretching off into the distance and manic traffic that makes one feel that one had somehow entered a video game when you are in the midst of it, it was difficult to recognise the picture painted by these songs, especially on those days when the air pollution count was high enough to close schools, pedestrians and cyclists went about in face masks  and the horizon was invisible through the smog. Yet despite  all the rapid expansion and changes of the past 20 years or so, the magic of old Shanghai could still be spotted not just along the Bund or French Concession district where the old colonial buildings still stand but  even in the city centre where it is easy to soon see someone practising the graceful movements of tai-chi or a group sitting round concentrating on a  game of mah-jong or the entrance to an old alleyway where you can see the bright colours of quilts and clothes fluttering on ropes to dry and smell the aromas of chicken soup and soybeans. In People’s Park it was possible to see  an odd but also rather touching attempt to merge the old and new when, on a Sunday afternoon, parents with unmarried children set up stall with some written details of their son or daughter - age, height, education, job, salary, zodiac sign, rarely a photo – in the hope of finding a match and suitable marriage partner. I somehow doubted the success rate.
The song that captures for me this mixture is one released by the American singer/songwriter  Beck (Hansen)  as sheet music in his Song Reader project in 2012 and entitled Old Shanghai, an evocative piece of old men smoking in cafes and lanterns under the night sky.  As intended, there have been a number of versions of the song, including one by the Teng Ensemble, a Singapore outfit that blends traditional and modern musical influences but the one I found most suited to my own feelings of the place was by the Portland Cello Project with Lizzy Ellison of Portland indie band Radiation City on vocals, released in 2013. It slopes along with the kind of lazy Sunday afternoon feeling you sometimes get in a Randy Newman song, like his Dayton, Ohio 1903, past and present merging as when you find a spot of tranquillity sitting by one of the ponds or pavilions  in Yu Gardens with the sky scrapers temporarily out of sight and mind. Maybe  the song was right  and there's more to do than there is to say in old Shanghai

29/07/2012

Rainbow Valley




A previous column (Voyage to Atlantis) mentioned some songs about places  that exist only in fantasy, like The Land of Grey and Pink or the Land of Ooo-Bla-Dee. Generally, the listener doesn’t expect to actually come across such a place in reality, though I suppose someone coming out of, say, Images Night Club in Hemel Hempstead on a Saturday night might think they were in Lipps Inc’s Funky Town. There are, however, some places that exist only in the mind in song but which the listener can sometimes  translate into reality.

The song in this column is such an example, Rainbow Valley by the Love Affair from 1968. There are, no doubt, real places somewhere called Rainbow Valley but this song was about an Over the Rainbow sort of place, first released by American soul singer Robert Knight. It was the follow up record to the Love Affair’s Number One, Everlasting Love and, like that hit, the track consisted of session players – driven by the drumming of Clem Cattini and the thundering bass lines of Russ Stableford – with the distinctive vocals of Love Affair’s Steve Ellis, a singer in the Steve Marriot mould. This wasn’t an unusual practice but  for some reason the Love Affair were given a particularly hard time by the press over not playing on their records and their career suffered. After a few more smaller  hits Ellis, their main asset, left and that was that – though a version of the Love Affair may well be playing in your area next week. The song itself, with its rainbows and cotton candy sky, could have been a bit of schmaltzy pop fluff but somehow is a rather touching yearning for a personal  Shangri-La over  the next horizon. (There was also a later reggae version by the Heptones). The video accompanying the song at the end of the column, however, is one of those that makes you wonder what on earth was happening in the director’s mind. Even if you assume a kind of wacky surrealism a la Monkees was the aim, it makes no sense whatsoever.

However, the track did have another feature that distinguishes a small number of songs -  when the uncredited backing vocals move from being an unnoticed background to being  an integral part of the overall effect, in this case the ‘meet me where the rainbow ends’ bit (which I have seen attributed to both members of the Sue and Sunny backing duo and to Carol Brett). An earlier example was the 1961 Number One Joe Meek produced hit, Johnny Remember Me for actor/singer John Leyton, with ghostly background vocals from a session singer (Lissa Gray) adding to the atmospheric effect. John Leyton might now be best recognised for his part in the Great Escape film that appears on TV with monotonous regularity but he had an interesting little run of hits in the early 60’s, mainly written by a rather quirky songwriter Geoff Goddard who shared Joe Meek’s interest in séances and spiritualism ,adding an eerie quality to many of his songs (Another Goddard-penned hit for John Leyton, the grammatically correct Son This Is She, had the narrator's dead dad giving advice from The Beyond on his choice of partner. "A voice from above said, 'Son, this is she.'" ). Johnny Remember Me, too, has some pleasing links with previous columns:

1)It was recorded at Joe Meek’s studios on Holloway Road, mentioned in the Holloway Road column
2) One of the musicians on the track was Chas Hodges of Chas 'n Dave, who has drifted in and out of columns in this meander down  the by-ways of British pop history
3) About the same time as I had my memorable conversation with Christine McVie as Fleetwood Mac tried to find their way to Reading University (Wild West End column), Geoff Goddard was working in the University coffee bar and catering department. It is perhaps not too fanciful to imagine he might have served Fleetwood Mac tea and a plate of chips when they got to their destination. Indeed the twists and turns of time.

