A Song To A Town

It seems appropriate that a series on Songs about Places should include a piece called A Song to a Town, a track by the Norwegian singer/songwriter Kari Bremnes that first appeared in English on her Norwegian Moods album. Like Everyday is Like Sunday, the author no doubt had a particular place in mind but it is not named. Instead, the description of the town become a way of exploring other themes-in this case, changes and moving on but with the pull of the past ever present.

Generally speaking Norway has not figured much in the British music scene. There’s A-Ha, a quarter of Abba, a quarter of Aqua. Devotees of the Eurovision song contest might also recall Jan Teigen as being the first act to gain the prized nul points, in 1978. However, more artists are becoming known internationally and some of Kari Bremnes’ work has been available in English for the past ten years or so. A Song to a Town, like much of her work, has a haunting, melancholic atmosphere, with words and music that mix dark with the occasional light and suits exactly the landscapes of western Norway. The town in the song could be Bergen or any of a number of places where red-roofed wooden houses line the cobbled streets to the harbour, the smell from the fish market hangs in the air and boats come and go endlessly on travels.

Change and the passing of time figures in a lot of Kari Bremnes’ songs: it is perhaps inevitable that she recorded a memorable version of Sandy Denny’s Who Knows where the Time Goes. One of her songs, You’d Have to Be There is one of the most poignant expressions of this-‘Everything changes and nothing can last.... The days may have names you can call, but they never come back to you, The days are like children, they change into years as they grow’.

But there is also a strong sense of the past ever present. Moving on and travel frequently occurs: she has done songs about Copenhagen, Berlin, Montreal, Athens and the Hurtigruten, the Norwegian coastal voyages. However, moving on can also mean looking back rather than forward. In You’d Have to Be There, there is a return to a childhood memory of home-‘I’m seeing a garden, a place I keep longing to show you’. The same thought was explored by Judy Collins in her Secret Gardens song: ’Secret gardens of the heart where the old stay young for ever’. The past is there but it isn’t the same when you revisit it.

In A Song to a Town, these themes come together. In one sense the song reflects the truism that you should never go back, the subject of Don Henley’s The Boys of Summer (‘I saw a deadhead sticker on a Cadillac, a little voice inside my head said, Don’t look back, you can never look back’). In the Kari Bremnes piece, the narrator gets off the boat and enters a once familiar town as a stranger.

There is another layer, however. Anyone who has returned after many years as a visitor to a town they once lived and felt at home-maybe still think of it as ‘home’ – would also recognise the references to the secrets, images and stories hidden from current gaze. The past is there, like a sepia toned image underneath a colour photo. There’s the market still there, with the stalls selling cheese and broken biscuits. There’s the Odd Spot cafe-I can almost see myself sitting there.There's the square outside the municipal library where the busker used to sing Bob Dylan. But you also remain a stranger and those about you don’t see what you see.

In her song Day, Kari Bremnes used the lines, ‘You're stranded in time, a ghost that is lost in the twilight. And the curtain is woven from the memories of time gone before’. A Song to a Town is a reminder that places too can be viewed through the memories of time gone before, where the past jostles with the present and where a stranger seeks familiarity again.


Everyday Is Like Sunday

Sometimes a song can be written with a place in mind but captures a feeling or image that can be transferred by the listener to an experience or setting of their own. One such song is Everyday Is Like Sunday, Morrissey’s 1988 hit and his second single post-Smiths. It saw a number of later cover versions, most notably by Chrissie Hynde and 10,000 Maniacs, but the song really needs Morrissey’ s sense of a particularly English glumness to do it full justice.

Like many of his songs, the lyrics are open to interpretation. You can read them as an expression of the ennui and depression that can come from an out-of-season seaside town-‘how I dearly wish I was not here’. You might also see it as about the crushing boredom and loneliness of teenage years, a statement on Thatcher’s Britain of the late 1980’s or a nod to the burden of the past on the present.

