Paris Bells

When it comes to songs, some places seem to lend themselves more to clichés than others, one of those being Paris, which perhaps has one of the most stereotyped images of capital cities. Romance, cafes, springtime, accordions – all images easy to reach for.

Sometimes, however, those songs can touch an unexpected chord. One of these was Abba’s Our Last Summer, later adapted for the film Mamma Mia. It shouldn’t work. On paper the lyrics sound like Bjorn and Benny got a guidebook to Paris and started ticking off all the things that should be mentioned - the Seine, the Eiffel Tower, the Notre Dame, the Elysee, the Mona Lisa, no regrets. Even ‘croissant’ got in by virtue of rhyming it with ‘restaurant’. The original version, however, is more effective than it might first appear. Part of that is the strength of Frida’s singing. However it is also because the gaucheness of the words make it sound like what it actually was-Bjorn’s recollection of a teenage holiday romance in Paris. Clumsy clichés are what you expect from a lovelorn youngster abroad.

Another such example was Marianne Faithfull’s Paris Bells from 1965, in phase 1 of her career. In the early and mid sixties France, and Paris in particular, cast a bit of a spell on British music and culture. Beatnik culture had drawn heavily on Paris for philosophy, scraggy beards, berets and girls in pale make-up a la Juliette Greco and British folkies and buskers cut their teeth on the streets of Paris. This influence seemed to linger for a while. If you look at clips of Manfred Mann from this time, Manfred Mann himself, with his beard, glasses and polo neck sweaters, looks as if he must have a book on French existentialism propped up on his keyboards.

By 1965, though French pop music may not have travelled well and Johnny Hallyday remained an unknown this side of the channel, some French singers were making a mark in Britain. Francoise Hardy had a top twenty hit that year, as well as being name-checked by Bob Dylan on the cover of his Another Side of Bob Dylan album-‘For francoise hardy at the seine’s edge’. Others-France Gall, Mireille Mathieu, Richard Anthony - followed. The Beatles’ Michelle came out on Rubber Soul, with Paul McCartney remembering the Left Bank influence in his Liverpool Art School days. Paris seemed so more sophisticated, bohemian, cultured, particularly to the young.

In was in this context that Paris Bells was released, in the wake of the success of As Tears Go By. It is a simple fragile song written by Jon Mark, Marianne Faithfull’s regular guitarist, but atmospheric and nostalgic nevertheless with Faithfull’s tremulous soprano voice of that time shimmering over the words. Like the Abba song, it remembers a lost relationship against a sketchy vignette of Paris- dawn over the shuttered houses on the cobbled streets and the barges on the Seine with a backdrop of bells ringing. The traditional and romantic Paris of the 1950’s, the memorable city scenes of the Red Balloon film of 1956.

The song wouldn’t have worked in the hands of many of her contemporaries but her contradictory image then of vulnerable innocence mixed with worldly sophistication fitted the whole mood perfectly. The listener could imagine her escaping to Paris with a head full of philosophy and romantic literature to take up with some Byronic figure with a tortured soul and dark glasses writing poetry in an attic, living on gauloises and espresso and offering a relationship doomed to heroic failure (a Gallic Nick Cave perhaps). It was a side of Paris that many sought, rather like the hippy trail to India and Afghanistan of later years.

Paris, of course, crops up in one of Marianne Faithfull’s later and more well-known songs, her version of Dr Hook’s Ballad of Lucy Jordan and delivered now with a very different singing voice. There, it is as a fantasy that was never going to happen. In real life, Paris did happen for Marianne Faithfull, with an apartment off the rue St Honore, which is probably not like the Paris of either song. Yet any visitor to Paris takes with them the image they want to see: that of Paris Bells remains one to look for.

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Grief Came Riding

Songs about places aren’t always written as an ode or expression of a fond memory. Some set out to describe the seedier sides of a town or city for dramatic effect, like Lou Reed’s take on New York with Dirty Boulevard –‘your poor huddled masses, let’s club them to death and get it over with and just dump them on the boulevard’. There are others, however, that paint it black because of some thing bad or sad that happened to them there and that place will forever be in shadow regardless of how sunny it might appear to others. Kirsty MacColl’s Soho Square paints a heart-rending picture of an empty bench in Soho Square but, at least in this song, there remains some hope.