Another example was the winceable 1975 Paul Anka hit, You’re Having My Baby, in which the nameless female singer (actually Odia Coates) assures him that, yes indeed, she is having his baby. Still, it did win  him two awards: the ‘Keep Her In Her Place’ award and the ‘Male Chauvinist Pig of the Year’ award. Or there is this  1966 Billy Stewart version of Ol’ Man River, a perfect example of lead and background vocals merging into a whole greater than the parts. In the then uncredited backing were not only soul outfit the Dells but also, providing a backdrop, the soaring and  incomparable voice of a young Minnie Riperton.

Why Rainbow Valley features in a blog on real places  is because of a recent trip to the Forest of Dean and the Wye Valley, on the Gloucestershire/Herefordshire borders.  There have been songs actually about this area. Spirogyra, a progressive folk outfit  from the early 70’s did a song The Forest of Dean:” In The Valley of Wye ,looking up at Symond’s Yat, we first noticed the sky , wondering, in the Valley of Wye” .There was also  another prog folk group from the same era, Decameron, whose main man, Johnny Coppin, went on to record  a number of songs about the area, including this track This Night The Stars, a poem by Forest of Dean poet Leonard Clark put to music.

Yet neither of these came to mind on the trip .It had been raining and the view from the top of Symonds Yat was initially shrouded in thick mist. Then for a brief time it cleared and the view that was  spread out below like a tapestry appeared piece by piece like a  photo developing in a darkroom. The rainbow that appeared as the mist dispersed wasn’t captured in the picture above but as it arked over the Wye Valley, with the river cutting its way through the woods and patchwork of fields, a song from years ago came to mind; Rainbow Valley. And for those few moments, before the mist crept back and shrouded the view once again, it seemed a perfect fit.

15/07/2012

Dubrovnik





A constant theme in this blog has been that places spark particular associations. Sometimes these can be so specific that everyone automatically makes the mental link. Can you think of Pisa without the Leaning Tower? (Here’s a tip that no-one has ever thought of.  When taking a photo of the Leaning Tower get a friend to stand in the perspective with their arm out so it looks as though they are holding the Tower up). Or Cheddar without the Gorge? They become defined by the association. As They  Might Be Giants put it:  “New York has tall buildings, New Jersey has its malls. Pisa has a leaning tower. Will it ever fall?” (Where Do They Put Balloons?) 

The same can apply on a wider scale to whole countries that have become inextricably linked in the mind and through songs  with a specific period of their history, usually to do with a war or conflict of some sort. Wars have  been a perennial topic in pop songs from the earliest days –one of record producer Joe Meek’s (see Holloway Road column)  first big successes was Lay Down Your Arms by Anne Shelton in 1956. In fact, the following wars and conflicts, amongst others, have been referenced in song:

Iraq Invasion: (Operation Iraqi Liberation -  David Rovics)
Yugoslav Wars ( Bosnia - The Cranberries)
Falklands War (Shipbuilding-Elvis Costello)
Vietnam War (See below)
Korean War (I Bombed Korea- Cake)
Spanish Civil War (Spanish Bombs-The Clash)
World War 1 ( Hanging In The Wire- P J Harvey)
Boer War (Two Little Boys - Rolf Harris)
Spanish-American  war (Galveston - Glen Campbell)
American Civil war (Billy Don’t be a Hero - Paper Lace)
American Indian wars (Soldier Blue - Buffy St Marie)
Crimean War (5 4 3 2 1 –Manfred Mann)
Napoleonic Wars (Waterloo - Abba)
Anglo-American War of 1812-15 (Battle of New Orleans - Johnny Horton)
English Civil War (Young Ned of the Hill-The Pogues)
Trojan War ( 5 4 3 2 1 - Manfred Mann)

In fact here is 54321: 2 wars,erudite lyrics, polo neck sweaters, glasses and  a beard, all in less than 2 minutes: intellectuals or what? (The follow-up, Hubble Bubble Toil and Trouble, threw in a bit of Shakespeare)

I have omitted a glaring instance :World War 2.  There have been pop  songs about it – Enola Gay by OMD for example - but they are surprisingly few. After all, the first wave of  British groups, the Beatles, Stones et al, were born during World War 2 and the second wave spent their formative years watching war films on TV and at the cinema and reading comics where Germans said things like “Donner und Blitzen, the Englisher is a schweinhund”. Yet few chose to look a few years back for musical inspiration ( true to retrospective  form the Kinks were an exception with Mr Churchill Says).  Maybe World War 2 was just too near and too big to sing about. Or maybe the War became mixed up with those figures of authority – parents, teachers, town hall officials, park keepers, policemen – that emerging pop music rebelled against. A stereotypical figure then was the Dad with pipe and slippers and steam coming from his ears watching a group like the Pretty Things on TV and saying, ‘I fought in the war for that lot’. Followed by ‘What they need is a bath, a haircut and music lessons’. The War seemed to the musical generation emerging  then a remote event.( I was initially startled when I recently read that some British tanks in World War 2 had pictures of Petula Clark on them as a mascot. How could that possibly be without a time warp? Then I realised that by the time of Downtown in 1964   Petula Clark had already had several careers: as the British Shirley Temple as a child film/radio actress   - hence the mascot photos –and success as  a singer in the UK and France, her first hit coming a decade before Downtown. Her Little Blue Man track was also ahead of its time ,a decade or so before pyschedelia.)

