Place names can be powerful things. ‘The Golden Road to Samarkand ‘or ‘Petra, Rose-red City, half as old as time’, can evoke an image of romantic exoticism through the mere mention of the name. Reality can be disappointing, however, if it doesn’t match up to expectations. As a child I was once taken on a day trip to Westward Ho!, a seaside town in Devon. With a head full of notions of ships setting sail off into the blue yonder and of wagons rolling west, I expected a lot. Imagine – a place so exciting that its very name had to have an !.What I remember is trailing past some buildings and caravans to a strip of beach where there was a red flag and a notice saying NO SWIMMING. So much for the !. I learnt my lesson and when many years later, I used to regularly pass a sign To Snodland I deliberately never went to the place in case it didn’t actually look like what I thought it might ( a bit like Smurfland)
This, I suppose, is a particular danger if you go somewhere solely because of a song about it. There are some places you probably wouldn’t think of ever going if you hadn’t heard it mentioned in lyrics-Mario’s Cafe, San Jose, Amarillo, Abergavenny. This last mentioned, a small market town in Monmouthshire, Wales, was the subject of a 1968 song by Marty Wilde and it has been near impossible for anybody ever since to drive past signs to the place without the words and tune of Taking a Trip Up to Abergavenny coming into one’s head. (Assuming you heard it correctly, of course, as the song figures in ‘mis-heard lyrics’ lists as the rather more exotic ‘taking a trip up to Africa, Benny’, Benny possibly being the red dog) . As above, however, following this interest up can lead to disappointment. One travel bog I read, by an Australian on a world trip, wrote that “This medium-sized town, made famous by the crooner Marty Wilde in his song "Abergavenny", lacked appeal and I restricted my visit to the purchase of a fruit juice which I consumed whilst sitting on the steps of the town's war memorial. It was at this point that I failed to find my itinerary in my back pocket”.
In some ways, it was an unusual song for Marty Wilde, best known at that time as a rock-n-roll singer from the late 50’s onwards and originally from the Larry Parnes stable of Wilde, Fury, Eager, Gentle, Pride, Power, etc. He was also one of a bunch that included Joe Brown and Johnny Kidd that had carved out a distinctly British brand of rock and roll without becoming just an American pastiche. By the late sixties, however, the rapid changes in music had left many such artists facing a change in direction if they wanted to survive, with Wilde turning to songwriting, with credits including Jesamine (the Casuals and the Bystanders), I’m a Tiger (Lulu) and Ice in the Sun (Status Quo)
Abergavenny, first aired at the Knokke song festival ,was undeniably British and very 1968. That seemed a year of musical chirpy breeziness: Leapy Lee’s Little Arrows, Don Partridge’s Rosie, the Paper Dolls' Something Here in My Heart - and Abergavenny . The music is post Sgt Pepper with its brass band and vaudevillian marching band feel and the lyrics could be seen as part of the rediscovery by pop music of rural retreat and ‘getting it together in the country’, a prelude to the hippy communes of Wales of the seventies, perhaps.
It was also a time when a sort of British pop psychedelic-lite was taking a hold, full of marmalade skies, tin soldiers, giant albatrosses and other such whimsy, and of wonderful places like Rainbow Valley (Love Affair) and Xanadu (Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich). In this context, Abergavenny became transformed to something more than its humdrum reality by virtue of the lyrics about paradise people, sunshine forever and the nod and wink about taking a trip-and fast. It is perhaps here that the potential for disappointment lies. I passed through the place once on a canal boat trip and it seemed pleasant enough. However, it wasn’t sunny, I didn’t see a red setter running free and I suspect that even in 1968 paradise people were not obviously on display.
Oddly enough, the song was a bigger hit in Europe and the USA than in Britain-in America, it was released under the name of Shannon for some reason (not to be confused with the Shannon of Let the Music Play fame).In some ways it has the same feel as some very British and slightly off-kilter films or TV programmes of the same era: The Prisoner (filmed at Portmeiron), Adam Adamant, The Assassination Bureau. A mixture of a rather surreal present with a heritage view of the past. Still, there will be for ever some coach party heading up the A40 to the Gateway to Wales, all singing, ‘Taking a trip up to Abergavenny...'