One song devoid of any such faint optimism is Grief Came Riding by Nick Cave, a study in introspective gloom with the Thames as backdrop. Nobody can do melancholic darkness quite like Nick Cave  - at times, his songs make Leonard Cohen seem like the cheerleader of a happy-clappy revivalist meeting- and this sketches a dispiriting and bitter view of London and its inhabitants as a consequence of depression. The mood is unrelenting - a dirty river with bridges crouching like malevolent gargoyles, the futility of existence, a memory of a psychiatric couch. Even so, there is a delicateness as well about it which makes it sound more poignant, with a haunting melody carried by piano, brushed drums and cymbals and muted guitar chords, with understated backing vocals (Kate & Anna Mcgarrigle?) towards the end. As first lines of songs go, Grief came Riding is pretty good: ‘Grief came riding on the wind, up the sullen river Thames’. It carries an image of something unpleasant coming towards you fast, like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse racing up the river, just as ninth century Londoners had seen the Vikings sweeping up to the city in longboats.

From the lyrics - ‘the wind blew under Battersea Bridge and a tear broke from my eye’-the location is presumably Nick Cave’s houseboat at Cheyne Walk, just past Battersea Bridge. This makes the contrast of the physical place in London with Cave’s morbid view of it the more stark. The author isn’t sitting amongst the derelicts and closed-down markets of the Streets of London. Chelsea and Cheyne Walk had long been seen as a bright and upscale area of bohemian glamour, where Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful held court in the late sixties and Elvis Costello had sang that he didn’t want to go there in 1979 in his biting sneer at self-indulgent posers.

Battersea Bridge too, rebuilt in the 1880’s with cast-iron arches-and hence the song’s references to ‘hear the ancient iron bridge and listen to it groan’ - has often been presented by artists and poets in a very different light. Both Turner and Whistler painted it, Whistler describing it thus .’When the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry...tall chimneys become campanili [bell towers] and the warehouses are palaces in the night and the whole city hangs in the heavens and fairy land is before us’. The grief of the song’s author casts the scene in a very different light- ‘If the Thames weren’t so filthy I’d jump in the water and drown’. Battersea Bridge is no longer the description of poets, passing over ‘the smooth rolling river to the green banks of fair Battersea’. Instead it has become the route by which commuters wend their way back to their failures and boredoms. There is no reason to suppose that the commuters themselves felt this, of course- it is the sour view of the world transferred to others through melancholy.

There is something about the song and its delivery that stops it falling into maudlin self-pity, The opening lines brought to my mind The Highwayman, put to music by Phil Ochs and becoming a poem with a tragic ending sung by a singer with a tragic ending. For me, the setting of the song largely brings up a sunny childhood memory of a holiday visit to Battersea Funfair across the river on the south side and many people wouldn’t share Cave’s view of London here-‘how nothing good ever came of this town’. However, there may well be some other place that is shut away in their mind because it is too dark or depressing to look at-but a place to remember nevertheless.

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Take This Waltz

For many in Britain, Vienna is less familiar both in reality and in perception than Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, even Prague. It occupies a position perhaps like a distant aunt that one knows is there but rarely visits. There is something vaguely mysterious about her-there are stories of a bohemian, even decadent, past but it can be difficult to pin down current interests. Mozart, the Boys Choir, cakes, coffee?

Pop music, too, has not taken Vienna as an inspiration in the way it has with many other capitals. Both Billy Joel and Ultravox had songs called Vienna, though the lyrics aren’t that obviously about the place. In the Ultravox song, much of the imagery came from the video that accompanied it and that drew heavily on the style, lighting and distorted camera angles of The Third Man film (though much of it was actually shot in Covent Garden). Otherwise, there were a couple of tracks by Falco- and the Third Man theme that has sporadically emerged with releases as diverse as the Band, the Shadows and Herb Alpert.