Some of these  examples above have left some countries marooned in a particular time period. The obvious example is Vietnam, which has a large number of songs about it but nearly all of which are about the Vietnam War and are  mostly   American , for obvious reasons. The only British ones  I  can think of are Eric Burdon and the New Animals’ Sky Pilot and  Paul Hardcastle’s 19, which was a hit years later in 1985. Yet it remains perhaps the most musically covered of all wars, partly as the peak years co-incided with pop music finding a political voice, though some -  like Springsteen’s Born in the USA – came well after the event. One of the most effective was Feel Like I’m Fixin' To Die Rag, first released by Country Joe and the Fish in 1967 and given later popularity through the acoustic version in the Woodstock film. Effective because of its sense of  the absurd, a singalong chorus that  anti-war demonstrators en route to Grosvenor Square and the American embassy could dance along to and lyrics that went deeper than its tune suggested. This aside however, Country Joe’s only brush with commercial success in the UK came  rather bizarrely in 1976 when the model Twiggy had a surprise hit with Here I Go Again, several years after the track had first appeared on a Country Joe album.

Another example is the former Yugoslavia, previously discussed in the column Lyla. Songs like Bosnia, or Dubrovnik is Burning, or Yugoslavia  leave  the region in the 1990’s just as Vietnam is left in the 1965-1975 decade. The song here from 2010 , however, Dubrovnik, by  Northampton group My First Tooth offers an escape of sorts, a song of poetic  imagery and hope: “Cannons calm from years of truce, after sad years of misuse, Dubrovnik poured into me, from castle to emerald sea”.  (The eery noise  at the beginning sounds like the musical saw again but I think it is singing). 

Dubrovnik is full of the past, of course. The recent past is there in the  new roof tiles replacing those smashed by shells, and in the photos of those killed in its siege. But it is the more distant past that fills the present, with the castle walls, bell-tower, alleyways and monasteries and a sense of entering a time machine as you pass through  the  city gates. And as you look out from the castle walls, there is the blue and emerald sea, timeless there for millennia.

01/07/2012

Central Park



The park as a place to go has cropped up a few times before, in For What Is Chatteris and Trafalgar Square. Parks have been one of those places that have played an important part in  social and cultural life  but often pass unnoticed. They are just there, part of the scenery most of the time. Frankly, they are not that exciting most of the time - depending on your age and location, good for feeding the ducks/playing on swings/walking a dog/drinking cider and cans of Tennents/eating your lunch on a bench/writing graffiti on a bench/setting fire to a bench.

 Yet they have served as a useful backdrop for a fair number of songs, a useful place to set a little story of love or loss in 3 minutes. Curtis Mayfield’s Um Um Um Um Um, covered by Major Lance and Wayne Fontana, is a study of existentialist angst set on a park bench: “Walking through the park, it wasn't quite dark, there was a man sitting on a bench. Out of the crowd as his head lowly bowed he just moaned and he made no sense. He'd just go Um, um, um, um, um, um, um, um, um, um, um, um” .He might have had a can of Tennents too. In the Chi-lites' Have You Seen Her, the narrator is sat on a park bench watching the children play and asking passers-by if they have seen his lost love.  Billy Stewart’s Sitting in the Park has been mentioned before and remains one of those songs that seems virtually impossible to do a duff version of, though with particularly good covers by  Georgie Fame and Alton and Hortense Ellis. (Groovin' - surely set in a park - ’ is another song that appears to survive any interpretation intact, though the original by the Young Rascals remains the definitive one). Reggae outfit the Chantells took the same theme of being stood up in a park in Waiting In The Park. Parks don’t really seem a good bet for a successful date judging by the numbers of people sat there patiently waiting for their partner to turn up.

Since the early days of pop,  songs have also appeared about specific parks as well as parks in general. The American ones sound brasher and more exciting than the English ones. Freddy Cannon sang of New Jersey’s Palisades Park in 1962, complete with fairground sounds and tinny organ that sound like the rides at Weymouth fair. Jim Webb immortalised the melting Macarthur Park in Los Angeles in his over wrought classic about a possibly metaphorical cake, first recorded by Richard Harris and covered scores of times since. Then there’s Bruce Springsteen’s Asbury Park with auroras and switchblade lovers. English parks tend to be more sedate.  Even the Small Faces’ very urban Itchycoo Park, supposedly based on Little Ilford Park in Newham,  mentioned the bridge of sighs and dreaming spires. Kathryn Williams sang of Newcastle’s Leazes Park with a gentle melancholy. The Zombies sang of Hertfordshire’s Beechwood Park in a forgotten piece of very  English psychedelia that paints a wistful remembrance of an English past:” Do you remember summer days, just after summer rain. When all the air was damp and warm in the green of country lanes.” (The song came from their 1968 album Odessey and Oracle. When the Zombies first hit the charts much was made of the group members having 50 'O' levels between them. Surely  St Albans Grammar School should have taught them the correct spelling of 'Odyssey'.)

