Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)

In Nick Hornby’s About a Boy, the central character has been born into a life of leisure courtesy of the royalties from his father’s success in writing a perennial Christmas song, Santa’s Super Sleigh. This is probably rooted in some sort of reality as from about October onwards, many shops feel the need to start playing their musical loops of seasonal Christmas cheer, usually with the unimaginative mix of Slade, Wizzard, Wham, Jona Lewie et al. Within these, however, there is a sub-genre of songs focusing on snow, which tend to be more effective in raising associations with places than the generic all-purpose Christmas ditty.

By and large, songs featuring snow fall into one of two categories. The most common are those inextricably linked up with Christmas and, given the reality of snow, have an odd feel-good factor. In these songs, snow is a paradoxical backdrop to a warm feeling of goodwill to all men: Let it Snow, for example, or Winter Wonderland. These can easily veer to the Hallmark card end of songs, overly sentimental and cute, though even the most trite can shine in the right hands. Take Frosty the Snowman: a children’s song about a happy jolly soul becomes transformed by the Ronettes belting it out over Phil Spector’s wall of sound and Hal Blaine thundering round his drum kit or takes on a rather haunting, even slightly eery, tone, with the Cocteau Twins.

However, there are others that paint a much harsher picture of a snowy landscape. Little Feat sang of Six Feet of Snow. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds more than doubled that with Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow. Midlake painted a grim picture of survival in It Covers the Hillside: “It covers the roadways, it covers the hillsides it covers the houses, it covers the frozen pines”. Lindisfarne drew an equally dismal vision in their English urban setting of Winter Song,a kind of Newcastle version of Streets of London: “The creeping cold has fingers that caress without permission, and mystic crystal snowdrops only aggravate the condition....when winter comes howling in”. A long way from ‘the lights are turned down low, let it snow...’

In England, snow has played an iconic part in books, films and song, part of a hazy picture of a bygone country and age that perhaps never existed in reality and songs about snow can evoke real or imagined memories. In reality, a white Christmas is not that common. In the imagination (and on the front of christmas cards of course), it always snows, creating a magical landscape. Robins sit on snowy branches, couples skate over frozen ponds, hot chestnut sellers ply their wares, small boys spin their hoops down a cobbled street and peer wistfully into the frosted windows of a sweet shop full of humbugs.

Whereas American songs about snow and Christmas tend to look to an era of a semi-mythical 1940’s and 1950’s, English ones often reach further back, to the Nineteenth Century and beyond. Much of the robins/chestnuts/ice skating paraphernalia comes directly or indirectly from Charles Dickens and the Victorian invention of a traditional Christmas. However, this is mixed up with folk memories of a more ancient rural past of old England: in Snow Falls, The Albion Band described the annual death and rebirth of John Barleycorn: “And the snow falls, and the wind calls, and the year turns round again”. The result is an almost Pavlovian response by the listener to songs about snow and England, a mixture of real and false memories and nostalgia. It is a response perfectly captured by Ray Davies in his Postcard from London: ‘I found a postcard the other day, a faded photograph taken of a cold winterscape…It was a city I used to know and as a child when it was Christmas I played in the winter snow” .In memories of childhood, it always snowed at Christmas, just as summers were always shimmering and hot.

The song here also brings such echoes, in a rumination set against England’s snow. Goodbye England (Covered in Snow) is by English folk singer-songwriter Laura Marling from her 2009 album I Speak Because I Can and released as a Christmas single, despite its lack of festive cheer. Behind the observations on a shifting relationship and independence lies the imagery of a snow-covered English countryside. Laura Marling has spoken of this being rooted in a childhood memory of walking to the local village church: ‘I remember my Dad saying 'Please bring me back here before I die.' I was probably about 9 when he said this to me and I remember thinking 'What an horrific thing to say!'. But I hope I go back there before I die. I've got quite long roots in England, and because I grew up here, the beauty of England resonates with me more than any other kind of beauty”. This is sentimentalism with a harder edge: “I want to lay here forever in the cold, I might be cold but I'm just skin and bones, and I never love England more than when covered in snow”

The associations for me sparked by the song are a kaleidoscope of memories of places. Some are real: digging a Mini out of a snow drift in Hebden Bridge one New Years Day, watching the birds and ducks on a frozen Northamptonshire river a few days ago. Some are perhaps imagined. Did I really stand watching, at the age of maybe 5 or 6, people skating on a frozen lake in the local park or has this image been put there from too many Christmas cards and pictures of Victorian scenes? England covered with snow: places I remember, places I think I remember, places that never really existed.

Link to song


The Baltic Sea

Pigeon-holing other countries has a persistent attraction, as a recent series of maps of Europe labelled according to national stereotypes showed, with over half a billion hits.

This has a long history but some countries seem to face a bit of a struggle. In a programme from the 1970’s TV comedy series, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, upwardly mobile Bob Ferris(Rodney Bewes) quizzes working-class traditionalist Terry Collier (James Bolam) on his views on foreigners. After running through stock stereotypes on a list of nationalities – 'Russians? Sinister. Spanish? Lazy’ - he is asked, ‘What about the Danes? ‘ There is a pause, then the answer comes ‘Pornographic’.

The English have often seemed to find it hard to get a handle on Scandinavian countries, something parodied by Monty Python in their Finland song: “You're so near to Russia, so far from Japan, quite a long way from Cairo, lots of miles from Vietnam”. Views on Sweden seemed to have sporadically shifted but seem to only focus on one thing at a time. In the 1950’s and early 60’s the association was depression, the existentialist angst of Ingmar Bergman films - playing chess with Death  - and endless dark forests and long winters. There was also a mistaken belief that Sweden had a very high suicide rate, a myth that seems to date to the Eisenhower presidency and American alarm at the cradle - -to - grave welfare state and social democracy of Sweden and the effect this must have on its citizens. Later on, the image was of liberalisation of pornography and providing a haven for draft dodgers from the Vietnam war, before its major exports in Abba and the Volvo car shifted public perception again to reliability and efficiency. Now, I suppose, the standard association is with Ikea, its furniture and the side attraction of Swedish cuisine. On Fathers Day one year I was treated to lunch in the Brent Cross Ikea cafe: Swedish meatballs, cranberry sauce and potatoes, a Daim bar and unlimited coffee, all for £1.99. How do they do it?

The same uncertainty has been found in songs. Sweden itself has exported plenty of pop music, notably Abba, of course, but a string of others from the instrumental Spotnicks in the early 1960's through to the Cardigans, Europe, Roxette, Ace of Bass and Peter, Bjorn and John. Songs about Sweden from outside observers, however, have been less common. Australian singer Darren Hanlon took a novel angle with his vocal plea, Operator-Get Me Sweden: “I really must apologise for my compulsive behaviour, one left his heart in San Francisco, mine's in Scandinavia”. Others have tended to generalisations about being worthy but boring. The Stranglers 1978 Sweden began’ Let me tell you about Sweden, only country where the clouds are interesting”. The Divine Comedy’s Sweden saw it as “ Safe and clean and green and modern, Bright and breezy, free and easy”

The song here is The Baltic Sea, from the 2008 album Nothing Personal, It's National Security by Swedish-Scottish indie pop group, The Social Services, originally formed and based in Stockholm. It is in this same genre -‘You’re as cold as the Baltic Sea and you close your doors so readily’ - though with the virtues of the country ,from forests full of blueberries to recycling facilities, recognised. Stereotypes, of course, can contain some truth and the closing chorus of ‘We can be your friends’ does seem to echo the sometimes less than comradely attitudes of Sweden’s Nordic neighbours to their big brother. The Danes and Finns, in particular, seem to have an often acerbic attitude: perhaps that of unruly classmates to the school swot. (‘You know you have been in Denmark too long if you feel comfortable laughing at jokes about Swedes’).

My own main experience of Sweden some years ago was rather coloured by its circumstances: a family holiday, including my 2-year old daughter and mother-in-law, in a Mini. All of the party came down with food poisoning on the 24 hour ferry to Gothenburg - not the fault of the smorgasbord – and on arrival there was a 3 hour drive to Varmland as the symptoms took hold. On the bright side, however, we did get to see the inside of a Swedish country hospital, as well as forests full of blueberries. And, contrary to the song, the staff there all smiled back.