There is also the dream-like Take this Waltz by Leonard Cohen, from his 1988 album ‘I’m Your Man’, a song of love and loss with the backdrop of a Vienna seen through several prisms. The lyrics are a translation and adaptation of a poem called Little Viennese Waltz by the Spanish poet Federico Lorca, shot by Fascist militia in 1936 at the start of the Spanish Civil War. Cohen did his own translation and has said he took 150 hours over it, which given the reputed two years or more spent on Hallelujah seems pretty modest. In doing so, it has become very much his own song with a different view of Vienna. Lorca’s poem was written in 1930 when he was briefly at Columbia University. Increasingly disillusioned by what he saw as the alienation and spiritual corruption of New York life he saw Vienna, where he had never been, as a symbol of the European civilisation he yearned for.

60 years later, Cohen’s take presents a Vienna that now has the magical but crumbling splendour of Venice, with echoes of the grand balls and palaces of the past but decaying and fading with time. From the first line , ‘Now in Vienna there are ten pretty women’, the images of concert halls, the lobby with 900 windows and Hungarian lanterns and the lilting folk-like melody, written in waltz time with mournful violin, mandolin, accordion and the ‘ay ay ay ay’ refrain, transport the listener to Central Europe, to the Vienna of opera, storybook palaces, cobbled streets and chandelier-lit coffee houses. They are a reminder not just of the origins of the waltz in Vienna but of the importance of Vienna as the centre of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the crossroads of Europe until a time that is still just in reach of a few people’s memory. Cohen’s  rather gravelly delivery, with hints of Jacques Brel and Brecht, strengthen this singularly European feeling.

As with any Leonard Cohen song, there is much beneath the surface. One commentator has described the section towards the end where Jennifer Warnes comes in on the ‘this waltz, this waltz’, chorus - almost as a ghostly echo of a memory -  as ‘sounding something out of a bad Disney movie’: If so, the words are there as a deliberate contrast to the chintz. There are whole websites devoted to the deconstruction of these particular lyrics and their meaning: what each piece of imagery signifies or whether the ending stanza of ‘You’ll carry me down on your dancing to the pools that you lift on your wrist’ signifies a suicide. What comes through most of all is the sense of nostalgia and sadness, the yearning for a reconciliation that is now impossible and the opportunity for ‘an attic where children are playing’ now gone, the imagery of the lost relationship counter-posed to the fading grandeur of Vienna. ‘The desolate ending: ‘Take this waltz, it’s yours now, its all that there is.’

There is always more than one view of a city, however, and Vienna is more than waltzes, The Third Man and ladies in fur coats eating sachertorte in a smoke-stained coffee house off the Philharmonikerstrasse . It was once known as Red Vienna and has a long history of radical politics. I was reminded of this musically through an unusual route, not by a song about Vienna but by a group from Vienna: Schmetterlinge. In a history of the Eurovision Song Contest, Schmetterlinge might warrant a footnote, for as the Austrian entry in 1977 they came second from last with a song called Boom Boom Boomerang. The title sounds like it is in the tradition of oompah, rubbish Eurovision songs-Boom-Bang a Bang or Ding-Dong . It was meant to. In a little coup worthy of the early Viennese surrealists, Schmetterlinge entered with a song with a nonsense Eurovision chorus, a dance routine that has to be seen to be appreciated and lyrics in German that not only sent up the whole contest but saw pop music as part of consumer capitalism

If you then look a little deeper, you find that Schmetterlinge had the year before at the Vienna Festival staged a piece of musical theatre called The Proletenpassion, a musical history of radical politics of the last 500 years, taking in the French Revolution, the Paris Commune of 1870, the Russian Revolution, Spanish Civil War, World War 2 and the 1970’s. It’s difficult to imagine Bucks Fizz pulling that off.  Beatrix Neundlinger, the woman singer in Schmetterlinge, was awarded Vienna’s Golden Merit in 2008, for work in culture and music. Different sides of the city continue.