London and New York both have famous parks, of course – Hyde Park and Central Park – but their musical treatment has also been rather different, perhaps reflecting the different way these places have been seen. Hyde Park, in fact, has not figured that much in song, odd perhaps given its significance for demonstrations and open air concerts over the years from Blind Faith and the Stones onwards: maybe its history and royal connections make it too unlikely a topic for pop songs. Its main musical focus, in fact, has been Speakers Corner, referenced amongst others  by Bob Dylan in TV Talking Song  and in the Bacharach-David song, London Life.  I once saw a wonderful example in Hyde Park, though, of the past and present merging. At an Anti-Nazi  League demonstration, amongst the ‘Pensioners/Skins/Ex-Servicemen Against the Nazis’ etc crowds and placards was a small group dressed up like Beau Brummel in Regency finery and powdered wigs under a banner headed ‘18th Century Fops Against the Nazis’. The point is that the setting of Hyde Park made one wonder for a moment if some strange time-warp had actually taken place.

New York’s Central Park provides a musical counterpoint in many ways. Mostly, Hyde Park in songs remains just that –a park. Central Park gets mythologised in a way mentioned before with American places when compared to English ones. Its reputation, of course, was once as a pretty scary place where unspeakable things happened after dark .In the 1970 comedy film The Out of Towners, the hapless couple from Ohio, played by Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis, are inevitably mugged in Central Park -shortly after they had been kidnapped. So you had the 1974 hit for Thunderthighs, Central Park Arrest: “Come out, I know that you're there, I have a gun, so you'd better beware”.  You also had Ian Hunter - all the way from Shropshire -  plastering on with a trowel  as usual the American Myth  in his 1981 track Central Park 'n West. “It's like a living hell ,New York's finest rounding up the bums. The firemen get no rest, and ambulances signal death, on Central Park 'n' West.”

Things can change, however, and walking round the lake or visiting Strawberry Fields now it is not hard to forget you are in the middle of New York -  though at the last visit a sudden snow storm had left part of the Park looking devastated. The song here from 2009, Central Park by British artist Mr Hudson, fits this new image. ( Mr Hudson is often compared to Sting but this track reminds me more  of Prefab Sprout.) Whereas the Ian Hunter type of song makes Central Park even more ‘American’ than it is, this story of heartbreak makes it sound rather European: it could almost be set in Paris, the Hudson Hotel aside, with Jules and Jim on their bicycles.


Parks in song often take on an extra dimension. They are not just places to pass away a work lunch-hour or a Sunday morning. They are the spark for more epic and noble thoughts than thinking about your pork pie  and crisps or what that dog is going to do. Instead, they are the setting for love and loss, hope and despair. And I guess Central Park is a grand enough landscape  for that.




17/06/2012

Champs Elysees



Everybody probably has a notion somewhere inside of their head of some special  place they have a yearning to see, sometimes realistic, sometimes not. That place could be a country or city as yet unvisited but high up on a mental list of places to see. It could be somewhere that has always exerted a pull on the imagination  from a description in a poem or story, like a mermaid singing a siren song:  like Petra, rose red city half as old as time, or the Golden Road to Samarkand. Or it could just be somewhere much nearer to home. Charlene had been to Nice and the Isle of Greece (pedantically this should surely be ‘an Isle of Greece’ or ‘the Isles of Greece’ ) but had never been to me.

These are all personal and individual  but there are some places that seem to carry a more universal appeal,  where most  people feel they must surely go one day. One of these is Paris. Think of those songs that are not so much about having been to Paris but about  an idealized  dream of being there, especially in spring. Like Pavlov’s dog, the lyrical associations triggered by Paris seem predictable: Paris-spring-romance. Like April in Paris, for example,  or Andy Williams’  Under Paris Skies :” Love becomes king the moment it's spring under Paris skies, Lonely hearts meet somewhere on the street of desire”. Or, really going into romantic over-drive, Maurice Chevalier’s, You will Find Your Love in Paris: “You will find your love in Paris when you walk along the Seine. When you fall in love in Paris it’s a river of champagne”. In fact, the allure of Paris seems  so  general and automatic that German group Basta made a point by recording Ich Will Nicht Nach Paris (“Paris is no Paradise, I don’t want to go to Paris”).

These are all about  Paris in general, as an idea. When it comes to specific areas, songs about Paris, like London, are selective in where they choose. There  aren’t, for example, many about La Defense, with its concrete and high rises .Much more evocative sounding is 'Boulevard de la Madeleine',  the long boulevard running past the Madeleine and Opera Metro stops and  title of a 1966 Moody Blues track  with the original line-up that  included the wonderfully named Clint  Warwick : much more mean and moody than his real name of Albert Eccles. (Like Reg Presley of the Troggs, aka Reginald Ball, a change of name can do wonders for the image). The song passed by largely unnoticed, though there was a later cover version by Dutch group Pussycat. Undeterred, the Moodies changed musical direction and headed off to a new horizon where they spied a Threshold of a Dream shimmerering, though losing Clint Warwick on the way.

Alternatively, there are other quarters of the city that seem equally attractive  for a musical evocation. The Left Bank, of course, heralded by Paul McCartney and Wings in Café on the Left Bank and by Winifred Atwell following up her 1956  Poor People of Paris hit with Left Bank, this time featuring an accordion as accompaniment   instead of a musical saw. The Seine is  a favoured scene musically. Dean Martin did the usual ‘lovers by the lovely River Seine’ stuff with The River Seine. The Style Council went for a  more sophisticated image  with Down in the Seine, chucking in some verses in French a la Beatles and Michelle to show they were  more cosmopolitan than an outfit  like - well, say, the Jam. Sheffield band the Crookes went for a more Orwellian Down and Out in Paris and London approach with the Smiths-like By the Seine, which manages to get both ‘proletariat’ and ‘scullion’ in the lyrics, neither of which are often heard in a pop song oddly enough.