Link to song


The Holland Song

In the 1970’s, British TV was fond of showing police detective dramas, sometimes British but more often American. With shows like Kojak, Cannon, Columbo, The Rockford Files, New York and Los Angeles came to seem as familiar to the British viewer as London. One detective series, however, Van Der Valk, was different. The detective was Dutch (though the actor playing him, Barry Foster, was British and later popped up playing Sherlock Holmes) and instead of the usual American mean streets, the drama was played out against a backdrop of the bridges and canals, bicycles , trams and cafes of Amsterdam. And instead of the routine car chase screeching to an inevitable finale, Van Der Valk often had a more leisurely boat chase, with the villain in one boat and the detective in the one behind as they pootled round the canals before a convenient bridge offered the opportunity for an arrest (and perhaps the words “u wordt ingekerft, zonneschijn”)

I suspect that the popularity of the programme – its theme tune, Eye Level, was Number One in Britain for 4 weeks in 1973, finally knocked off by David Cassidy and The Puppy Song - had much to do with the outdoor locations.  (In much the same way, I had an aunt who sat through TV Westerns because she liked the scenery).The city is, of course, very photogenic and has been the setting of numerous films since then, including Snapshots, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Oceans 12 and the 1999 Silent Witness. It has also been well covered by songs since Max Bygraves and Tulips from Amsterdam in the 1950’s. Perhaps one of the most well known has been Jacque Brel’s In the Port of Amsterdam, recorded by Scott Walker and David Bowie amongst many others. In English language versions, however, the lyrics can seem totally overblown, as far away from the image conjured up by Tulips from Amsterdam as possible – “There's a sailor who eats only fish heads and tails,And he'll show you his teeth that have rotted too soon, that can haul up the sails, that can swallow the moon”

In some ways, songs about Amsterdam have been less successful in capturing the city’s landscapes than TV and film. In some, the ‘Amsterdam’ seems either purely incidental – as in Coldplay’s song of the same name –or in a lyric that could really be anywhere: as in Janis Ian’s Amsterdam. Mainly, one of two sets of imagery have cropped up. One, predictably, has focused on the drugs and hippy legacy. Amsterdam, by American group Guster, for example: “From way up on your cloud, You're never coming down, Are you getting somewhere? Or did you get lost in Amsterdam?” Or Van Halen’s Amsterdam: “wham, bam, oh Amsterdam. yea, yea, yea, stone you like nothin' else can”

The second has been to go back to its art and history-famously with Don Mclean’s Vincent, the sheet music of which is in a time capsule buried under the Van Gogh Museum. Jonathan Richman also had a stab at both the painter and the museum with his ode to Vincent Van Gogh: “Now in the museum what have we here?
The baddest painter since God's Jon Vermeer.” The prog rock outfit King Crimson chose a Rembrandt painting as the inspiration for their 1974 Night Watch epic. Neutral Milk Hotel went back to another famous icon of Dutch history - Anne Frank- with their deeply obscure lyrics of Holland 1945.

Yet there have been some songs that reflected more the writer’s personal experience of the place . Al Stewart, whose sojourn in Brooklyn was the subject of a previous column, wrote about a tour of Holland in his 1972 Amsterdam song. Michelle Shocked reflected “It's 5 a.m. in Amsterdam and this is how I know. There's a church beside a park and it fills the dying dark with five strokes”. The song here, The Holland Song, by Two Nice Girls, from their 1989 album of the same name, is another such personal response to the place. Two Nice Girls, a self-styled ‘lesbian rock group’ from Austin, Texas, came closest to commercial success with Sweet Jane (With Affection), a merging of Lou Reed’s Sweet Jane and Joan Armatrading’s Love & Affection. The Holland Song was written by group member Kathy Korniloff when she was 16 and, in an odd way, it is maybe this that makes the song suit the place. Though the lyrics are clumsy at times- “These Dutch are too much, they built this land from the sea” – there is also an almost gauche enthusiasm that, with the harmonies and jazz-tinged folk backing, manage to give a warm and sunlit feeling to the place despite the rain and North Sea breezes. As so many people feel when they visit Amsterdam and wander along the canals and in and out of cafes, the message is - I think I could live here.

Maybe people seem to feel at home so quickly in Amsterdam because they find what they expect to find, whether that is windmills and tulips in the market, Van Gogh’s landscapes or Panama Red - though the unexpected is always there to delight, like mayonnaise on hotdogs and chips. And taking away an image of a watercolour land is as good as any.

Link to song


Painting and Kissing

As touched upon before, songs about places can go from the macro to the micro, from the whole sweep of an entire country to a small individual spot at ground level, a cafe, a station, a hotel. These can include those songs about a particular street or road. These can be an ode to a famous landmark, as in On Broadway or Hollywood Boulevard, or ETBTG’s teenage yearning to be in Oxford Street. They can romanticise the ordinary , as with Donovan’s Sunny Goodge Street. They can push the unknown and obscure into the spotlight. Without The Beatles’ Penny Lane, who would bother going to see the street near Allerton Road and Smithdown Road in Liverpool? Or Woking’s Stanley Road without Paul Weller’s album of the same name?

It can be, however, that the filter of music and lyrics can cast even the shabbiest of thoroughfares in a new light for the listener. The Holloway Road in North London lies at the start of the A1 that runs up to Scotland. It remains a road that is resolutely ungentrified, one that sits amidst the noise of the traffic and sirens and police vans, the litter, cheap cafes and burger joints, the discount stores. It looks totally unprepossessing. Yet with its cultural diversity - Jamaican, Columbian, Brazilian, Russian, Mexican, Australian, French, Polish, Turkish, British, Swedish, Irish, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Bahraini, Chinese, Congolese, Japanese and Beninese all live here - it has its supporters: here is N7 Heaven. Metropolitan University is here, as is Holloway Prison.

It has also appeared  in pop songs at regular intervals. In fact, as a location it has a special place in pop history. Outside 304 Holloway Road, now a grocery store, is a small plaque to the eccentric record producer Joe Meek: ‘Joe Meek, the Telstar Man, lived, worked and died here’. In the almost forgotten pre-Beatles era of British pop music, Joe Meek was responsible for some of the most memorable and idiosyncratic records of the time, all recorded in his small studio above a leather goods shop on Holloway Road. The most famous was the Tornados’ Telstar, an instrumental intended to invoke the space age but which evokes more than anything a British funfair.Yet the Tornados were the first British group to get to number one in America - and Telstar was Margaret Thatcher’s favourite pop record. But there were a string of other Meek hits between 1961 and 1964, including the trio of hits by sometime actor, John Leyton, ( the ghostly Johnny Remember Me, Wild Wind and the grammatically correct Son, This is She) and Meek’s final big hit, Have I the Right, by the Honeycombs, ‘discovered’ in a pub in the nearby Balls Pond Road.(Have I the Right was marked by a tub- thumping sound from female drummer Honey Lantree, augmented by the other members of the group standing on the wooden stairs leading up to the studio and stamping their feet, the sound captured by microphones attached to the banisters by bicycle clips)

This, alone, was enough to make the Holloway Road a mini-Mecca for lovers of British pop. It has, however, been referenced since in a number of songs. The Kinks sang of “ my baby impaled in Holloway jail.” Marillion also sang of a Holloway Girl. St Etienne set their dreamy Madeleine there (“Down Holloway Road she goes, wasting time”). Koop’s Beyond the Son must be the only record in history to mention the South China seas and the Holloway Road in the same lyrics, with an intriguing reference – “ Saw Mr Brenan in the Holloway Road yesterday, Walked past with a bag of potatoes on his shoulder”. And the song here , Painting and Kissing by Hefner from their 2000 album We Love the City, a suite of songs about London and the lives of people living there.

Hefner were a British indie band that had echoes of Pulp and the Smiths. Against the deadbeat backdrop of Holloway Road and the Wig and Gown - a football pub named after Highbury Magistrate’s Court - the song is an ironic story of an unexpected relationship and self-delusion. Underneath, the music careers away driven by a tinny organ riff and at times seems to be going down a path of its own. On top, vocalist Darren Hayman tries to convince himself that the relationship was better than he sometimes suspects it might have been: “And as her kissing got worse, Oh her paintings improved, but what does that prove? It proves nothing.” The listener, however, is not really sure that he has learnt anything. For once, Holloway Road comes out on top and it is Linda from Holloway Road, with her paintings and Chardonnay, who is the sophisticated one in this relationship. Crikey.

When you come out of the tube station on Holloway Road , there are a lot of ghosts of the past about. From highwayman Dick Turpin; to all the groups of yesterday who lugged their amps and drum kits up the stairs to Meek’s recording studio; to John Lennon and Yoko Ono visiting Michael X at his Black House at No 101.The eyes might see Argos, Chicken Village, Pizza Zone, Holloway Express, The Nag’s Head; but it is not hard to find a bit of music to give a brief glimpse through coloured, if not rose-tinted, glasses.