The place itself is not identified. The video made to accompany the song when first released, with Billie Whitelaw making an appearance, was shot in Southend. However, given Morrissey’s Lancashire upbringing he may well have had in mind somewhere like Southport or Morecambe. In a sense the exact place doesn’t really matter. The role of the seaside resort as a symbol of boredom or decay and decline, mixed up with nostalgia , has been explored before: John Osborne’s play The Entertainer (the film of the play was shot in Morecambe), or by Bruce Springsteen and his songs about Asbury Park, New Jersey. However, to anyone who grew up in an English seaside town, Morrissey’s lyrics of the ‘coastal town that they forgot to close down’ will strike a chord. The references are, like the resorts themselves, looking to the past . The ‘win a tray’ and the ‘greased tea’, the postcard on the promenade, the conscious echo of John Betjeman’s 1937 poem on Slough,( Morrisey has said that Betjeman is his cultural icon). ‘Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough’ becomes ’In the seaside town they forgot to bomb- come, come, come, nuclear bomb’. This was, after all, still the decade of Reagan and Mutually Assured Destruction.

Seaside resorts play an important but ambiguous part in the country’s cultural, history. The past is inescapable, whether in the piers, hotels and cafes that have seen better days or the conscious quest for nostalgia for long-gone holidays of deckchairs, Punch and Judy, donkey rides on the sand and Donald McGill postcards. If you grew up in such a place, childhood is fine. It is only when you get into your teenage years that ‘everyday is silent and grey’. Everyone seems old, the sea seems a barrier, the funfair seems tatty, sitting huddled and cocooned in a towel like a hibernating tortoise behind a windbreak whilst sand blows into your hardboiled egg and mug of tea loses its charm. You notice the sign in the cafe window ’No gypsies, beatniks or hippies’.

Later in life I did spend some time in a bedsit in Morecambe. I had heard the expression, ‘It’s about as much fun as a wet weekend in Morecambe’, now I could live the dream and experience quite a few such weekends. Morrissey’s song had yet to be written but I would have smiled if I had heard it then, especially with Heysham nuclear power station just down the road. The place did have its compensations, however. Taking a driving test in Morecambe on Wednesday half-day closing proved rather easy and one surreal afternoon, whilst sitting on the promenade, I was engaged in conversation by the mum of Rodney Bewes (of The Likely Lads fame).

Like Ray Davies, ‘Englishness’ is an integral part of Morrissey’s song writing, -though the reference points are more likely to be Alan Bennett and Oscar Wilde than George Orwell – and this song has a specific cultural framework. However, oddly perhaps, it has also become time-referenced. The phrase, ‘everyday is like Sunday’, makes little sense today when shops are open as usual, you can go the pub any time, television channels are no different from any other day and cars are not such a novelty that families go for Sunday drives. Sunday, in fact, is like every day. Nostalgia is a funny thing-people get nostalgic for times before they were born or for times that never actually existed. It may be  that there will yet be nostalgia for a time when Sunday was different enough to be a reference point, even when grey and endless.

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Songs about places are often most successful when they focus on the small-scale and accessible: a road, a bridge, a cafe. It is the detail that can make a song suddenly seem relevant to the listener. In St Etienne’s London Belongs to Me, the potential scale of the subject is brought down to ground level: ‘Took a trip to Camden Town, Walked down Parkway and settled down in the shade of a willow tree’- a little touch that places it presumably at the edge of Regents Park.

When songs tackle the large and grandiose, about a whole country or even a continent, the risk of failure is higher. If the song comes from within the country, it risks straying over the line of being overly patriotic, sentimental or myth-making. If it is written from outside, it can end up as a collection of clich├ęs or stereotypes. Toto’s Africa throws in drums echoing, wild dogs, rain, an old man with ancient melodies and Kilimanjaro for good measure. It can also end up, frankly, just silly, as in ‘England swings like a pendulum do, bobbies on bicycles two by two’ (American Roger Miller’s take on England in 1966).

Simon & Garfunkel’s America avoided these pitfalls, largely due to Paul Simon’s skill as a lyricist but also because the song, first issued on their 1968 Bookends album, was in tune with the zeitgeist.(A subsequent release as part of the CBS sampler album, Rock Machine I Love You and as a single in 1972 kept it current for a number of years). The song’s theme, an actual and metaphysical journey to find the true meaning of America, was not original, of course. Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac had gone this way before and John Steinbeck had sought to discover America as it really was in his book, Travels with Charley,(1962) . A year after the Simon and Garfunkel track, the film Easy Rider was to explore a similar journey in search of America. Both saw hope end in disillusionment.