The song here from 2010, Champs Elysee -  by Danish duo Hush (Dorthe Gerlach and  Michael Hartmann)  -  is about the Champs Elysee, naturally,  and the Seine. But it’s more about not going somewhere ,a  bittersweet track of regret of  never getting to the place of your dreams: its poignancy is heightened by the little details like getting a dog-sitter in place. In fact, it turns the 'lovers walking by the Seine' theme on its head. It has echoes of The Ballad of Lucy Jordan, in which not getting to  Paris also figures as a theme. Though that song  is probably best known through the Marianne Faithful version, the original was by Dr Hook, who had come to fame with another Shel Silverstein song, Sylvia’s Mother. (This last  track made me realise how much the rapid changes in technology have made some relatively recent  songs sound comically antiquated to modern ears. To someone brought up on mobiles, Skype and Facebook the notion of an operator constantly asking for 40 cents more for the next 3 minutes  [Sylvia’s Mother] or having to say “Oh, please, operator, If he doesn't have another dime ,reverse the charge to me, but put him on the line” [Brenda Holloway’s Operator] must sound as remote as  penning a letter with a quill pen, sending it off with a boy from the  village on horseback and waiting 2 weeks for a reply).

Champs Elysees means Elysian Fields -heaven on earth. Reality doesn’t always match up, of course, and a visit to Paris isn’t always the height of glamorous sophistication. I once accompanied a French tutor taking a group of her adult students to Paris. The tutor decided to go off to see the Mona Lisa and wasn’t back when the coach was due to depart to catch the ferry home. The coach driver asked where she was. ‘”She’s gone to the Louvre”. Whether it was my attempt at a French accent or his hearing but there followed a surreal conversation from which I eventually realised he thought I had said “She’s gone to the loo.” Coach driver: ”Well, has she gone far?” Me :”It’s at the end of the Champs Elysee. She took a taxi I think”. Coach driver: “Why has she  gone all the way there? Is she going to be long?” Me: “I looked in earlier and the queues were pretty long then. I decided not to bother.” etc.

 Hush are good at creating a mood of wistfulness and regret:as here or their For All The Right Reasons, which has the kind of plaintive yearning heard in much of the Sundays' work .It suits the type of place here, places I imagine rather than remember.



01/06/2012

Wild West End




The West End of London  is a flexible term. It can mean that shopping area round Oxford Street and Regent Street, the focus of the Everything But The Girl Oxford Street song in which teenage Tracy Thorne, growing up in Hatfield, dreams of escape to the West End. It can mean more specifically  the theatre district round Leicester Square and Shaftesbury Avenue, the equivalent of On Broadway. Or it could be a more general term , the posh opposite of the East End. Oddly, though, whilst individual parts within the West End have been the topic of songs – Soho, of course, or Trafalgar Square – there haven’t been that many about the West End as such. The best known is the first Pet Shop Boys hit, West End Girls, though that is about universal  class and urban divisions as much as about a geographical place. Somehow, the West End has often seemed more suited either to musicals or to songs from a long bygone era than to  pop songs: A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square or Lets All Go Down the Strand (have a banana)

The song here –Wild West End from Dire Straits debut album in 1978 – shines a totally different light on it, however. Like Squeeze and the Police, Dire Straits came at the tail end of British punk, too musically sophisticated for punk and too lyrically sophisticated for mainstream rock. However, their later mega success, especially with the 30 million seller Brothers In Arms album, left them rather unfairly with a very 80’s image: coffee table CDs, Princess Diana approval  and merchant bankers donning a Mark Knopfler headband to be a guitar hero in front of the mirror, much like a previous generation had copied Hank Marvin of the Shadows

It’s quite a multi-layered song. The lazy summer mood and the sound of Mark Knopfler’s National guitar gives a feel of strolling down the main street of a small North Carolina town and the whole song mythologises the ordinary  in the manner of Bruce Springsteen. Listening again to the early Dire Straits sound I was also reminded of another track I couldn’t place at first, then remembered  -  Dion’s Written On the Subway Walls from his Yo Frankie album. However my memory of this was incorrect. I had mentally placed it as around 1976 and assumed that Dire Straits were making a rather obscure nod  in his direction. The album actually dates from 1989 so the influence  was the other way round – and, in fact, I noticed that Terry Williams, the second Dire Straits drummer, played on it. So the to and fro of music across the years is even more tangled – a singer who made his name in the first era of American rock n roll and doo-wop shows the influences of a post-punk British group which itself drew on a variety of music past, including early rock. There is another tangential link between the songs. The 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' segment on the Dion track is sung by Paul Simon. One of his memorable lyrical images is the opening of Graceland: ’The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar’, the lead instrument on Wild West End (Another British exponent of that guitar was Tom McGuinness of Manfred Mann, who played it with effect on hits like Pretty Flamingo and Just Like A Woman).