Old Vienna is obvious to the visitor, in the Baroque splendour of the Schonbrunn Palace and in the street hawkers in costume selling tickets for the Opera House and it is easy to have a chocolate-box image of another time, another place. Leonard Cohen’s swirling , slightly sinister, waltz unsettles this but it leaves imagery more haunting and evocative. 'I’ll dance with you in Vienna’: maybe the Austrian Tourist Board should take note.

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‘By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong’ – a famous line from the song Woodstock. Strictly speaking, these few words have a number of inaccuracies. First, it should really have been, 'By the time we got to Bethel’, the place where the festival was actually held. Second, the number that attended will never be accurately known but 400,000 seems the most quoted figure (400,000 , of course, wouldn’t scan. For similar reasons, Tennyson opted for 600 entering the Valley of Death in The Charge of the Light Brigade, instead of the actual 673).Third, the song’s author and original singer, Joni Mitchell, never got to the Woodstock festival. Though invited to perform, her manager had opted for her to appear on the Dick Cavett show on TV instead.

Being pedantic about Woodstock, however, misses the point, as its significance as mythology has long transcended factual detail. The song itself is, of course, more about an event than a place but it is to the geographical site that people still go to claim a bit of history. The version here is the one by Matthews’ Southern Comfort that was the Number One hit in Britain in October 1970, a softer and more melodic and pastoral version than the American hit by Crosby, Stills and Nash (who had been at Woodstock) and drenched in the pedal steel guitar work of Gordon Huntley that gives a slightly ethereal feel at times. Ian Matthews had been in Fairport Convention for a time, singing alongside Sandy Denny and contributing to their classic album What We Did on Our Holiday before forming his own country rock group, It was their only hit, and came unexpectedly for them, the popularity of the song influenced by the release of the feature film Woodstock the same year, a film that mediated-and kept alive- the event for most people. I suspect that the whole ‘Woodstock experience’ was more significant in America than in England, where it was judged more through the music captured on film and record.

This distance in time and space from the event perhaps gives this version an extra dimension, as it appears more of an optimistic observation and less of a lament for a lost cause, and it does something to overcome the two particular dangers with the lyrics of the song. They can seen as embodying that which some of punk dismissed as self-satisfied hippy utopianism.- ’we are stardust, we are golden’ . A surreal example of this clash of cultures was seen at a Deeply Vale Festival in Lancashire in 1978 when Sid Rawles, self-appointed ‘King of the Hippies’, became so enraged by the punk group Wilful Damage’s taunts at wishy-washy hippies that he pulled the singer off the stage, breaking his wrist.

They can also be read as defeatist ,a wistfulness for a lost Garden of Eden , nostalgia for a moment of opportunity that had already passed . Part of this may have come from Joni Mitchell’s regret at missing Woodstock when she penned the lyrics. However, it also comes, I think, comes from a tendency to view history in terms of self-contained decades, which can distort what is being looked back at.: the sixties meant this, the seventies that. Thus, Woodstock came at the end of the decade so must represent the end of what the sixties meant, with Altamont in December 1969 being the final nail in the coffin.

However, it makes more sense to see the period of political and cultural change of which Woodstock was part as running from about 1963 to 1976, with Woodstock not the planned culmination of a decade but an accident that managed to crystallise something significant for a fleeting moment, partly because of demographics. Trying to repeat it with later versions of Woodstock is rather like the attempt to re-create Princess Diana’s funeral procession the year after it took place-it demands the question ,’What’s the point?’. Woodstock, too, could easily have been a disaster. A cautionary example is supplied not just by Altamont but, more prosaically, by the 3-day Krumlin Festival held exactly a year after Woodstock on hills near Halifax in West Yorkshire. The weather was atrocious with torrential rain, many of the bands billed never appeared, a large marquee collapsed in the night on all those huddling inside, one person died of exposure and the promoter was seen wandering off onto the moors like a demented latter-day Heathcliffe.