At that time Simon & Garfunkel occupied an ambivalent position in rock music. Some of Paul Simon’s earlier work, like a Church is Burning and He Was My Brother, had made statements as political as anything by Dylan. However, by the late sixties the duo were seen by some as too mainstream to fit easily into the counterculture of the likes of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Regardless, the song caught the mood of the times perfectly. When the song’s narrator says ‘Kathy, I’m lost...I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why’, the words spoke for more than a relationship. They also spoke for the dislocation and loss of those who had believed in the American dream. The same year the American essayist and novelist Joan Dideon  took her focus from the famous Yeats poem and described in Slouching Towards Bethlehem the centre of American society falling apart, also concluding that ‘America was lost’

Lyrically, the song shows Simon at his poetic best, using the natural rhythms of conversation to create a story that flows with the music, underpinned by acoustic guitars, organ and the dramatic drum fills of session supremo Hal Blaine. You don’t notice that Simon writes in blank verse with no rhymes. because the words sound naturally spoken: ‘Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat’ .It almost sounds like a short story.

On one level it is a journey on the famous Greyhound bus of two people starting off from Pittsburgh as lovers and nearing their destination, - presumably New York - disillusioned. The ‘Kathy’ in the song was Kathy Chitty, subject of Paul Simon’s 1965 tune Kathy's Song, and pictured on the cover of the Paul Simon Songbook album.
Despite her real existence, however, Simon has said that this particular journey was an imaginary one. The listener is drawn in by the idle conversation between them and the little touches, the cigarettes and Mrs Wagner pies taken on the bus (These were a homemade pie sold in wax paper. Unfortunately. the company went bust three months after this song’s release). As the journey progresses, the grander scale of its meaning becomes clearer, with the sense of loss and emptiness and the sight of the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike also looking for America. Depending on which version you listen to, sometimes the closing coda is ‘all gone to look for America’, sometimes ‘all come to look for America’. Either way,nothing is resolved, there is nothing to find.

Twice I have found that lines from the song have come unbidden into my mind. Once was when hitching back from London to Reading one night, I spent some time by the side of a road waiting for the next lift. The moon rose over an open field, illuminating a white horse standing near the fence. The other was on a visit to New York when I went up with my daughter and partner to visit Woodstock. Driving back into the outskirts of New York we sat stationary whilst the lanes of cars stacked up. It wasn’t the New Jersey Turnpike, of course, but the imagery fitted.

Re-issues and covers of the song kept it alive and in 2000 it also appeared on the sound track of Almost Famous. It will no doubt survive longer: a song about a journey from Saginaw to the outskirts of New York, but also a song also about a country as reality versus myth.



Sunny Goodge Street

Donovan’s Sunny Goodge Street pre-dated Waterloo Sunset as a song in the key of London by nearly 2 years. There is, however, a crucial difference. Whereas Waterloo Sunset has a timeless quality that has provided relevance across the years, Sunny Goodge Street creates a little time bubble that the listener can only experience from a distance. A historical snapshot preserved in aspic where the past is a foreign country and Goodge Street isn’t somewhere you get off to go to Heals or Pollock’s Toy Museum or find a cheap electrical shop but the crossroads between bohemia and hippydom.

Donovan’s impressionistic take on the London scene came out on his Fairytale album in 1965, two or three years earlier than one might imagine from hearing it now, when the assumption might be it was from the first Summer of Love. It was one of the first British records that mentioned drugs openly - ‘a violent hash-eater’- rather than in code. Rather appropriately, a few months later Donovan was the first high-profile British pop star busted for drugs, supposedly leaping naked onto a bemused policeman’s back in the process. In this imagery, Donovan’s recollection of an irate doper with an attack of the munchies trying to get his chocolate from a vending machine brings to mind Paul Weller’s portrayal of the character in Down in The Tube Station at Midnight (possibly Goodge Street) fumbling with a platform vending machine and ‘pulling out a plum’ (possibly a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate but the exact meaning is unclear, even to the Jam bass player, Bruce Foxton. For a full and at times surreal exploration of that song’s lyrics, see the debate at