Wild West End is an interesting song in other ways. With its story set round Shaftesbury Avenue and China Town it is a little historical snapshot of a patch of  London past:  Angelucci’s, the coffee merchants, is no longer in Soho’s Frith Street by Ronnie Scotts  but moved to East Finchley. The mythologizing also casts a  romantic glow on the rather mundane. In many musical  accounts, a conductress on the Number 19 bus (which goes from Finsbury Circus to Battersea via Holborn and Piccadilly Circus) would be a comic figure a la On The Buses: here she is a honey with pink toe nails and an easy smile. Chinatown too takes on  a rather more exotic and mysterious air than the one you might get from going to Mr Wu’s, the cheapest Chinese buffet in town.(All you can eat for £4)

Mark Knopfler apparently wrote the song after watching a girl cross Shaftesbury Avenue –by such trivial moments can the inspiration for a song come. I may well have been such a catalyst myself. I once had a conversation with Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac. It was in Reading and went something like this:

Christine McVie (leaning out of a van window):’Excuse me, could you tell us how to get to the university’  Me: ‘Yes. Keep going straight on to the next set of traffic lights, turn right, go for about a mile and you’ll see it on your left’    Christine McVie: ‘Oh, thanks very much.  Me: ‘Don’t mention it’.

I expect that when Christine McVie later sat down and wrote You Make Loving Fun and Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow for Fleetwood Mac, this incident probably popped into her mind as a creative prompt.

Earlier columns have seen different versions of London created through the medium of song. With Cath Carroll it seemed a rather shadowy, dark and haunting place, its secrets just beyond the corner of your eyes. With St Etienne it’s a sunlit watercolour of a place. With Dire Straits, songs like Wild West End or Sultans of Swing somehow manage to  transplant London to a mythical America whilst remaining distinctly English, with  the small-scale and ordinary given a romantic hue. Like the St Etienne London, it’s a parallel universe sort of place  - sometimes as real as the one in front of your eyes.





18/05/2012

Helsinki/HKI





An earlier column looked at Finland, where the song Finland  by the Redwoods seemed to me to capture the feeling of the country that I had experienced, the sense of dark forests and lakes and of space and melancholy. I am also aware, however, that this is a partial view. It is partly a town/country difference. In my first visit there, going from Karjaa, a largely Swedish-speaking settlement on the south coast, to Helsinki seemed like going to another country: Helsinki has its own character - as capitals always do – with its modernist architecture and a feel of a Russian city at times. Yet it is more than that. Out in the sticks you might fondly imagine coming across a group of villagers dancing the  Humppa to the sound of an accordion but are as likely to see a death metal group playing Inside the Labyrinth of Depression or something like that.

I recently spent  some days at a conference  in Suonenjoki, a  small town in eastern Finland most noted for a summer strawberry festival. The seasons were on the cusp between winter and spring, with lakes still frozen enough to walk –and in some cases drive – on but starting to thaw at the edges and there was a sense that  everything would suddenly burst into life. In many ways it was the Finland of the song mentioned above. Standing looking across the frozen lake a short walk from the accommodation, the forest circling round like a besieging army , there was  a silence and stillness rarely experienced in England.

This side of Finland  seemed present too at a formal dinner given by the Finnish hosts, at which the musical accompaniment was by two men playing an accordion and a musical saw. (The musical saw came up previously in the Wonderful Land column, which prompted a comment from the wonderfully named Saw Lady of New York.) I had never seen the musical saw used as a lead instrument before and it was pretty impressive, though it did get a bit difficult distinguishing the British, Czech, Irish, Polish and Finnish national anthems when played on a saw end to end. The Finns there had also come in national costume, which actually seemed quite natural but raised an interesting question –what would English national costume be? Morris dancing garb? Pearlie King and Queen? Bowler hat and pinstripes? Shorts, sandals and socks and a carrier bag of crisps and cheese sandwiches?  It seems the same problem as the issue of English  nationalism and song  discussed in the  Waverley Steps column.

Yet even out here the accordion/national costume stuff  is only one side of it. Travelling there the landscape often looked like what I imagine the Mid-West of America to look like – long straight roads lined by woods, giant billboards advertising Coca Cola and McDonalds, small settlements strung along the route with a pizza place and one bar where a couple of locals sat silent and morose with their beers. Karaoke seemed big, though taken seriously. In the nearest big town, Kuopio, there were concert ads for the outfit Before the Dawn, described as “Dark Metal with a bit of an early Gothenburg air”.

This odd dichotomy can also be seen in another institution that has  cropped up before, the Eurovision Song Contest. Finland have been a contest regular since 1961 but have seen more than their fair share of nul points, no doubt handicapped in those decades when contestants had to sing in their own language: Finnish seems to have particularly long words in it. Still, who can forget such entries as Tipi-tii (1962), Pump-Pump (1976) or, indeed, Reggae OK (1981): Reggae like it used to be, with a Rod Stewart haircut and – yahoo - an accordion solo. The point in this digression is that the sole time in 52 years that Finland won was not with some sort of country folk song but with Hard Rock Hallelujah by heavy metal group Lordi dressed as monsters.