There is no doubt that the idea of Woodstock retains a huge significance for many people, with the music and re-issues of the film keeping interest alive, though like the Sex Pistols first gig, the numbers now claiming to have been there greatly exceeds the actual numbers possible. The film can still be watched for its artists - the exhilarating drumming of 19-year old Michael Shrieve on Santana’s Soul Sacrifice; Joan Baez looking simultaneously out of time in the context of the film yet oddly now more contemporary than many of her colleagues; the old eyes of Country Joe as a revamped Fish launch into Rock and Soul Music. You can also look at the crowd of young faces and get the feeling you can get from an old photograph and see the people looking out. You know what they don’t: the future.

You can visit a Woodstock Museum at Bethel Woods now, with exhibits, films, concerts and a small coffee shop. One late October day a couple of years ago I visited it with my daughter, driving up from New York through the autumnal colours and a sprinkling of early snow. It was quiet and peaceful, with snow starting to melt in the sun from the roofs of the buildings and the laid-back contemplation of the Matthews’ Southern Comfort recording would have suited the views. Ian Matthews left the group whilst Woodstock was still in the charts but has continued making music for the past 40 years, with this record a long way away. I get the impression that he doesn’t often look back.

Link to song


London, Queen of My Heart

Light and dark. After the London of the sunlit watercolours of St Etienne it seems apt to look at it from another angle through a song that has whispers of an older, sometimes darker, story, and is more of an etching than a painting. London has a long history, 2000 years, though the distant past is often nearer than might be thought. Some 25 years or so ago, on a Family History course, someone recounted being told by a man, then in his eighties ,of his grand-father recalling a family tale of his great –great- grandfather watching the Great Fire of London of 1665 from a distance.

The past, of course -even the more lurid episodes of history - can be packaged and sold like anything else, hence The London Dungeons experience and Jack the Ripper walks, both reputedly more popular with visitors to London than Londoners. Pop songs have not been immune to this, drawing on a music hall tradition of making entertainment from the macabre. Jack the Ripper, for example, was also a staple of Screaming Lord Sutch’s act in the early sixties, along with Sutch waving a butcher’s knife and set of rubber entrails. However, the more perceptive songs have recognised, and often regretted, the old being swept away by the new. Pop music came of age as some of the major transformations of London –and elsewhere-were getting going and as the London that would have been recognisable in Dickens’ time was being 'modernised' in the interests of  global capital. The disappearance of older ways of life and values was, as already mentioned elsewhere, a theme in Ray Davies’ songs with the Kinks, out of step with the new and fashion-conscious sheen of Swinging London pilloried in Dedicated Follower of Fashion.

There have been some songs, however, that saw the old still there hidden away, and which can be compared to the writings of Ian Sinclair that explore the hidden and lost sides of the city, the unchartered territory above and below the ground. One of these was London, Queen of My Heart, by Cath Carroll, from her album of her name released in 2000. She had been in the Manchester punk scene in the late seventies/early eighties and had written for New Musical Express for a while. By the time of this ode to London, however, she had long re-located to America.

There is something shadowy, even eery, about the record that makes it linger in the mind like the damp chill remarked in the song. It is to do with the lyrics alluding to the secrets you can glimpse around you, the haunting music and the smoky voice, all calling up the lapping of the dark waters of the Thames on a foggy evening. This is a different kind of walk through London. St Etienne’s London Belongs to Me sees Camden Town as the entry point for a stroll to the dappled grass of Regents Park. Suggs’ Camden Town celebrates the ‘the string of Irish pubs as far as you can see...There’s tapas, fracas, alcohol, tobaccos’. Cath Carroll’s night bus from Camden Town passes over the ancient plague pits that lie beneath Camden Underground, passengers tumbling down the stairs hearing the echoes of Ring a –ring of Roses hovering in the air like the miasma by which the plague was once understood during the sickly summers of centuries gone. This tour takes in the black Serpentine and Hawksmoor’s ‘lost underground’. This could be a reference to Nicholas Hawskmoor, the Seventeenth/Eighteenth Century architect and designer of Christchurch, Spitalfields and other churches, or possibly to Peter Ackroyd’s novel of the same name, a detective story that revisits the dark side of eighteenth century London. It is also a reminder of the other aspects of the hidden underground of London, the lost rivers buried under concrete and, more prosaically, the closed tube stations left abandoned underground.