Link to song


Alone in Brewster Bay

An early column looked at the Bee Gees’ song, Massachusetts, about a place the group had never been to and chose because they liked the sound of the name: a song more to do with feelings than geography. The same could be said of the subject of this column, also set in Massachusetts but where the actual setting was a mere backdrop for a song about something else, in this case the sadness of separation. A place becomes the trigger for the songwriter to explore emotions which the listener may or may not carry themselves to the physical location.

The song here, Alone in Brewster Bay, by the Chicago-based singer Minnie Riperton, is titled after a small settlement south of Boston overlooking Cape Cod Bay. Minnie Riperton is probably best known for her 1975 hit, Loving You, and for her extraordinary 5 ½ octave vocal range that went into whistle register, first showcased on a record, Lonely Girl, released under the name Andrea Davis at the age of 18.

Stevie Wonder once described her voice as that of an angel, with the capacity to produce a sound both ethereal and haunting for the listener. Her musical work, however, was much wider than Loving You might suggest. As part of the Chicago-based Gems in the mid-sixties (Trivia note: their biggest success was a record with the intriguing title, That’s What they Put Erasers on Pencils For), she supplied backing vocals to records such as Fontella Bass’s Rescue Me; and as joint lead vocalist with the psychedelic rock group Rotary Connection covered an eclectic range of styles from rock to soul to jazz and all points in between. Listen to their 1968 release Christmas Love and you are transported via a little historical snapshot (‘Nixon and Humphrey need a little love’), to a world of headbands, anti-war demonstrations and keeping the freak flag flying.

Alone in Brewster Bay came from her 1975 album, Adventures in Paradise, written during a holiday in the Cape Cod area sometime in the early 1970’s.With the evocative sounds of seabirds in the background and a gentle guitar backing, the song is a romantic lament that shifts between mournfulness and hope. The mood and lyrics, with the imagery of birds and bleak sky set against an awareness of time passing, is reminiscent of Sandy Denny’s Who Knows Where the Time Goes. You then realise that both women died at the age of 31 within a year of each other, both leaving a few pure gems of work and a sense of a potential unfulfilled. You also wonder whether the early deaths have inevitably tinged their work with a retrospective sense of sadness that perhaps wasn’t intended. Certainly, it is difficult to listen to Minnie Riperton’s final song shortly before her death, Back Down Memory Lane, ( ‘I don’t want to go back down memory lane, save me, save me, back down memory lane’) without an overwhelming feeling of poignancy.

Perhaps because of this, it would be easy to carry a melancholic feeling from the song to the place that inspired it. On a visit to my daughter in Boston a couple of years ago, we went to a number of the towns and villages in the area where Minnie Riperton vacationed nearly forty years ago. In many ways, the harbours, little antique and gift shops, white boarded houses, the ice creams and beaches and sounds of seabirds, must be closer to the English south coast than Chicago. I was reminded of that stretch of coast round Poole and Sandbanks and Brownsea Island, though without the sandals and socks and occasional glimpse of a front garden gnome. (I later satisfyingly discovered that Brewster, MA, is twinned with Budleigh Salterton in Devon).

It wasn’t, of course, melancholy at all. I was seeing the places with my own eyes and had my own experience to take away. In such ways can memories of a place differ.

Link to song


N 17

One of the songs most beloved of the sentimental and the drunk alike is Danny Boy, the archetypal Irish ballad dripping with pathos from its famous opening lines:” Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling, From glen to glen, and down the mountain side”. In fact, songs about Ireland have often combined two themes – the lament of the exiled and emigrant romanticising their homeland and the magical and mysterious rural Ireland rooted in ancient cultures. Songs that painted pictures of a never-never land of rolling green fields, misty mountains, Guinness in country pubs served by a red-haired colleen and a hint of leprechaun have always found a ready market in England and the USA. One of the best-selling acts in the British charts in the sixties were The Bachelors, who had more hits than the Beatles in 1964 by laying on the Irish charm and whimsy thicker than butter on soda bread. (In 1966 , rather bizarrely, their version of Sounds of Silence outsold Simon & Garfunkel’s in Britain). In a post-punk era, groups like The Pogues may have had a harder, less romantic, edge but songs like A Pair of Brown Eyes could still lament “the streams, the rolling hills ,Where his brown eyes were waiting”.

Equally a recurrent theme in songs has been a nostalgic sense of loss voiced by those living and working overseas and who sought to recreate Ireland elsewhere. Songs that range from the purely sentimental to the ambiguous-the Pogues’ Thousands Are Sailing - to the dark bitterness of Christy Moore’s Missing You:"So you sail cross the ocean, away cross the foam, to where you're a Paddy, a Biddy or a Mick, good for nothing but stacking a brick”

The song here, N17, first released by the Saw Doctors in 1989, combines both themes in a infectiously joyful ode to the trunk road that goes through Sligo and Galway. An echo of Watford Gap and Driving Away from Home but with a more romantic setting. Over the last 20 years the Saw Doctors have produced a string of Irish folk/rock songs, often based round their home area of Tuam and County Galway. At times, you think that songs like The Green and Red of Mayo or Never Mind the Strangers might topple into sentimental cliché. What stops that, apart from the general upbeat and uplifting mood of much of their music, is the little snapshots of everyday life in the lyrics and the wry humour behind much of the observations, as in Music I Love –“ I've tried going to disco, throwing shapes on the floor, nothing ever happens. I don't go any more. Girls never know what I'm talking about, so I think I'll just take the easy way out. I'll just sit in my room with all the lights off, my mother and father think I'm gone daft .I stay home with the music I love”

N17 became one of their perennial sing-along anthems. As with many other songs about Ireland, it is written from an exile’s perspective ,of someone daydreaming on the filthy overcrowded trains of the stone walls and the grasses green. Yet it also recognises the usual truth behind such yearning: “I know things would be different if I ever decide to go back”. The same truism as in Kari Bremnes’ Song to a Town: you return at your peril as a stranger.

Even with the Saw Doctors, it seems sometimes hard to escape the clichés about Ireland. Yet cliches are usually just such because they are based on some sort of common experience and it is not difficult to find the Ireland of these songs. I once went on a holiday in Sligo in a caravan drawn by a monster of a horse called Ross who, over-dosed on oats, took out a farm gatepost in his urgent desire to get into the field. Maybe I expected to see what I saw because of the songs but there really were rolling green fields and the misty mountain of Knocknarea and country pubs where people with accordions and concertinas, fiddles and pipes wandered in for a ceilidh.

I don’t remember the N17 in that slow meander round Sligo. However, in the last week I have experienced the “twists and turns on the road” of the N20,further south near Cork, sitting in a mini-bus with a group of Finns and Poles as heads bounced off the ceiling with the bumps and swerves as the driver gave assurance he was only driving slowly, mind. Yet there was a feeling of going back in time, to the past as a foreign country- and perhaps a sense of the never-never land hovering somewhere just out of sight.

Link to song


Harvest Moon

Comment was made in the last column about the age-old influence of the sun on the earliest writings and music. The same is true of the moon, which has exerted perhaps even more of a mystical pull on the poetic and musical imagination over the centuries. Worshipped as a god/goddess, linked to witchcraft, werewolves and lunacy, waxing and waning over the years.

In song, inspiration has been more diverse than with the sun, from the stereotyped moon/June romantic odes through the more imaginative reflections of Moondance and Moonshadow to the philosophising of Dark Side of the Moon. There has been a Blue Moon, covered countless times from the Marcels’ doo-wop version through Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley et al, with a particularly atmospheric version by the Cowboy Junkies. But there has also been a Pink Moon (Nick Drake), a Yellow Moon (the Neville Brothers), a Black Moon (Emerson, Lake and Palmer),a Red Moon (David Gray). It’s been a Bad Moon and a Sad Moon and a Harsh Mistress. Jonathan King claimed that Everyone’s Gone to the Moon. And the B-52’s put it quite clearly, without room for argument –There’s a Moon in the Sky (Called the Moon).

