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think of one, Roy Harper’s, Watford Gap, first released in 1977 as part of his Bullinamingvase album and fairly quickly withdrawn.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