Yet in this is a contradiction, for the same places have also provided a source of inspiration for a long lineage of songs. Ray Davies turned his sight from Waterloo to the outermost edges of London in Shangri-La (‘all the houses in the street have got a name, cos all the houses in the street they look the same’). The Bonzos trod the same path with My Pink Half of the Drain Pipe (‘My pink half of the drainpipe separates next door from me’). Paul Weller (Woking) created a whole line of songs about small town suburbia, as did Andy Partridge (Swindon) for XTC. Then there was Sound of the Suburbs by The Members (‘Same old boring Sunday morning, old man’s out washing the car’) or Newtown People by the Newtown Neurotics and a score of others
The song here, Oxford Street by Everything But The Girl, approached this theme from a different direction and with the subtlety that was the hallmark of much of their work. Though Oxford Street is the title, and plays a part in the lyrics, the song is really about growing up in one of the small towns circling London, in this case Hatfield in Hertfordshire, original home town for Tracey Thorn of EBTG.(and also Donovan and Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones). It is best heard in conjunction with another of their songs, Hatfield 1980,which gives a depressing picture of daily life there (‘You'll have to go through Suburban shopping centre ,Pedestrian walkways ,I think they were meant to make things better, But it's just emptier').
Hatfield was one of the New Towns developed after WW2 and dotted round London like a marauding army just within sight: Hatfield, Stevenage, Welwyn Garden City, Letchworth, Hemel Hempstead. The original intention was rebuilding a new, futuristic world and re-housing post-War Londoners as a brighter alternative to London itself. By the time Tracy Thorne was growing up - the 1970’s- the initial sheen had gone and the inadequacies of the original concept were fairly glaring, especially to a teenager. There was plenty of modernist architecture, inspired by Le Corbusier, that reflected the desire to build from Year Zero and ignored the core Old Towns that were already there in some places- so instead there were tower blocks like huge bunkers; glorification of the car that pushed people into the underpasses to cross town and saw the appearance of a whole rash of roundabouts, the jewel in this crown being Hemel Hempstead’s ‘magic roundabout’,(voted Britain’s second worst roundabout in 2005. Swindon’s own magic roundabout topped the poll.); the occasional bit of abstract sculpture that was later taken down for its own safety. In keeping with the laudable aims of creating a better future, some thought was given to parks and water gardens but seemingly little to the amenities of life other than schools and some shops. ‘No soul’ and ‘a graveyard with lights’ were some of the kinder things said about Hatfield and, at the time the song refers to, cinemas, clubs, theatres had to be sought elsewhere.
Oxford Town is an interesting comment on the experience of living this. It isn’t a rant about suburbia as such nor a critical observation on other people’s lives. It is a wistful piece of self-reflection in Thorn’s distinctive and rich alto voice, seen through the eyes of a teenage girl who had lived her whole life to date in ‘a little world’ and for whom the park that was once a playground has become a place for drinking with mates and the underpass to the shops a no-go area on the way back from a night out. Oxford Street was 40 minutes and a whole world away. Oxford Street in the 1970’s - 3 Virgin Megastores at one point, enough to turn anybody’s head and especially if your local Woolworths or W H Smiths was the only source of records otherwise. London was exciting and scary at the same time. Tracey Thorn has written somewhere of the exhilaration of going to an Anti-Nazi League gig in Victoria Park at the age of 15 or 16 and then feeling panic at trying to find her way back to Hatfield.
It is possible that a lot of the musical angst about alienation and small towns comes from the state of mind whilst growing up more than anything. No doubt a morose 15 year old could live in the middle of Leicester Square and still imagine that the whole world is at a party whilst they sit at home with their mum and dad watching Bruce Forsyth on the TV. However, the sort of towns described in the songs here were particularly bland and lacked individuality and could turn a teenage mood into frustration or, equally, introspection.. There is something in the rather mournful sound of EBTG and the small detail of the lyrics that conjures up the very ordinary, the feel of a Sainsbury’s car park on a wet afternoon. In the song, the author thought University would provide an escape route but discovered there was no ‘real world’ out there after all. Probably not a place to go back to once you’ve left -but difficult to leave entirely behind.