The song, however, is more than a mini secret history tour. It is also a love song to a city that continues to exert a pull – ‘I keep moving but you won’t let go’. It is perhaps strange that some songwriters who can seem very English at times in their songs also write from a distance. Cath Carroll continues to write about London from ‘exile’ in America, as with her recent Moon Over Archway. Maybe distance gives perspective, or maybe a love song is easier when the imperfections aren’t obvious and everyday. Her view of London is no less, or more, real than that of St Etienne or Donovan, though perhaps a more disturbing one. People make their own perspective from their relationship with the place. Cath Carroll has called this ‘a song for a lost love’-it could also be a soundtrack for a London lost but still visible if you know where to look.

Link to song


London Belongs to Me

Myth making has always been part of songs about places, particularly about America. For both British and American artists, America was often a place to fantasise about, infinitely more exciting than England. The British singer. Ian Hunter,for example,  in Mott the Hoople and beyond, wrote a whole series of songs that reflected a fascination with the country through lyrics that mythologized the place, from Memphis to Central Park. More recently, Pete Doherty has done the same for England, with his lyrical themes round Albion.

London, too, has had its share of myths and the construction of an alternative reality. Over the past 20 years, the group St Etienne have referenced more London names in their songs than most artists, though like many chroniclers they are not natives of the place they describe so well, coming to the capital from Surrey and Windsor. There are several pieces by them that could have been included in a column on songs and places - Mario’s Cafe, their early nineties tribute to a cafe in Kentish Town, frequented by students from North London Poly; almost any track from the Tales from Turnpike House album, about life in and around a block of flats in Islington; Madeleine, which makes even the Holloway Road sound a dreamy, sun-lit place to walk down. And that is quite an achievement.

London Belongs to Me, off their 1991 album Foxbase Alpha, is perhaps not one of their finest songs but it epitomises the St Etienne view on London. An ethereal Sarah Cracknell drifts like a summer breeze over a musical wash of electric piano chords, simulated bells, the sound of heat and crickets. It is a timeless sound, the only thing tying it down being the line ‘To the sound of the World of Twist, You leant over and gave me a kiss’, (the World of Twist were a short-lived Manchester group of the early nineties).

The title has perhaps a double meaning. It is taken from a 1945 novel by Norman Collins,( later made into a film starring Richard Attenborough and Alistair Sims) about a group of tenants in Kennington in the run-up to WW2 and is a kind of love letter to London and the variety of characters in it. However, it also suggests that people endlessly create their own London -and no more so than St Etienne. The London of their songs is in a kind of parallel universe. Superficially everything seems the same but look a little closer and there are subtle differences. The reference points that everyone knows are there: Kentish Town, Camden Town, Parkway, Leicester Square .However, you move through a London that is sunnier, more cultural, sophisticated, more European, a cool and easy-going metropolis that is very definitely London but has echoes of Paris and Rome. There is a vibrant cafe culture, where chic girls drink coffee in bohemian caffs and young lovers stroll in the sun as though in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont rather than Regents Park. It is a seamless synergy of the modern and the past, especially sixties pop culture.

Yet the reference points of this are far from the Britpop and ‘Cool Britannia’ of the mid and later nineties, with the Union Jack motifs, the rush to lay claim to be the new Beatles/Kinks/Small Faces and the New Labour pastiches of Swinging London and ‘I’m Backing Britain’ of the Wilson government of the sixties. The St Etienne London here is that of Blow-Up and The Knack, of Georgina Jones of the Adam Adamant series. When, at the end of the film Billy Liar, Julie Christie sets off on the train to London, leaving Tom Courtney (Billy Liar) on the platform, this is the kind of London she would have arrived at.

The overall sound of St Etienne is always more than the sum of the parts. It has sometimes been likened to the music of a hair shampoo advert, of an open-top sports car driving past a corn field. That is true-it is supposed to. However, look below the superficiality and there is usually a crafted pop song with a layer of interpretation. Take the song Side Streets, from Tales from Turnpike House.