The two songs here reflect in their ways these different aspects.  They are both called Helsinki (or HKI), though the first  - Helsinki by American duo Damon and Naomi from 2011 -  sounds more like the Finland of lakes and dark forests than Helsinki. There is a dreamlike quality to it, with a melancholic touch,  that conveys the stillness of the landscape and there is an instrument near the start that sounds rather like a musical saw, though I don’t think it is. The second one is HKI by Gracias from 2010 (thanks to Inkeri  for pointing me to this) : a reminder that Helsinki is a multi-cultural city with a  hip hop and rap scene .Gracias came to Finland from then Zaire at the age of 4 and still remembers the shock of seeing snow for the first time. Yet the track is a homage to the capital :”Helsinki doesn’t get much shouted out…wish you could see that, nice place to be at”. The Helsinki in the video  is a different side to the one usually seen in brochures but at 3.18  the leaves fall just as they do in the woods by the lakes.

05/05/2012

La Costa Brava




An earlier column wrote of Andalucia in Southern Spain. It is an evocative name in many ways, of Moorish architecture and olive groves and white villages or of Lorca and the Spanish Civil War. Think of some other areas not so far away, however – the ‘Costas’. Costa Brava, Costa Blanca, Costa del Sol, Costa Dorada. At face value they are simply descriptive terms: the Wild Coast, the White Coast, the  Coast of the Sun, the Golden Coast. To British ears, at least, however, they have become over the last 40 years as shorthand for a particular type of  holiday, involving  sun and getting sunburned on crowded beaches, sangria, cheap hotels,  union jack shorts, British bars and cafes serving chips galore and  British food. The ‘Costa’ notion extends further than the Spanish coast actually, to Ibiza and Tenerife, for example –and even to bungalows overlooking Torbay with twee ‘Costa Packet’ signs on their gate.

The best known pop song about the ‘Costas’, Y Viva Espana by Sylvia  - gracing karaoke machines for evermore - is a fitting accompaniment for the stereotype of the British holidaymaker in Spain: “I’m off to sunny Spain….I’m taking the Costa Brava plane”. It was a hit in 1974 at a time when cheap flights and mass tourism to Spain were well underway, enabling the song to be sung by plane passengers en route to Alicante . A time too when Franco, the fascist dictator of the 1930’s, was still in power and Jack Jones, the British trade union leader and veteran of the International Brigades, urged British tourists to ignore the song and boycott Spain.

 There are other songs in the same vein. There was the 1980 hit by Fantastique, Costa Blanca: “La, la, la, lalala lalala, Enjoy the sun, you forget your sorrow, La, la, la, lalala lalala, hear me say, hear me say, hear me sayayay, La, la, la, lalala lalala”. And there was a 1976 track, Costa Brava, by Peggy March. Her name is best known for the 1963 million seller, I Will Follow Him (itself a remake of Petula Clark’s Chariot) but here she is doing an oompah song in German! Now this is what I call a Costa song. It sounds not dissimilar to Chas 'n Dave’s Margate, which also has a reference to the Costa Brava- “You can keep the Costa Brava and all that palaver”. Maybe  oompah rhythms make everything sound similar though.

However, considering the popularity of the Spanish Costas for the British there are surprisingly few pop  songs about them. Perhaps the Costa Brava et al seem too ordinary and parochial for the reasons given above. The Kinks might have managed a non-mocking song about a holiday there and the Chas 'n Dave song above sees even the Costa Brava as too posh to entertain as a holiday jaunt. However, pop stars on the whole migrated like Tony Blair, as moths to a flame, to the rich and glamorous: it was to the Cote d’Azur that the Stones decamped during their tax exile . Mediterranean resorts meant, not the Costas but the sorts of resorts artfully scattered in the Peter Sarstedt hit, Where Do You Go To My Lovely, with its references to Juan-les-Pines and to the Aga Khan. (Like the film actor Kenneth More, Sarstedt signifies laughter in this song by actually saying ‘Ha Ha Ha.’ I also have a theory that some of his popularity at the time, 1969, came from  looking rather like Tariq Ali, the political activist then on the front page of newspapers leading anti-Vietnam War marches: it gave Sarstedt a bit of street credibility. It went wrong when both parties got confused themselves: Tariq Ali astounded  a committee meeting of the International Marxist Group by a burst of Frozen Orange Juice and Peter Sarstedt perplexed audiences by encoring with The Internationale)

Instead of writing songs about the place, however, pop acts were more likely to retire there when the hits stopped. Over the years you could find , for example, Mike Smith - voice of the Dave Clark 5 - living in southern Spain  or Beaky (of Dave Dee, Dozy etc) running a bar in Marbella or Roy Crewdson (of Freddie and the Dreamers) running a bar in Los Cristianos. You can also find those  who impersonate the names of yesteryear – outfits called The Drifters or Four Tops abound in the bars and clubs. A few years ago there was an act  in one of the Tenerife resorts pretending to be Crispian St Peters  ( 2 UK hits in 1966): there seems a certain lack of ambition here when the person in question was deciding who to impersonate.

The song here from 2007, however, La Costa Brava by American indie outfit Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, gives a whole new perspective and suggests that the ‘Costa Brava’ described above is a specifically British notion. Maybe the USA and other European countries- except Germany - hear the words ‘Costa Brava’ as something different, perhaps as the glamorous stretch of coast of Salvador Dali and Ava Gardner still. It sounds an inviting and interesting place here, a place to find yourself and rejuvenate: “And down by the beach there's a small cafe, where we'll meet Lolo and Pablo and drink Moritz all day. So come on over to St Feliu 'cause it's somewhere I've been and I want to take you there.”