The first landing on the moon might have lessened this allure but didn’t. There was a brief flurry of songs like Space Oddity and Rocket Man but the moon generally remained something aloof to admire from afar. One of the most hauntingly effective songs in this genre was Monochrome by The Sundays, which turned a childhood recollection of the moon landings into something wider- a child trying to understand an adult’s experience. “It’s 4 in the morning July in 1969, me and my sister, we crept down like shadows. They’re bringing the moon right down to our sitting room, static and silence and a monochrome vision. They’re dancing around, slow puppets silver ground.....And something is said and the whole room laughs aloud, me and my sister looking on like shadows”

In fact, it almost seemed as if it had been forgotten that man had been to the moon and songs continued as they always had done.The song here, Harvest Moon, reverts to the softer, more benign notion of the moon, albeit with an emotional hold over human feelings. It is a Neil Young composition but the version here, by jazz singer Cassandra Wilson from her 1996 album New Moon Daughter, adds another dimension. She has a rich, smoky, sometimes breathy, contralto voice that can have the timbre of a saxophone, and her timing and interpretation can turn a cover version into a different song. Here, as with some other of her covers - such as Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time or, oddly, The Monkees’ Last Train to Clarkesville - the song is slowed right down. Words hang in the air, time passes , and the song becomes a wistful reflection the listener is drawn into. The technique is perfect for such a song about gazing at a full moon whilst, behind her languid voice, the guitars shimmer over the sounds of crickets and frogs.

As with Always the Sun, the listener will find their own setting for the song. My mind takes it to a view from over 20 years ago on a holiday with a young family on the Greek island of Kos. We had been to the Asklepion Temple above the town amidst cypress and pine trees, where lizards bathed in the hot sun on rocks, and had walked over the hills back to the coast. In the evening, I sat looking out over the dark sea towards Turkey, as the bright moon hung in the night sky amidst a sudden shower of shooting stars and the sound of crickets provided an incessant backdrop. Time passed slowly.

The sea, the sun, the moon – universal themes and countless songs. The listener will find the one where a time falls into its place.

Link to song


Always The Sun

After the sea, it seems only fitting to consider a similar genre where a song about something universal is taken by the listener to be a backdrop to a very specific memory. In this case, the sun - linked to the sea in countless holiday brochures about Greece, Spain or Italy and sometimes overtly in song, as in The Verve’s The Sun, The Sea. And sometimes linked even further, as in Club 18-30 holiday brochures or by -who else-Serge Gainsburg in his Sea, Sex and Sun recording.

These songs sit apart from those about summer generally, which could fill a book on their own. Songs about summer tend to rely on producing a good - time feel through a range of stock associations, though these can vary according to the national origins of the song in question. Listen to the Beach Boys’ All Summer Long and you think of Californian sunshine, surf boards, glistening teeth and tans. However, Mungo Jerry’s In the Summertime is definitely a hot English summer, one that might include a lot of beer, packets of cheese and onion crisps, wasps and blokes with sideburns so extensive they needed planning permission.

Songs of the sun can be as equally vacuous/good-time ,I suppose, as in The Sun Has Got Its Hat On. However, by and large, they tend to be more lyrically and musically challenging and, like those of the sea, let the associations be made by others. They do not even necessarily conjure up the expected scenes of languid summer days. Pink Floyd took a sci-fi slant of the sun as a planet with Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun. Judy Collins took the magical process of Yeats’ poem , The Song of Wandering Aengus, with Golden Apples of the Sun. The Beatles Here Comes the Sun becomes more than just an ode to spring when interpreted by artists like Nina Simone and Richie Havens.

The song here, Always the Sun  - recorded in 1986 by the Stranglers, towards the end of their decade as a chart group - is an example of an occurrence when a view of a place previously unseen suddenly fitted perfectly with the personal mental image created by the music. The Stranglers were always hard to pigeonhole, a punk band that included a hippy- ish keyboard player and a drummer now in his seventies. Seemingly crass songs like Peaches ('Walking on the beaches, looking at the peaches'), sat along others about Trotsky, vikings and extra-terrestrial visitors. Their repertoire also included two evocative and poetically lyrical songs that bathed the listener in the moods of the sun. Their 1982 hit, Golden Brown, was a delicate and dreamy ballad in waltz-time with what sounds like a harpsichord and with lyrics supposedly about heroin but which could have come from a nineteenth century Romantic poem ('Golden brown, texture like sun...Every time just like the last, On her ship tied to the mast, To distant lands, takes both my hands').

Always the Sun had equally obtuse lyrics that at times pour out in such a wordy fashion you wonder how Hugh Cornwell will fit them all in before the line ends .It has a sharper and more powerful sound, with Jean-Jaques Burnel’s diving bass lines, the background swamped in the keyboards and Hugh Cornwell’s melodic guitar break reminiscent of that on Golden Brown. The overall mood, however, is just as evocative. One reviewer described it as like being in a deep ravine and looking upwards towards to the sun.

For me, both this song and Golden Brown for some reason brought an echo of a Van Gogh painting of a French cornfield. One day about 12 years ago, on a family camping holiday in France, I unexpectedly came across the view I had in my mind. Trying to find a go-cart track out in the countryside we stopped for a picnic at the edge of a cornfield. The sky was deep blue, the field stretched away red and yellow, there was the sound of crickets and the sun cast a warm blanket over the landscape. As in a film, Always the Sun came into my mind as the musical accompaniment. For me, at least, a song finding its place.


The Sea

There is a genre of song that is about a general sense of place but that each listener can relate in their own mind to a more specific time and place. Songs about the countryside, perhaps, or mountains or woods. Possibly the most extensive examples are about the sea, which lends itself to song lyrics as it did to poetry. I don’t mean so much those songs about events that happened at sea - like Procol Harum’s A Salty Dog or Gordon Lightfoot’s Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald - but just about the sea itself, the best of which enable the listener to identify with something in their own memory.

There is the classic La Mer, by Charles Trenet, which for some reason –possibly I heard it playing at the time on someone’s transistor radio –I always associate with Weymouth sea front: blue sea, sand and sandcastles with paper flags in them, ice-creams, Punch and Judy, donkey rides. The original words, apparently written on toilet paper on a French train, are actually a lot more lyrical –‘The sea, that one sees dancing along the clear gulfs, has silver reflections’ – than the much more chirpy English version that became Bobby Darin’s Beyond the Sea. Or there is the song Sailor by the American group Hem, which could be taken as a love song or a child’s lullaby. Listening to the words –‘over the ocean, pearls in the sky strung round the moon, pointing to you’ – the rich musical backing and the soft, almost murmuring, voice of singer Sally Ellyson, and the sea becomes a picture in a book of nursery rhymes. You can almost imagine Wynken, Blynken and Nod sailing past in their wooden shoe.

As someone who grew up on the south coast, the sea was part of my childhood, something always there on the landscape and marking the edges of my world. Most of the time it was a backdrop to the sort of scene described in Morrisey’s Every Day is Like Sunday, with the trudging back over wet sands and the tea and chips in the seafront cafes. There were times however, as on Portland Bill or Chesil Beach, where the storms, the undercurrents and the breaking waves on rocks, made the world of the seafront seem pretty irrelevant. It is for associations like this that a different sort of song is more fitting

The song here- by Fotheringay, the short-lived group built round Sandy Denny after she left Fairport Convention for the first time - is also just called The Sea but it paints a very different picture. It came from their 1970 album titled after the group and though some of it now sounds dated – file under Folk-Rock, early 1970’s – The Sea, fittingly given its subject matter, is timeless. The musical backing is one of those moments when words and music provided a perfect complement for the subject matter. Cymbals crash gently like waves, the bass carries the listener forward as an undercurrent and the  guitar solo by Jerry Donahue sparkles like splashing droplets in the sun. There is a feel of the Fleetwood Mac instrumental, Albatross, at times.

The mood, however, is deceptive. The sea here is not wild but is certainly not the millpond calm of Sailor or the poetic horizons of La Mer. The lyrics, penned by Sandy Denny, paint the sea as something relentless, even slightly sinister at times, with the power to bring human effort to nothing- ‘Fall and listen with your ears upon the paving stone, Is that what you hear? The coming of the sea’ There are also not many lines like this – ‘Sea flows under your doors in London town, And all your defences are all broken down’ – that could have come from a song any time in the last 2000 years.

Whether Sandy Denny based the song on a view from a particular piece of coastline or not doesn’t really matter, for the listener will bring to mind their own place to fit it. For me, the association is with being on Brighton Pier one dark wintry evening, with stars bright in a clear sky. The sea wasn’t particularly rough but it crashed endlessly against the pier supports, with spray rising to splash my face, so that the whole structure felt fragile and the blackness below was a reminder that the whole facade of a seaside town can be pretty vulnerable. The coming of the sea.

Link to song



The song Oxford Street, based on adolescent memories of growing up in Hatfield, highlighted the genre of the song about small towns, typically about the homogeneity and stifling of creativity that such places can produce. Yet ‘small town’ can have a different meaning. Some capital cities are so big that you can only relate to a particular chosen district, whether it’s Stoke Newington, Cheetham Hill or Greenwich Village. Others manage to be big cities but still with a small town atmosphere, a term that in this context has a positive connotation. They are compact enough to be able to walk right across, they seem accessible and informal, more relaxed than places like London or New York. One writer said of Venice: ‘Venice is a small town with sweet, small town manners’ (Judith Martin in No Vulgar Hotel :the Desire and Pursuit of Venice).