Musically, it was a turning point for Donovan, shifting away from the Dylan-influenced folk of his early work to a more jazzy, dreamy feel that foreshadowed Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, with full group coffeehouse-jazz backing including flute, cello and brushed drums, before his more rock-based hits of the later sixties. The lyrics too reflected the changing character of the Goodge Street area, on the cusp between the beat culture and the Eastern mysticism of the flower children. The area in which Goodge Street is located - Fitzrovia - had been a hip part of London culture since the 1930s, a bohemian home from home for Dylan Thomas, Quentin Crisp, Aleister Crowley and George Orwell, who referenced the Newman Arms pub on Rathbone Street in 1984 and Keep the Aspidistra Flying. By the late fifties/early sixties, there was a beatnik culture based round the cafes and pubs, particularly the One Tun on Goodge Street, which Donovan picked up on in the shift to flower power and hippies.

So the references locate it firmly in time as well as space, hence the time bubble effect with sunny Goodge Street fixed in the listener’s mind like a photograph, or like a sun-lit miniature scene inside a glass globe. In this scene, you might leave Goodge Street and head down Charlotte Street towards Soho, round the Square, past the strip clubs and bars to Berwick Street and Musicland, to sit on the cushions amidst the smell of patchouli and listen to the latest Country Joe and the Fish import. You might get your copy of International Times and Gandalf’s Garden before heading off past Ronnie Scotts, through Leicester Square where a couple of straggle-haired buskers with guitar and bongos are banging out Season of the Witch, a quick coffee and chips at the Golden Egg and on to Dobells Record Shop on Charing Cross Road to check out the latest jazz and blues offerings. On the way back to Goodge Street you might even catch Soft Machine at the UFO on Tottenham Court Road.

As a song of its time, Sunny Goodge Street is in many ways a period piece: for a contemporary capture of sixties London, a number of songs in the St Etienne back catalogue succeed perfectly. Sunny Goodge Street described a place in time, but it was a state of mind as much as a geographical location.


I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City

Songs about cities often fall into one of two categories. They can be a celebration of the place and most big cities – New York, Chicago, London, Paris, Rome, San Francisco-have such musical tributes. However, they can also cast the place in the role of mammon, leading the virtuous astray and wearing them down till they escape back to a simpler life - Do you Know the Way to San Jose?, Going Back to Country Living, Midnight Train to Georgia.

I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City brings another slant. At face value the song can seem a positive, start-of-a-hopeful journey take on New York. ‘I say goodbye to all my sorrows.... For the first time I’ll be free in New York City’. It appears to paint the historical view of New York as a beacon of opportunity, its Statue of Liberty welcoming the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

However, when you know that the song was written and sung by Harry Nilsson for Midnight Cowboy – though eventually dropped in favour of Everybody’s Talkin’ – it takes on a different meaning. It is not a celebration, neither is it a dream of escape back to a previous world. It is a song of arrival, not departure, but it reflects an optimism that the listener knows is misplaced.

The understanding of it, therefore, is mediated through another experience: knowing how Midnight Cowboy ends. In the same way, any visitor to New York has their view and perspective on it mediated by images received in countless films, TV shows, songs. People think they know what New York is like and, often, look to find what they expect or hope to see. Not just the standard tourist sights of the Empire State Building or Central Park but the smaller everyday sights – a big yellow taxi, a fire hydrant going off in the street, a large traffic cop with an Irish accent, a sign saying ‘Entering Queens’. All things glimpsed countless times in the course of any number of dramas, cop shows and comedies set in New York.

It is even tempting to take that imagery one step further and consciously replay films or songs in your mind as you go round the streets of the city. Wasn’t that Central Park Fountain featured in Enchanted? I am sure I remember seeing Kojak lay out a murder scene just there. Hey, I’m on Jones Street in Greenwich Village - surely Bob Dylan and Suzie Rotolo will be coming into view at any minute.