 It doesn’t take too long, of course, to get away from the neon lights and   English breakfasts, for you can hire  a car or take a bus or even just walk a few streets and travel to what seems another place and time. Or you can decide that the Costa Brava you see is a state of mind and find the right eyes to view it

20/04/2012

Waverley Steps


A previous column, North Wales, mentioned the ambiguous relationship Wales and England have had in pop music. The same could be said of Scotland. As with the British Labour Party, Scotland has played a significant role in British pop from Lonnie Donegan through Marmalade, to the Rezillos, to K T Tunstall. However, songs with a Scottish theme in the early days of pop  floated a caricature of bonny Scotland. Like the 1958 Number One Hoots Mon, by Lord Rockingham’s X1, a group of session players. Later covered by Bad Manners, this was an instrumental  with a few vocal interjections that distil Scotland down, like a Readers Digest Condensed Classic, to these well-known Scottish conversation pieces: ‘Och aye’, ‘Hoots mon there’s a moose loose aboot the hoose’ and ‘It’s a braw, bricht moonlicht nicht’.   (To make a rather obscure but satisfying link with another column: Lord Rockingham X1’s bandleader Harry Robinson later did the string arrangement on Nick Drake’s River Man. Hoots Mon  also featured what must be one of the first examples on a pop hit of the Hammond organ, played by Cherry Wainer.) Or like Andy Stewart singing Donald Where’s Your Troosers, a UK hit twice, in 1961 and 1989. Or Jackie Dennis, touted as the UK’s Ricky Nelson, who scored a 1958 Top Ten  hit , La Dee Dah, at the age of 15, six years before another Scot, Lulu, achieved the same feat. As with the Dubliners mentioned in a previous column as looking just like Dubliners should, Jackie Dennis looked just as a Scots lad should.


This obviously changed, though in the first beat boom in the wake of the Beatles one of the few Scottish groups to be successful in England -the Poets - dressed up like Robert Burns. However, there became something apparent  that has cropped up before: that songs about Scotland - as with Wales, or America or Australia -  can get away with a sense of nationalist pride and patriotism that songs about England cannot, or at least in the context of pop and rock music. Take the two in the links below. The first is Runrig’s rollicking version of Loch Lomond that turns into an audience sing-along,  a version of which was a UK hit in 2007. (Bill Haley and the Comets did a version called, inevitably,  Rock Lomond in 1957). It is difficult to imagine such an emotion-charged  crowd pleaser about, say Lake Windermere or Chesil Beach. 


The second is  a version of  Robert Burns’ Ae Fond Kiss by Eddi Reader of Fairground Attraction and Perfect fame. Again, I am not sure an English poet could translate into such a musical idiom  in quite the same way. A comparison might be Cleo Laine singing Shakespeare’s  Shall I Compare Thee but this remains in the genre of jazz and also lacks the nationalist resonance of Burns’ work. The differences perhaps here lie in England’s past as the coloniser of these other countries. There wasn’t here  the loss of a country or independence ` to mourn. What had been lost, instead, were the voices of ordinary people  over the centuries as the ruling culture took hold. Hence whilst the unofficial national anthem of Scotland is Flower of Scotland or Scotland the Brave and of Wales is Land of My Fathers, in England it is God Save the Queen -an institution, not a country. Yet Pop and rock has not been the best medium to find those voices.

The capital city,Edinburgh, has been one of those places that seemed familiar before ever going there from dint of images over the years, though oddly few of these came from songs about the city itself. There perhaps isn’t  a really well-known one, though The Proclaimers did Sunshine on Leith, the portside settlement a bus ride to the North; and The Fall did Edinburgh Man, a very un-Fall like ode to Edinburgh (It’s got a tune and everything).  Instead the mental  picture of Edinburgh came from other sources.  From seeing Edinburgh Castle on TV in the New Year celebrations or on the tins of Scottish Shortbread that would get given as gifts at Christmas; the pictures on the sticks of Edinburgh rock.; or Edinburgh in countless films from Greyfriars Bobby to Journey to the Centre of the Earth to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to Trainspotting (You couldn’t run down Princes Street like that now, it’s all dug up with an ill-fated tram project. You would fall over). In these expectations it didn’t disappoint. The  Castle looked just as it had been in my mind’s eye. Walking down Heriot Row where Robert Louis Stephenson lived and  had watched as a child the lamplighter working his way down the street, or going through the  big old-fashioned department store of Jenners,  you got a sense of the  genteel Edinburgh, of the town of Jean Brodie. Yet it also seemed a very European city - walking down Thistle Street with its cobbled road, lamplights, cars haphazardly parked and small cafes you could be in Paris.

The song here, Waverley Steps from 2006 by Roddy Woomble of Idlewild (harmonies by Kate Rusby), captures some of this mixture of the place. Waverley Steps are the steps coming down from Edinburgh’s main station but the precise  lyrics aren’t the most important part.  (I’m not actually sure what Kate Rusby is singing in the chorus. One theory is ‘You wont be molested’ but that can’t be right). It is the mood and tone that resonates more with my experience of Edinburgh. There is something a bit undefinable about the place, something just round the corner, just at the edge of the eye, and ,as with the photo above of a figure vanishing into early morning steam, something slightly mysterious - even when the light won't fade away.