The same could be said of several of the Scandinavian cities. In fact, just as it is said that visiting the Isle of Wight transports the visitor back in time to the 1950’s, so it easy to feel you have gone to the past in many parts of Norway, Sweden or Finland. It is not just the wooden houses and cobbled streets. In a conference venue in one of the smaller towns one might stumble upon not only a group such as Herman’s Hermits still on the road with original drummer Barry Whitwam and still doing I’m into Something Good – bringing to mind those Japanese soldiers who appeared from the jungle on Pacific islands in the 1970’s and 1980’s unaware that WW2 was over - but musical outfits that one might think only existed now in the pages of pop historical memorabilia: Johnny and the Hurricanes! (Big hit - Red River Rock 1959) The Spotnicks! (Big hit- Hava Nagila,1963)

So Copenhagen is one such place that has retained a small town atmosphere, with its gabled houses, narrow streets and churches. Another is Oslo, Norway’s biggest city with a population of half a million or so. Though it has a subway system, most of the centre is easily reached by walking and it isn’t hard to feel a sense of accessibility about the whole place, from the harbour to Vigeland Park. There is a novel called Hunger by the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun that is worth reading before visiting Oslo. It is set in the Oslo of 1890 (Kristiana) and can be read for what it is: a compelling account of a penniless writer wandering the streets of the city in an increasingly desperate state of hunger.(By page 108, readers are likely to be searching for a snack if they hadn’t eaten before starting the book). But is also worth reading because of the descriptions of some of the streets and squares and parks that haven’t changed that much in the last 100 years or so - the place that the author/writer calls "that strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him”. Dating from about the same time is the famous painting, Munch’s The Scream, set on a road overlooking Oslo.

The song here is simply called Oslo, by the Oslo-based Little Hands of Asphalt, largely the musical project of singer-songwriter Sjur Lyseid. It came out on the Leap Years album in 2009 but is timeless enough to have come from almost any era. The harmonies and soft melody sound at times like Teenage Fan Club of the mid-1990’s.The harmonica that comes in towards the end could be Donovan circa 1965.The lyrics have some witty touches- ‘But your good intent was clear when you split and left me here, to my regret I left my high horse upstairs’ – and they revert to the double meaning of ‘small town’. The song is a slightly awkward, introspective account of an adolescent romance breaking up or a friendship that has ended –but ‘I’ll be seeing you around, because Oslo is a small, small town’. In that regard, it could be the personal statement from someone growing up in any number of towns and finding the horizons too limited. It does also, however, have strong echoes of Oslo - the swimming in the lake and the closeness to nature, the celebration of the sunny summer months before the winter darkness sets in, a bit self-effacing, a slight touch of melancholy,

I had a possibly unusual experience of Oslo. I was staying in a hotel/conference centre an hour or so away and for reasons I never really understood in a country where gender equality has been long entrenched, women travelling with their husbands on the country bus into Oslo got a reduced fare. I therefore trundled back and forward a few times as a pretend husband so conference attendees could travel cheaply to shop in Oslo. However, it did enable me to wander round the streets and parks like the character in Hunger, though obviously not reduced to eating my pencil. A small town still at heart, perhaps, but probably not as easy to understand as it might first seem to a visitor.
Link to song


And If Venice Is Sinking

The column on Paris showed how easy it was for songs to pick up on the common stereotypes of such a city. Perhaps the only other city that rivals Paris for that, at least in Europe, is Venice, a place with a resident population of around 60,000 but visited by some 20 million every year. Most will bring with them a collection of expectations of what to see gleaned from postcards, TV, films, songs: the canals and gondolas, the churches and cathedrals, the Bridge of Sighs. Some even get what they want from a distance. At The Venetian in Las Vegas, visitors can experience the wonders of Venice without the hassle of actually going there. As its publicity blurb puts it, ‘ Escape the hustle and bustle of the Las Vegas Strip with a relaxing gondola ride at the Venetian. From the soothing sound of water lapping the sides of the gondola to the eloquent singing of the gondoliers, passengers will feel as if they have truly been transported to Italy...Surrounded by a ceiling emulating blue sky as well as architecture inspired by Venice landmarks, a gondola trip down the Grand Canal delivers a unique Vegas experience’

Equally, pop songs about Venice have often tended to the O Sole Mio to It’s Now Or Never to Just One Cornetto end of music, redolent of operatic gondoliers proffering an ice-cream to the sound of rippling strings .Like Connie Francis’s Summertime in Venice (‘I dream all the winter long of mandolins that play our song’) or Perry Como’s Mandolins in the Moonlight (‘in tune with the strings of my heart’). Or the string-laden pathos of Charles Aznavour’ s How Sad Venice Can Be (‘When the mandolins play a song she sung for me, One unforgotten day’).They certainly like their mandolins there. A bit of an exception lyric-wise was Steve Harley’s Rain in Venice, though his assertion that ‘Love has flooded my heart, there’s rain in Venice for the first time’ is not really true. It rains in Venice quite a lot. When I was there one July there was such a sudden torrential downpour it caused the waiters to come racing out of the cafes and restaurants to grab tables, chairs and canopies before they were swept away into the canals.

The song here, And If Venice Is Sinking, recorded by the Canadian group Spirit of the West in 1993, is very much a tourist view of Venice and was written by the group’s singer, John Mann, after his honeymoon there. (The laugh that can be heard during the lines about Marini’s Little Man is apparently from his wife, the actress Jill Baum, joining in the backing singing). Musically it is a joyous celebration of the city from someone – like many of the annual visitors - who has fallen in love with it and is willing to go down with it like a ship if it eventually sinks into its own lagoons.: a possible reality that has troubled the city for years. There is the sound of the accordion and mandolin as might be expected but also a tuba and a rollicking sing- along chorus that veers between a Celtic folk dance and a German polka.

Lyrically, it takes a rather different slant from the usual one of serenading gondoliers. Instead, it captures another side of Venice that many visitors take away memories of. As you go about by foot or boat, there is a constant sense of religion and ornate and crumbling history, not just from the grand architecture of buildings such as the Basilica di Santa Maria but from the icons, candles, statuettes, window boxes of flowers seen down every alleyway or canal side. In a different musical context, some of the imagery in the words –‘they come in bent backed,, creeping across the floor all dressed in black... come to kiss their dead’ – could seem darker, drawing the listener into the shadowy and eerie Venice of the film Dont Look Now. Here, they seem the recollections of a visitor to Venice awestruck, christened with wonder, by what he sees. Equally, the Marino Marini priapic Little Rider sculpture that caused the merriment on Mann’s honeymoon is at one of the museums and art galleries - the Guggenheim Museum on the Grand Canal- that is firmly on the tourist trail.

Venice is a strange place that seems to exist in its own world, with its own special light and sky. It can, at times, seem as though you have wandered into a Canaletto painting. You can look from the top of the Campanile at the people and pigeons in the mosaic square below and know that millions of others have shared the same view - yet that and all the sights down the alleys and canals seem somehow a unique experience. Thomas Mann once described Venice as ‘half fairy tale and half tourist trap’. Somehow the fairy tale part becomes the reality and the one you take away with you.

Link to song


I Often Dream of Trains

Trains and cars and planes, as Bacharach and David might have put it, though that would perhaps sounded a little less romantic than the actual line. So after Heathrow airport and the M62, the train. The train journey and the railway station have long been part of the language of songs. The record that sparked off the skiffle era in Britain, which in turn provided the catalyst for the Beatles and the other early sixties groups-Rock Island Line – was about a train and recent comments on this blog have pointed out just how many train songs there have been. Many have titles and lyrics that shimmer with the promise of adventure and exotic travel: Marrakesh Express, Trans-Europe Express, This Train Will Be Taking No Passengers. I did, however, experience a tinge of disappointment in reading that the last train of the day from L.A to Georgia leaves at 2.30pm and that leaving on the midnight train would never really be feasible.

As with driving songs, however, songs about trains show a difference in the American and British perspective. The American genre tends to be in the spirit of car songs, heading off west to unexplored territory with the spirit of independence "Everyone loves the sound of a train in the distance”, sang Paul Simon, calling to mind the travel writer Paul Theroux’s comment: “Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.”