Because of why I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City was written, and because of its musical similarity to Everybody’s Talkin’, the imagery I remembered  whilst walking through Times Square was drawn not just from Midnight Cowboy itself but from a memory of seeing that film for the first time, a time when I had never been to New York. My impressions were being formed long before I actually arrived there and Times Square thus appeared almost as a movie set come to life.

The song was eventually used in a movie - You’ve Got Mail. For me, however, it was the film it didn’t appear in that was the more significant for the prism through which I viewed New York.

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Finchley Central

The train has long figured in songs, especially in America where the long distances that can be travelled and the mythology of the hobo and the freight train have given the train a special significance. Stations, too, have often had a mention in lyrics, though usually - in contrast to the optimism and romance of trains - as a source of regret, sadness and saying good-bye: The Sundays' Cry, St Etienne’s Hobart Paving, Paul Simon’s Homeward Bound.

When you come to the London Underground , however, the field is pretty thin. The tube just does not have the same magic as the City of New Orleans. One of the best was the Jam’s Down in the Tube Station at Midnight, which captured perfectly the cold fear in 1970’s London of realising you are in the wrong place at the wrong time “I could smell their breath, They smelt of pubs and Wormwood Scrubs and too many right wing meetings...I’m down in the tube station at midnight’. It remained non-specific as to which station though. Belle & Sebastian and Gerry Rafferty name checked Mornington Crescent and Baker Street in the titles of their songs but lyrically go off on another direction altogether. Otherwise, there is Suggs’ Camden Town—and the New Vaudeville Band hit of 1967, Finchley Central.

The band is now best remembered, if at all, for their first record, Winchester Cathedral, but they did notch up 3 or 4 other hits, including Finchley Central, before the bubble burst. The group itself was hurriedly put together as a touring group after the unexpected success of Winchester Cathedral, recorded by session musicians as a project by its writer, Geoff Stephens, and were promoted in the manner of the Temperance Seven, who had enjoyed chart success in the early sixties-1920’s dance band music, Edwardian clothes and sideburns, singing through a megaphone Rudy Vallee style.

They, or their management, had also noticed the chance of making money in the American market with an act that played up the louche English gentleman angle. Ian Whitcomb – who played the ukele and sang ‘Where Did Robinson Crusoe go with Friday on a Saturday night?’ – and Chad and Jeremy (Jeremy Clyde being a descendent of the Duke of Wellington) had both had much greater success in the USA than England and Texan musician Doug Sahm astutely capitalised on the British invasion of the mid-sixties by promptly re-naming his group the Sir Douglas Quintet and gained an immediate hit with ‘She’s About a Mover’ on the belief this was a new British ensemble headed by a member of the titled aristocracy. Unfortunately, Sahm’s Texan accent and the Mexican origins of some of his group soon aroused suspicions and they reverted to being the Honkey Blues Band.

With this in mind, the newly recruited singer for the New Vaudeville Band, Alan Klein, was re-named Tristram, 7th Earl of Cricklewood, for the American market. Klein was a jobbing songwriter/singer who had written the music for the 1963 film, What a Crazy World, a vehicle for pop stars Joe Brown, Marty Wilde and Susan Maughan, just before they were swept away by the Beatles. Klein also appeared in the film as one of Wilde’s side-kicks and anyone interested in class and race relations in early sixties Britain could gain some insight from the clip below.

With a song that starts ‘Our local Labour Exchange is going to rack and ruin’ (and that’s not a line you will hear in a Bacharach-David number), Wilde, Klein and co cavort in a clip that manages to stereotype Africans, Indian, Arabs, Italians, Chinese, Scots, African-Caribbeans, trade unionists and the British working class generally in 3 minutes.

Klein also co-wrote Finchley Central, the band’s third hit and a slight song running to 2 verses and under 3 minutes. It did manage to combine a number of different things, though-an irritatingly catchy tune,references to parts of London to attract the American interest in England Swings,  a glance at suburbia and the annoyance of spending 2/6d on going to meet a date that doesn’t turn up. However, the lengthy journey and expense wasn’t really necessary. Finchley Central is indeed 10 stops from Golders Green, changing at Camden Town. However, he could have easily got a number 82 bus up Regent Park Road for a fraction of the time and cost - or, indeed, walked it in half an hour.