The lyrics of ‘no-go zone’ and ‘features I quite like and don’t mind keeping’ and the accompanying video showing Pete Wiggs striding purposefully through a landscape of tower blocks, graffiti, underpasses, pit-bull terriers, muggers, hoodies and possible rapists say one thing. The music, with its gentle bossa-nova rhythms and Sarah Cracknell’s soothing voice, says another. It is about reclaiming the streets, creating the world that could be.

It is relaxing visiting the London of St Etienne: there is a pastoral feel to the urban landscape, If you can’t find any rose-tinted glasses, put on some headphones and ‘just close your eyes and breathe out slowly, tonight the world loves you only'.

Link to song


Willesden to Cricklewood

London, in one shape or another, was the central focus of many of the Clash’s songs: the wake-up call to arms of London’s Calling; The Guns of Brixton; (White Man) in Hammersmith Palais. The Westway – the elevated flyover through Paddington and West London that had been bull-dozed through communities in the late sixties - was a recurrent image in lyrics and photos and Joe Strummer once referred to his music as ‘the sound of the Westway’, with the bleak urban graffiti-ed images of under the Westway used to promote the group in their early days.

However, 20 years or so later a very different side to London emerged in a song on the debut album by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, Willesden to Cricklewood. The lyrics and music are reflective, backwards looking, almost sentimental, a long way from ‘London calling to the faraway towns, Now war is declared - and battle come down’ The title recalls, consciously or not, Lark Rise to Candleford, Flora Thompson’s account of childhood in the Oxford countryside of the turn of the Nineteenth Century.

The setting had moved up the North Orbital to the margins, to the suburbs of north west London, an area that had long been seen by many as the epitome of glum , faceless mediocrity, with the neighbouring districts of Neasden and Dollis Hill the butt of long-running jokes in Private Eye and Willesden Green a running gag in the cartoon Danger Mouse. The Goodies comedy series was set in Cricklewood, with the Goodies recording a song called The Cricklewood Shakedown (One, two, three, four, where's the place that we adore?, Doin' it right and doin' it good, we're all going to Cricklewood). The kind of snootiness, in fact, that can be directed to what is perceived as the periphery, the ‘ordinary’.

Perceptions may have started to shift since Strummer’s song of 1999.Willesden was the setting for Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and the novel and TV series brought wider awareness of the cultural vibrancy of the area. In fact, a sense of that was picked up in this song .’Let’s hip-hop at traffic lights, Ten thumbs up and smilin’ bright, Crossing all the great divides, Colour, age and heavy vibes’. But there was also a sense of community and history ;’Now you’ve got the Absinthe out, your old mother, she wants a stout’ .A sense that an area that can be dismissed as anonymous, somewhere to drive through on the way to Ikea or Brent Cross, has its own stories- the arrival of the railway, the Jewish refugees, devastation in World War 2, Irish labourers coming to work on the building sites ,migrants from Jamaica and India.

I only spent a short time living in Willesden, in a bedsit many years ago. It lost its appeal one night when the couple in the room next door held a séance and allegedly conjured up the Devil. There was a lot of banging about and screaming before the pair fled down the street into the night. It may have been an elaborate moonlight flit, I suppose, but the Polish landlord was philosophical about it the next day; ’There are some things you shouldn’t mess with’. Quite so. However, I have found ancestors of mine who lived and worked there, their lives captured in the odd faded photo or memorial card, an entry in the census or a birth or marriage certificate. The video on the link to this song could have been snapshots from a slice of family history.

In a way the song is a personal statement of a man then nearing 50 and looking back on his life-‘Thought about my babies grown, thought about going home, Thought about what’s done is done, We’re alive and that’s the one’. A poignant statement, of course, for Joe Strummer was to die 3 years later. Yet it is a song of redemption and there is no disillusionment or disappointment, no bewilderment at what happened to the fire and anger of the early days of Thatcherism. Instead, there remains a sense of the continuity of London, of change but also of things carrying on. So it goes. ‘From Willesden to Cricklewood, as I went it all looked good.’