There are far fewer songs in the English version of this genre and the perspectives tend to be different. As with motorways, there isn’t the physical space to imagine an expanding frontier so trains and stations have come to symbolise something else in songs. In part, they mean departure, the train pulling out and loss. UB 40’s She Caught the Train (‘They said she'd take the train ,I ran to catch the train, Oh my, the train is gone’) or The Sundays’ Cry (‘I’m standing on a platform, Now I’m staring from a train’). However, in England they can also signify a journey that is less about entering physical space and more about another dimension-the past, real or mythical. The age of the steam train and all it signified in terms of a different picture of England hangs heavy still, decades after it passed away, which is why The Railway Children became such an iconic film for some people.

The song here, I Often Dream of Trains by Robyn Hitchcock, picks up on this idea of trains as metaphor, mixed up with some semi-Freudian analysis of a relationship. It is from his 1984 album of the same name, which also included another set of musings on transport from days past, Trams of Old London (‘Trams of Old London, taking my baby into the past...on a clear night you can see where the rails used to be’). Robyn Hitchcock was/is something of an acquired taste. Some of his work is very reminiscent of the post-Pink Floyd Syd Barrett, though perhaps more self-conscious, with an eccentric, surreal, at times whimsical, Englishness also found in artists like Viv Stanshall of the Bonzos.

I Often Dream of Trains is a characteristically odd mix of the banal and poetic imagination. There is the image of a train beside a frozen lake and summer turning to winter overnight, painting a rather dream-like and stark landscape suddenly brought down with a bump to the destinations of Reading and Basingstoke, presumably picked for the ordinariness. I once lived in Reading –judged at one time as the most average town in Britain - for four years and had several train journeys to it, none of which I have ever dreamed about. I also once saw a TV interview with Pete Staples of The Troggs, who hailed from Basingstoke’s neighbouring town of Andover. He remarked something like ‘There was a lot going on in Andover. It wasn’t like, well, Basingstoke.’

The surreal bit about this is that the train journey in the real world here doesn’t exist either. Hitchcock has described it as “a kind of imaginary route in my head that goes from Southampton to Oxford. I don't think it ever really existed, but I often find myself on it, in a very old railway carriage,” It’s the sort of train journey that might well go through Adlestrop-the station of Edward Thomas’s famous poem of the same name-as well as Basingstoke. Trains, particularly in England, can sometimes retain the romance of travel longer when they stay in the imagination.

Link to song


Driving Away From Home

The romance of air travel implicit in The Airport Song – the planes taking off into the blue, the departure boards - is perhaps matched by the romance of the open road: the allure of open spaces, distant horizons, freedom, rebellion. In songs, it used to be the train that provided the muse, hearing the lonesome whistle blow. Later the car took over, with rock and roll and growth in car ownership coinciding in time and songs celebrating driving for the sheer fun of it, with No Particular Place To Go.

As mentioned in the column on Watford Gap, songs about the road are largely an American genre from Route 66 onwards. It is, of course, largely a matter of space and distance and the whole mythology of heading west to conquer untamed lands. Whereas it is 3000 miles or so across the USA, coast to coast in England is about 190 miles. It is also, perhaps, a matter of place names, with the roll call of towns with Spanish, Native American, French, or Dutch origins sounding more romantic than the largely Anglo-Saxon names of England. Take By The Time I Get to Phoenix, with its names of Phoenix, Albuquerque and Oklahoma and a journey of 1000 miles or so and try moving it to an English context.

Yet the lure of the open road has always existed in England,. First it was by foot. Novels like The Broad Highway or Brother Dusty-Feet and a score of folk songs conjured up the traveller on the lonely road – ‘The winding road does call’,( as in Fairport Convention’s Farewell, Farewell.), bringing folk memories of the tinkers, peddlers and sheep droves of earlier centuries. With the invention of the bicycle, exploring the English countryside became more accessible and Edwardian-set novels like History of Mr Polly showed suburban clerks and shop assistants exploring the world and finding adventure by bike. There are even a few songs celebrating that freedom, as in John Shuttleworth’s Dandelion and Burdock; ‘Riding with my peers, the wind whistling past my ears. As we reached Mam Tor I was grateful for my Sturmey-Archer gears”

Unlike the USA, however, the advent of popular car travel did not lead to a rash of road songs, Watford Gap et al notwithstanding. One of the few is the one here, the 1986 Driving Away from Home (Jim’s Tune) by It’s Immaterial . It is a rare British example of this genre that works on two levels. At one level it is a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of the American ‘head on down the highway’ song moved to English dimensions. ‘Driving away from home 30 miles or more’. 39 miles and 45 minutes gets you from Liverpool to Manchester but probably wouldn’t get you out of Los Angeles. The lyrics sneak in little references back to American songs: King of the Road and the ‘move em on, move em out’ line from Rawhide, recalling the vast plains of the Western. This imagery is the more incongruous against the geographical landscape here-the M62 motorway stretching from Liverpool past Manchester and Leeds to Hull and notorious in places for thick fog. On a section there once, I had to get someone in the car to jump out when an exit sign suddenly loomed up to go and peer if it was the right one to come off at.

However, it also works as a road song. The song itself, particularly on the longer 12” version, is a perfect accompaniment to driving, with the syncopated rhythm moving the listener forwards against the relaxation of the gentle background harmonies and minor key. Then there is the evocative sound of the harmonica throughout, redolent of the lonesome prairie and the travelling man. (The place of the harmonica in pop songs is an interesting one. Though it was commonly part of folk and blues, the harmonica was once seen as a bit of a novelty instrument in pop music and rarely heard. I think the turning point was Bruce Channel’s big 1962 hit, Hey Baby, with a prominent harmonica part by Delbert McClinton. This influenced John Lennon enough to replicate the sound on Love Me do, Please, Please Me and From Me to You and, in turn, motivated Brian Jones to incorporate the now cool ‘harp’ into early Stones’ records.)

Yet it also works as a genuine celebration of driving in the landscapes of northern England. To an outside observer, the ambition of maybe making it to Newcastle or even Glasgow might seem limited. However, it is also a rather wistful, heartfelt sense of place, as is the lyric “When I was young we were gonna move out this way for the clean air, healthy you know”. To the industrial city dweller, the countryside , or even the suburbs, have always seemed a healthy escape.

Miranda Sawyer has described in her book about the suburbs of the North West, Park and Ride, the love of families there of just driving- “in the suburbs a car isn’t only a necessity, it’s the ticket to all your dreams”. And driving over the Pennines on the M62, 1200 ‘ above sea level, can be an exhilarating experience. There are a lot of nice places to see out there.

Link to song


The Airport Song

In 2009 the author and philosopher Alain de Botton spent some time at Terminal 5 of Heathrow Airport as writer-in-residence capturing the poetry of aviation and the romance of air travel. His account was written up in A Week at the Airport; a Heathrow Diary. It talked of the dreams of travel -" it's easy to fall into daydreams at the airport and remember the good and the bad trips and where you are in life's journey”. For those whose view of airports is lost luggage, queues for security checks, queues for a lift, queues for passport control, expensive coffee, exhorbitant parking charges, terminals as shopping malls and waiting, waiting, waiting, such a soliloquy might not come so easy.

Airports have always seemed not quite part of the real world, a kind of no-man’s land between journeys with its own boundaries and ways of behaving. Back in 1978 Brian Eno recognised the potentially tense atmosphere of an airport terminal with his ambient Music for Airports, designed to defuse and relax and actually installed at some airports for a while, including La Guardia. There have not, however, been a huge number of songs about airports (as opposed to flying, of which there are plenty) and even less about particular airports like Heathrow. Somehow they haven’t quite played the role in songs that railway stations have. There was L.A International Airport (where the big jet engines roar) by Susan Raye; Luton Airport by Cats UK, jumping on a passing Lorraine Chase Campari advert bandwagon; Airport by The Motors; The Byrds’ Airport Song, also written about Los Angeles International Airport.

The song here by Magna Carta has the same title, The Airport Song but was supposedly inspired by a wait at Heathrow Airport. Magna Carta were a British folk-rock group perhaps remembered now, if at all, for the fact that Davey Johnstone, guitarist with the Elton John Band in the 70’s, passed through its ranks. The song is reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel put to a summer bossa-nova rhythm and, in many ways, is Homeward Bound transposed from Widnes Station to Heathrow Airport: guitar and suitcase and a photograph to remember.