Some years after the song was a hit, I had a temporary job at front of house at Golders Green Odeon Theatre, a massive building a short walk from the tube in the direction of Finchley Central. As temporary jobs go, it was more interesting than most - one evening the Sleeping Beauty ballet, the next Roy Castle. Princess Margaret even graced the place with her presence for one show. I found it hard not to come out of Golders Green tube without the whistling of Finchley Central coming into my mind and wondering where the characters in the song would have gone on their date if it had happened. Perhaps to the Odeon - there wasn’t exactly a glut of entertainment nearby. As a novelty song, it was never going to inspire and romanticise in the way of Waterloo Sunset - but after the New Vaudeville Band’s 15 minutes of fame were up, Finchley Central does provide a small window into suburban London of the late sixties and a reminder that Swinging London did not extend very far.

Link to song



It is easy to forget that, before Saturday Night Fever and the falsetto and white suits, the Bee Gees had their first incarnation on the British music scene as a 5-piece pop group, chart contemporaries of the Move and Kinks. They may have brought with them a slightly exotic aura from being viewed as Australian and those viewers of an eagle-eyed disposition who remembered Saturday morning cinema of a decade earlier may have recognised drummer Colin Peterson as the child star of the 1957 film Smiley, playing a lovable scamp alongside Ralph Richardson. Otherwise, there was little to suggest at first glance the seminal role they would occupy in music over the next 30 + years.

As a group, they were never easy to pigeonhole. They were never part of the psychedelic underground but early songs like New York Mining Disaster 1941 were quirky enough to set them apart from the run-of-the-mill pop. Likewise, whilst Robin Gibb could, for a while, sport some of the longest hair around with his Charles 11 at court look, big brother Barry sat at the other end of the sartorial spectrum with his then ‘man at C&A’ image, According to a Melody Maker poll of pop stars in the run-up to the 1970 election, he was also one of only two artists quizzed to admit supporting the Tories and Ted Heath (the other, rather bizarrely, being Vincent Crane, mainstay of Atomic Rooster and ex-organist with the Crazy World of Arthur Brown).

What set them a cut or six above most groups was the song writing skills that put the Gibb brothers firmly up in the musical elite. Even at this stage in their career, To Love Somebody had been covered by Janis Joplin and Nina Simone and Esther and Abi Ofarim had done the definitive cover of Morning of My Life. (The success of this, it must be said, was largely Esther’s. Abi’s contribution to that musical partnership seemed largely to consist of sometimes off-key harmonies and an irritating line in stage patter).

Though not perhaps one of their finest songs, Massachusetts was the Bee Gees' first Number One, knocking Englebert Humperdink’s The Last Waltz off the top spot. Like many of their songs at that time it had a simple folk-type melody, surrounded by a lush orchestration, and, like New York Mining Disaster 1941, a sketchy ambivalent lyric open to interpretation. Why was the song’s author trying to get to San Francisco? Was he hoping to see, as the Flowerpot Men had just suggested, in Lets Go to San Francisco, sunny people walking hand in hand and flowers growing to the sky? Was he really expecting to hitch a ride for the 2700 miles it was from Massachusetts? That would be like standing at the Hammersmith Flyover and hoping to thumb a lift to Tehran. Why did the lights all go out? Was this a reference to the Northeast Blackout of November 1965 when the electricity in a number of northern states, including Massachusetts, was cut off for several hours? If so, though, he would have been two years early for the Summer of Love in San Francisco.

In a sense, of course, it is not a song about an actual place at all and could have been about anywhere. Despite what the lyric says, the Gibbs had not been to Massachusetts at that point of time and the word was chosen because they liked the sound of it. In this, Massachusetts was in a different genre to Waterloo Sunset, which was a lyrical sketch of a real place and time. This, nominally about somewhere specific, was about a ‘placeless place’, more to do with feelings than geography. It was also important that it was American. As Robin Gibb explained, ‘There is always something magic about American place names. It only works with British names if you do it as a folk song’.