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Watford Gap

Despite its ubiquitous role in the British way of life for the past 50 years, there have been far fewer songs –and certainly less heroic ones - about the British motorway system than its American equivalent, with its Route 66 and Promised Land. There’s Tom Robinson’s 2,4,6, 8 Motorway, Chris Rea’s Road to Hell (inspired by the M25), and, of course, John Shuttleworth’s The Man who Lives on the M62.

There have been even fewer about motorway service stations, despite most people having visited one in their lifetime. In fact, I can only think of one, Roy Harper’s, Watford Gap, first released in 1977 as part of his Bullinamingvase album and fairly quickly withdrawn. For some reason, the Blue Boar company that owned the service station at that time objected to the jaunty chorus of ‘Watford Gap, Watford Gap, plate of grease and a load of crap’ and the references to a solid concrete-burger and plastic cups of used bathwater.Ironically, Harper’s perhaps two best-known songs, One of those Days in England and When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease, painted a very different picture of England, going back to childhood memories and beyond for an elegiac portrayal of a sunlit rural past. A long way away from burgers and chips off the M1

In many ways, 1977 seems late for this song: its descriptions could have come from five years or more earlier. Roy Harper had been on the English folk and rock scene since the mid-sixties without really breaking through to the major league and would have been well acquainted with Watford Gap and its significance to the music groups that nightly stopped off for an English breakfast at 2am. In this, the song describes a little slice of cultural history. The first English motorway, the M1, opened in 1959 and Watford Gap was its first service station, 70 miles or so north of London and en route for Birmingham and all points north. As such it was in a prime position for groups to stop off whilst travelling to and from gigs. A possibly apocryphal story is that Jimi Hendrix heard so many musicians referring to the Blue Boar (the name often used to refer to the service station) that he thought it was a night club.

Actually, it is now difficult to imagine the impact that places like Watford Gap had in their first few years, viewed with delight by many as an exciting culinary event and possibly the first cafe they had been to..Even the Blue Boar started off with waitress service but had dispensed with all the fancy stuff by the mid-sixties. By the time of Roy Harper’s song, the ‘fine dining experience’ promised at its opening was but a distant memory.

The song can be seen as more than a throw-away diatribe against bad food and is interesting in two other ways. Its mocking delivery in country and western style illustrates again that songs about the road and travel in England are going to end up as a joke when set against the American genre. Billy Bragg did his best with A13 Trunk Road to the Sea (‘It starts down in Wapping, There aint no stopping..’) but it is hard to imagine a British 24 hours from Tulsa or By the Time I get to Phoenix. Maybe it is to do with the relative scale of distances but it is difficult to make a car/coach/train journey across Britain sound glamorous. The ‘We boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh’ of Paul Simon’s America would become ‘We boarded a National Express in Milton Keynes’

The other is the little slice of history it offers, not just in the picture of motorway fare and the meeting point of the Blue Boar at a particular point in time, but in the lyrics themselves. Unlike much of Roy Harper’s work, the song was very much of its time. The references to football hooligans sticking the boot in and to Chopper Ronnie (Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris of Chelsea); the casual sexism of some of the lyrics; Spaghetti Junction: all say Seventies Britain. Like Sunny Goodge Street, it creates a little time bubble.

Alain de Botton has likened using such service stations to ‘like listening to a very sad Leonard Cohen song. In a way it is grim, but it is also redemptive’. One’s view of them may change according to one’s stage in life. As a child, they can be exciting places to stop as you journey to the seaside.; as a parent a place to enable kids to let off steam in the play areas while you clean up the back seats.: as a commuter, a place to escape for a few moments. For musicians of the 1960’s and 1970’s places like the Blue Boar were a meeting ground to swap stories and information in an age before mobiles, the internet and social networking.

Somewhere in the ether the Blue Boar still exists. The transit vans and motor bikes are in the car-park, the plates of congealed sausage, beans and chips are on the chipped formica tables with the plastic knives and forks, the fags are stubbed out in the saucers, the tea is stewing in the cups, the pinball machine is racking up the scores and Roy Harper or Stan Webb of Chicken Shack are slumped in a seat. Britain’s own Route 66.

Link to song