The song is interesting for two reasons. There is an obvious mismatch between the picture of the airport drawn by the song and the reality that most people experience, partly because of the age of the song :it came out in 1970 and reflects a different world of air travel. To quote from one account of flying in the mid-sixties: "...boarding a plane was such an event that stewardesses took souvenir Polaroids of passengers as if they were sailing on an ocean liner or catching a dinner show. Once, there were planes with piano lounges. Once, a first-class meal might have included turtle soup served from a tureen, Chateaubriand carved seatside, and cherries jubilee. Steaks would be cooked to order -- eggs, too, on breakfast flights." The song’s narrator is sitting in the departure lounge not just with a coffee but a cigarette and news about the weather is given by ‘the girl in information turning with a smile to break the news..the fog is on its way’. At Heathrow?? Flying then was still a novelty for most people. I had an aunt who around the time of the quote given above went on an aeroplane for the first time, determined not to look out of the window. After what appeared to her a lengthy period she did take a glance out and to her relief saw they were on land -- the flight must have been so smooth it had passed unnoticed. The plane, was of course, still manoeuvring towards take-off.

The second reason, however, is that the mood of the song does also capture the romance and excitement of being at an airport ,waiting to set off somewhere, that De Botton described and which travellers still hope to capture, despite it all. The memories and nostalgia for other trips and times; the destination boards with names of cities you have barely heard of and the realisation that you could just go and buy a ticket to fly there. I'll be leaving in the morning on a plane bound for the sun.

Reality, of course, can still fall short. The narrator is waiting for a flight to Singapore-what could sound more romantically exotic? I did go on a flight from Heathrow to Singapore a few years ago, en route to Brisbane. The night flight was overbooked, a mother spent much of the time chasing her toddler up and down the aisle to tire him out and during one of the flight meals the seat in front suddenly reclined so much the tray went flying. However, even a fog-bound delay in Heathrow’s departure lounge can sound an almost pastoral experience if you try hard enough.

Link to song


Andalucia/Spanish Bombs

‘This year I’m off to Sunny Spain, Y viva Espana’. So sang the Swedish singer Sylvia in 1974 in a piece of Euro pop that provided the musical backdrop for British holidaymakers heading for the Costa Brava for years to come. Sea, sun and sangria,  British breakfasts and pubs -so became the picture of Spain for many summer visitors, with irritating singalongs like The Ketchup Song becoming an annual holiday fixture.

This is, of course, a partial and highly distorted view of a country also known for the flamenco, the classical guitar and an Islamic legacy in its past history, no more so than in Andalucia ,the large area to the south and home to Picasso, Segovia and Federico Lorca, whose poems were of the landscapes of Andalucia as well as the Vienna of With This Waltz. One summer I stayed with my family on an olive farm in travelling distance of Seville and amongst the same sort of countryside described in Chris Stewart’s book, Driving Over Lemons (trivia note-Chris Stewart was the original drummer with Genesis, before Phil Collins). The scenery was medieval in many ways, often stark under brilliant light with olive or orange groves, whitewashed walls and the sound of church bells from a distant village. Once, on a walk in the hills nearby, with rabbits all around , a group of wild horses appeared a few yards away as though from a fairy tale landscape.

The feel of the place, with the mix of Moorish and Christian influence and the patterned landscape, is captured in the first song here, Andalucia by John Cale, from his 1973 album Paris 1919 and later covered by Yo La Tengo. John Cale has had an idiosyncratic musical career -founder member of the Velvet Underground, work with artists from Nick Drake to the Happy Mondays, rock music, electronic music, instrumental ballet music, cutting the heads off dead chickens on stage. This lilting ballad, however, with Cale’s Welsh accent coming through, is reminiscent of Scott Walker’s Copenhagen in that the overall sound is more important than the lyrics, which-as with much of Cale’s work-are pretty impenetrable: though he does manage to rhyme Andalucia with ’see ya’. It is largely a love song with a few broad descriptive strokes – 'castles and Christians' - as background and with gentle guitar-led musical accompaniment by Lowell George and some of Little Feat.

However, it is difficult to visit Andalucia, as with much of Spain, without being aware of a more recent history than the echoes of the distant past hinted at in this song. The Spanish Civil War is still a reality with mass graves being found, and you can still see anti-aircraft shelters and bullet holes in buildings. It had huge significance inside and outside Spain. It was when Lorca was shot by Falange militia, Picasso painted Guernica and George Orwell and Laurie Lee fought with the Republicans and wrote their accounts in Homage to Catalonia and As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. It also provided the inspiration for a number of songs, including Phil Ochs’ Spanish Civil War Song and the Manic Street Preachers’ Number 1 hit of 1998, If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next (which holds some sort of status as the longest number one song title (without brackets))

So the second song here is one of these and gives another side of Andalucia, with Spanish Bombs by The Clash, off their 1979 London Calling album. In 3 minutes or so, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones give a potted history of the Spanish Civil War as the song’s narrator flies into Spain for a modern day holiday, with an ETA (Basque separatist) bombing campaign going on, and sees echoes of the Civil War all around. Lorca, the trenches full of poets, the Anarchist flags, the International Brigade, all get a fleeting reference - a striking illustration of the past and present merging. (In an admittedly tenuous link with a previous column, I once met on Waterloo Station the Scottish anarchist Stuart Christie, who had been imprisoned and nearly executed under Franco’s regime).

The Andalucia in these songs and described by Lorca – ‘Green, how I want you green/Green wind. Green branches/.The ship out on the sea/and the horse on the mountain’ – is a short drive from Malaga and the Costa del Sol but could be a different country .Still ‘ Y Viva Espana’ of course.


In Brooklyn

First-time visitors to New York take with them ideas of what they will find there. There are the well-known landmarks, of course, but many of the areas of the city will have some associations for the newcomer from virtue of movie, TV, song or book. Manhattan, Harlem, Greenwich Village all have an immediate picture in the mind - even Queens, if you watched Cagney and Lacey. Brooklyn, however, at least to the British visitor, doesn’t carry so many prior expectations of what to expect. There’s awareness of the Brooklyn Bridge, perhaps the Brooklyn Dodgers, some notion of the Brooklyn accent based on My Cousin Vinnie or The Goodfellas. There are plenty of songs about the place-from Neil Diamond to the Beastie Boys to Mos Def to Salem al Fakir- but somehow a clear picture seems illusory before you actually see it for yourself

The song here, In Brooklyn by Al Stewart, is a perspective very much from British eyes and is also something now of a period piece in the way of Sunny Goodge Street - it came out in 1969 and you can almost smell the patchouli. Al Stewart is perhaps best known for his hit Year of the Cat but at the time of this song he was on the same club/college circuit as Roy Harper, with a style not unlike Donovan’s. His work was not to everyone’s taste and could range from the somewhat twee to the slightly bombastic, with later songs tackling Nostradamus, the French Revolution and the German invasion of Russia in WW2. His earlier albums were more introspective, foreshadowing the singer-songwriter beloved of bed-sitter land in the early seventies. In Brooklyn comes from his second album, Love Chronicles, on which he was backed by Jimmy Page and most of Fairport Convention, including Richard Thompson, in a jangly folk-rock style and features a number of personal and contemplative stories in a confessional song manner.

The title song, Love Chronicles, an 18 minute auto-biographical epic chronicling every sexual crush and encounter from ‘ Stephanie in the kindergarten arithmetic class’ onwards, gained some notoriety from supposedly being the first mainstream record to use the f-word (though Dylan’s Rain Day Women 12 &35 reputedly contains it if you listen hard enough) and then print it on the record cover. Hearing some of the lyrics now does, unfortunately, bring to mind Tony Blair’s reminiscences of him and Cherie in his Memoirs. However, it was quite brave. Singing his accounts of being a successful Lothario across Europe and America - along with a song called You Should Have Listened to Al- round the provincial college circuit was, frankly, asking for a punch on the nose.

Where Stewart excelled was in detailing a descriptive story in 3 or 4 minutes and In Brooklyn - the account of an encounter with a girl from Pittsburgh during his first trip to New York- is such a song. It paints a picture that was very much of its time at the tail end of the sixties. The girl with the harmonicas was probably called Moon Child, had long hair and a copy of the I-Ching and was a bit loopy. Though living in Brooklyn, New York to her was between Fourth Street and Nine (Greenwich Village) The whole feel of it is reminiscent of Hair or Stoned Soul Picnic and it also reminds me of Simon & Garfunkel’s America for some reason. Maybe it is because characters in both songs started their journey in Pittsburgh; or maybe it is that the relationships in both songs seemed doomed and are set against an era coming to an end. (As a bit of trivia here, Al Stewart shared lodgings with Paul Simon when he was in England in the mid-sixties).