The choice, however, was interesting. It may have been stuffed with American history and heritage but to the average British person, Massachusetts was a blank canvas. Mention New York, Chicago, Mississippi, the Rocky Mountains, even San Jose, in a song and the listener would have some shared image - even if it was based on fantasy - of what the place was like. When Gladys Knight sang Midnight Train to Georgia, a string of films from Gone with the Wind to Deliverance provided a mental picture of what Georgia might be like. Massachusetts, however, remained unexplored territory. Boston, maybe Harvard, might conjure up associations. Nantucket might strike a chord with readers of Moby Dick, or alternatively, with those viewers of Weekend World who recognised the theme tune as Mountain’s 1970 tour-de-force, Nantucket Sleighride. What, however, did Massachusetts itself signify?

I thought of this on a trip to Massachusetts and found Robin Gibbs’ tremulous vibrato echoing in my head as I saw the roadside signs signifying that Massachusetts was indeed one place I had been. Whether there is one place that typifies Massachusetts, I doubt. For the short time I was here, however, that place could have been Walden Pond near Concord, where the writer and anarchist Henry Thoreau resided in a cottage in the woods for two years in the 1840’s in an experiment of simple living. Walking round the waters that reflected the hues of the New England foliage it was possible still to get a sense of the seclusion and the ebb and flow of seasons that drew Thoreau there. In that setting, Massachusetts fitted. ‘Going back to Massachusetts’ was like the Green Green Grass of Home or Rubert Brooke’s Grantchester, a place - real or imagined - that the author idealises as home.

The Bee Gees always ploughed their own furrow and opting for Massachusetts over San Francisco in 1967 was not untypical of their perspective. Often, other artists did better covers of their works than they did themselves. Massachusetts was reportedly written with the Seekers and Judith Durham in mind but in this case, the Bee Gees take on it fitted the sense of loss and return perfectly. It is a mark of their songwriting skills that they could write a song about a place they hadn’t seen which the listener could then take and fit to the place when they did see it.

Link to song


Waterloo Sunset

Waterloo Sunset is the perfect pop song. It’s not just that, in 3 minutes 16 seconds, it tells a story bathed in melancholic observation in a way that has been described as “the most beautiful song in the English language”. It’s not just the way it sketches a vignette of London from the opening lines, “Dirty old river, must you keep rolling” to the closing fade of ‘Waterloo sunset’s fine”. It’s not just the match of words and music, with the descending bass line, interaction of acoustic guitar and electric power chords and ethereal backing vocals (done by Ray Davies’ wife Rasa) suiting the lyrics so completely that the Kinks’ original version will remain the definitive one for all time. More, like the best poem or painting, it provides a structure on which the listener can hang their own memories or imaginations. As such, a song that has been lodged somewhere inside my head for more than forty years has never turned stale.

The mood and images evoked on first hearing are not the same as those that come now, though I also recognise that the past has helped shape the present in this regard. Waterloo Station was my first glimpse of London - as it must have been for so many others - arriving as a child of four or five on a steam train from the Dorset coast to stay with an aunt and uncle in Wembley. Waterloo Underground gave my first experience of the London tube. The imagery of millions of people swarming like flies did not occur to me then. I had other priorities - it was on the tube platform that I first saw a chocolate vending machine. Years later, when the words came to mind on emerging from the tube onto the terminus at rush hour, it seemed more apt. It was at that arrival at Waterloo that I saw my first black face, previously only seen as pictures in a book in the seaside remoteness still stuck in a pre-war cultural past.

As time went on, there were more images and experiences that came to influence the feeling of the song. During a school trip to see a play we were decanted at Waterloo for 2 hours free time. By this time Waterloo Sunset was already part of my psyche and, in a conscious or unconscious response, I walked over Waterloo Bridge to the Embankment and stood looking out across the Thames, narrator and Terry all in one. I think it occurred to me then that perhaps Terry and Julie didn’t really ‘exist’, that they were the imagination of the song’s narrator looking at the world from his window and creating a romantic alter-ego. That idea seemed not unlikely to a gauche schoolboy. When I left home and came to London to live, I arrived again at Waterloo, worldly possessions in a suitcase, seeking a flat and a job. It seemed familiar, something to give faint reassurance in a strange world, and I had a coffee and an individual fruit pie in the same station cafe in which I had once sat as a child, coming to London in feverish excitement for a week’s holiday round of the Tower of London, St. Paul’s Whispering Gallery and the Russian State Circus. Waterloo was the entrance and the exit for all that.

