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
Link to song