What gives the description of Brooklyn-with the smell of the hamburger stand in the rain, the pawnbrokers and the winos begging money - an added dimension here is the vocal delivery. Al Stewart was actually born in Scotland before moving to the English south coast but on In Brooklyn he sounds like Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, impeccably English-‘mine was cold anyway and just grand’ - and an outsider looking in, which oddly enough makes it all the more accessible and believable. With that accent, the long hair and the afghan coat, no wonder he turned the head of a wannabe hippy from Pittsburgh.

I, too, got to Brooklyn on my first trip to New York, on the Brooklyn loop of the bus tour and some 40 years behind Al Stewart. It wasn’t enough yet to write a little narrative like this song but I did get to see the Brooklyn Bridge and to stand looking at the panorama of the lights illuminating the city against the night sky. And I was definitely in Brooklyn.

Link to song


Going Down To Cuba

Sometimes, songs about places are about not where someone has been but where they would like to go, either because they have idealised it in their mind or perhaps because they just like the sound of the name (as with the Bee Gees and Massachusetts). On occasion, they may even know they will never get there because the place is imaginary (Somewhere Over The Rainbow). The song here, Going Down to Cuba by Jackson Browne, is a different sort of song of this ilk - about a place the author hasn’t been to yet because obstacles have been placed in the way. These aren’t the usual obstacles that appear in songs for someone to overcome in the pursuit of their heart’s desire-“ You can reach me by caravan, cross the desert like an arab man....you can jump on a speedy colt, cross the border in a blaze of hope” etc, etc. These are not heroic challenges but political barriers and not the usual stuff of songs.

The motivation for this song has, of course, a perspective from the USA - one can get on a plane in London and arrive at Havana 9 hours later with no more difficulty than flying to Spain. However, the travel restrictions between the USA and Cuba have added an extra dimension - and maybe the frisson of forbidden fruit - to American songs about Cuba over the years. As early as 1964, Phil Ochs covered the visit to Cuba-and subsequent arrest- of the African-American reporter, William Worthy, in his typically witty Ballad of William Worthy-“Well, there really is no need to travel to these evil lands, Yes, and though the list grows larger you must try to understand. Try hard not to be surprised if someday you should hear that the whole world is off limits, visit Disneyland this year”.

44 years, and 8 American Presidents, later Jackson Browne echoed the same sentiments in Going Down to Cuba. It is a longer and more earnest song than Ochs’ and reads at times what it actually is - a musical rewriting of his article in the New York Times of 2004 about the embargo on cultural exchange: 'Songs of Cuba, silenced in America’. It is not often one expects to hear a line like “They make such continuous use of the verb, ‘to resolve’ “ outside of a Paul Simon song. As such, it is less a song about Cuba itself than about another country’s perspective on it, though at a different end of the political spectrum than, say, Gloria Estefan’s Cuba Libre. Music and politics have always mingled easily in Cuba, with the murals of Che Guevara and posters of the Cuban 5 overlooking the musicians playing at every street corner and café. That mix does not always come so easy to songs that look at the country from outside,

However, it is a song that quietly grows, with the gentle rhythm of the music and background vocals and the hopeful expectation of the singer of finally experiencing the Havana landmarks that any visitor to Cuba might expect to see. The Hotel Nacional overlooking the Malecon, where once in pre-Castro days Frank Sinatra sung at mafia gatherings where guests dined on tortoise and flamingo and where now you can stay in the Nat King Cole room or look at the photos in the lobby of more recent visitors like Naomi Campbell and Ken Livingstone. Or the Malecon itself, the long coastal stretch where the crumbling grandeur of the palatial buildings is buffeted by the waves and sporadic hurricanes and the smell of brine and fish hangs in the air. Or the initially bizarre sight of 1950’s Chevrolets,  Dodges and Cadillacs still driving round, held together by Soviet parts and the ingenuity of Cuban mechanics." It’ll put a smile on your face to see a Chevrolet with a Soviet transmission”. Or the ubiquitous mojitos and cigars. It is through these little touches and the gently barbed comments-‘they know what to do in a hurricane’- that the song becomes more than a worthy editorial on the cultural and economic blockade.

The music of the Beatles was once seen as western decadence in Cuba. However, now in a small park - known as Rockers’ Park- - in the Vedado district of Havana there is a bronze sculpture of John Lennon, with a plaque of some of the lines from Imagine in Spanish, ‘You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one’. (Tourists trying to find it need to pronunciate the name clearly to taxi drivers, as they may end up looking at the statue of Lenin in Parque Lenin south of the city instead.) There is, of course, another memorial to John Lennon in a park: in Central Park, New York, a 3 hour flight away. There must be a moral there somewhere.

Link to song



Hans Christian Andersen has had quite an effect on how people see Copenhagen. In reality he was supposedly grumpy, neurotic, a hypochondriac who went to bed with a sign round his neck saying ‘I’m not dead, I am sleeping’. However, his stories of the Little Mermaid, the Ugly Duckling and a score of others have forever linked Copenhagen to the imagination.

As a child, Copenhagen always had something a bit magical in its name . I think that came from two things. One was from hearing the Danny Kaye song,  Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen, on the radio. I never saw the film it came from, Hans Christian Andersen, so I constructed my own ideas of why it was so wonderful. These became intermingled with the Hans Christian Andersen fairy stories so that Copenhagen itself took on the quality of a fairy-tale town. I wasn’t even sure if it actually existed or was a made-up place. The other was from an old radio that lay about the house with a dial on which were the names of foreign cities, including Copenhagen. On occasion I would listen to the crackling of the static and the occasional burst of music and indecipherable language and it would only increase the sense of a rather magical place somewhere far away.

It was a long time before I actually got to the town, on a summer visit with my teenage son. Not everything was as imagined, of course, but the centre remains pretty much as it was in Andersen’s time and it didn’t disappoint. There was also the surprise of the unexpected – the autonomous commune of Christiana, vaguely reminiscent of the outer fringes of the Reading Rock Festival; or finding you could have a 5-course meal where each course was herring. Especially in the evening, when fairy lights in the Tivoli Gardens came on to cast ethereal light on the flowers and streams there, a glimpse of fairy-tale came through.

Not all songs about Copenhagen fit this picture. The Norwegian singer, Kari Bremnes, has a song Copenhagen Cavern, with a very different take - the story of a young girl from northern Norway, desperate and stranded without money in Copenhagen and waitressing/begging in ‘a run down bar beneath the ground, a place where the sun has never been’. It is always good to be reminded that any city has different sides to it. The song here, however, Copenhagen, by Scott Walker, was the one I took in my head when I went there.

As the focal point of the Walker Brothers, Scott Walker (Engels) had been hugely popular in Britain and Europe –but not his home country of the USA - in 1966/7, specialising in melodramatic pop ballads with Phil Spector-ish backing, soaked in heartache and loneliness and all delivered in his powerful but rather sepulchral baritone. The first line of one of their hits, The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More, summed up the existential tone: ’Loneliness is a cloak you wear’. Following the group’s split, Scott Walker took a completely different road, towards Jacques Brel territory and the European chanteur. He also became something of a male Greta Garbo, reclusive, enigmatic, seemingly tortured by his art, introducing references to Camus and Bergman in his lyrics ,and he became an influence on artists such as David Bowie, Nick Cave and Marc Almond. Not all of his new oeuvre worked. It could be over-dramatic or slushy and the Brel interpretations in particular seemed uneasy, partly because Brel’s songs don’t translate into English well.

What Scott Walker did, however, was to bring a love of European culture and history to his songs, some of which were later put out in a CD collection, An American in Europe. You just knew that he really wished he had grown up on the Left Bank, not Hamilton, Ohio. But it also meant that he brought new eyes to his observations on European places and conventions, introducing a child-like wonder at times. The self-penned Copenhagen is from this period, first appearing in 1969 on his third solo album, imaginatively entitled Scott 3, and later re-issued in 2006 as part of the 5 Easy Pieces collection. It is a short, delicate song, reminiscent of Paris Bells and it is like a musical miniature painting, capturing Copenhagen through mood rather than explicit lyrics. The lush orchestration, poetic words and veering to a MOR style in the vocals could have resulted in an overblown mess of pretension. What keeps it this side of that is Scott Walker’s obvious earnestness about the place and the second part of the song. The lines ‘Copenhagen, you’re the end, gone and made me a child again’ are a haunting mixture of sunny hope and melancholy.

The musical fade-out with echoes of a distant carousel is an integral part of the mood here. Listen to this and imagine being on a bench in a small cobbled square in Copenhagen on a sunny late afternoon, with dappled light through the trees. Nearby the street market of fruit and fish and craft is packing up. You can hear the sound of children in a playground, a faint peel of bells from a small church on the corner and in the distance the tinkling sound of the carousel in the Tivoli Gardens. Easy to be a child again.

Link to song