Waterloo continued to hold little surprises that somehow made it different. There was at one time, long past, a cinema on the station terminal, where I sat one afternoon and watched In the Heat of the Night, years after its release date. I once went for a haircut in an basement establishment off one of the platforms, the elderly barber tut-tutting disapprovingly at the length of my hair. Many years later, married with a family, we all walked over Waterloo Bridge one bitingly cold New Year’s Eve and I stood and looked at the view, vaguely aware that the London Eye would not have been in the line of vision when Waterloo Sunset came out.

In fact, the constant interplay of past and present was a recurrent theme of Ray Davies’ songs. Released in the (first) Summer of Love, Waterloo Sunset might have been seen at a superficial glance to have been in tune with the current mores, performed on Top of the Pops by the Kinks in Carnaby Street finery and granny glasses and with the Terry and Julie characters of the song taken by many as a reference to Swinging Sixties icons, Terence Stamp and Julie Christie. This seems to miss the point by a mile. Apart from the obvious unlikelihood of Stamp and Christie meeting at Waterloo Station every Friday night - surely, at least, they would have chosen the Bag of Nails or Tiles - Ray Davies has remarked that the idea for Terry and Julie came from thinking of “the aspirations of my sister’s generation, who grew up during the Second world War and missed out on the '60s”. Davies’ best work always drew on the commonplace and the ‘ordinary’. At a time when pop songs were full of psychedelic imageries of magical lands, he could start a top ten hit with the lines “From the dew-soaked hedge creeps a crawly caterpillar, When the dawn begins to crack” (Autumn Almanac).

England’s past, too, was always there in his seminal songs, including Waterloo Sunset. Davies has said that the lyrics were shaped by his trips over Waterloo Bridge as an art student in the early 1960’s and by a spell as a child in St Thomas Hospital, seeing from the balcony the views described in the song. Memories of a visit to the Festival of Britain on the South Bank in 1951 also apparently played a part. There are some commentators who have seen Davies as a modern Romantic, an heir of Wordsworth, with Waterloo Sunset compared to Lines Composed Above Westminster Bridge. There seems too much pessimism and disenchantment in his work to make that comparison hold true. For me, the most apt comparison is with George Orwell, a socialist who celebrated England through the ordinary and daily items of life: gloomy Sundays, a salacious article in The News of the World, red pillar boxes, old maids riding bicycles, roast pork and apple sauce followed by suet pudding. In the same way, Davies’ England was presented through references to strawberry jam, draught beer, Mrs Mopp, Tudor houses, Saturday dances at the local palais and the Orwellian working-class characterisation of Autumn Almanac: “I like my football on a Saturday, roast beef on Sunday is all right. I go to Blackpool for my holidays...” Both of them could cross the boundary from a rueful nostalgia, tinged with disappointment at a vanishing world, to grumpy old man bitterness or teeter on pure sentimentality. At the best, however, they captured the England of the working class with an insight born of affection and love for that world, being destroyed by capitalism and consumerism. The puritan streak in Orwell would have been dismayed at the apparent flamboyant dandyism of the Kinks at their peak. Yet the narrator voice of Waterloo Sunset would have been deeply familiar to him.

Anyone who stands looking over the Thames towards Waterloo Bridge cannot help but have a sense of history and of change simultaneously. It is the genius of Waterloo Sunset that it both captures that dichotomy and enables the listener to bring their own perspective to the song. Ray Davies once said of this song, “It might make you smile if you believe this country has some romance left”. If so, it is perhaps a smile of regret or resignation rather than happiness. A similar smile might come on realising the song never made number one, being kept off the top spot by The Tremeloes’ Silence is Golden. Unlike its contemporaries, however, Waterloo Sunset will never date, for it will forever remind the listener of something in their real or imaginary past - “As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset...”

Link to song