16/08/2010

(Taking A Trip Up To) Abergavenny



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...'

49 comments:

  1. A small and silly comment before all the super smart people weigh in..... It's funny because I did always think that the line was "taking a trip up to Africa" but I thought it was Vinny not Benny (taking a trip up to Africa, Vinny)!:)

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  2. I guess theres no reason why the lyrics couldnt fit with a trip to Africa!
    One of the funniest misheard lyrics I read was of Creedence Clearwater Revival's Bad Moon Rising.
    The line 'There's a bad moon on the rise' was heard as 'There's a bathroom on the right'

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  3. I only heard this song very recently, it's such a great coincidence that you wrote about this. I think it was re-released on CD a couple of years ago, and a friend lent me the CD.

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  4. I can't pretend that I'm wild(e) about this one, but I do like the jauntiness, the breeziness (which, yes, is somehow quintessentially 1968) and the post-Pepper vaudevillian qualities, all of which somehow join the dots between the hiccupping troubadourism Bo Jangle's "Piccadilly Circus" (with its eccentric stress on the second syllable of "Piccadilly") and the stentorian yet whimiscal brassiness of Kevin Ayers' "Joy Of A Toy Revisited".

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  5. I had Abergavenny running through my head, so looked it up and came here. Interesting. I recall the tune from the late 60s, having been in my late teens at the time, in the USA. However, "Marty Wilde" doesn't ring a bell. I guess that's because of the "Shannon" name he used, thanks for the explanation Geoff!

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  6. This did ok in Canada too! (my country). See:
    http://www.webfitz.com/lyrics/Charts/1969/Ch196908.html

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  7. thank you Geoff! As a child around approx 1967-69 I heard this song over and over it seemed on the radio. Until I read your column I could only remember the tune and the lyrics "taking a trip up to ******, hoping the weather is fine. If you ***** you can take a photograph". I am in Australia and it must have been a popular song in Australia at this time.

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  8. Most interestingly, I've always envisioned the television show "The Prisoner" when listening to this song. And what do I find - the column makes the connection too:)

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  9. i remember when this was released in the US in 1969 on Heritage records by Shannon. I have a stereo version which is reportedly slightly different from the monaural mix.

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  10. It is a bit strange in retrospect that this was a fairly big hit in the States and Canada, considering its inherent Britishness. Does anyone have any theories about why this might have been so popular in the US?

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    1. Yes, it was a great record. I think it should have made the top 10 everywhere it was played.

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  11. I think the lines about "Taking a trip" are about drugs:)

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  12. Re Lizzie's comment, there was also a cover version by a New Zealand act called Bill and Boyd. Maybe this is the version you remember.

    I wondered about that too, Laura. Maybe it was the marching band feel to it-or maybe it was just because it seemed very British-like bowler hats and Big Ben

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  13. Thats the pyschedelic-lite bit-taking a trip with paradise people!

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  14. I once heard Marty Wilde, when he was Reginald Smith, playing at the Condor in Soho, sometime in 1957 or 1958 I think. It cost a quid. But they gave you a meal.

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  15. Abergavenny was also recorded by a British singer called ' Beryl Middleton ' here in the states - in the late 70's. It was on an album and a really nice rendition in my opinion. Very up tempo and sort of sassy.

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  16. I grew up in Abergavenny in the 1960s. Trust me, there were no paradise people there. There were a couple of not-very-good restaurants, a huge number of small shops, a few cafés, a Halfords, a Burtons, a Woolworths, a tack shop, a near completely ruined castle and many public houses. Woolies was the centre of it all. Home of the oft-attempted shoplift at the Pick’n’Mix counter, the place where the record counter played bad music very loudly, the place of many confusing – yet interesting – hardware and kitchenware bits and bobs that stood, unlabelled and unpriced, on racks at the back of the store. The only exciting thing that ever happened was when Marty Wilde recorded this song about us, even though it wasn't a true depiction.

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  17. I have the Belgian pressing in case you're interested in the Euro versions: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_HvCNHaaadrI/ShhfMWrp28I/AAAAAAAADCg/In2qVO-M8-E/s1600-h/martywilde1.jpg

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  18. Here in the Netherlands the song peaked at number 5 I think!

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  19. I found your site as I was looking up a song I remembered from childhood. I was probably about 6 years old and heard the song on a TV show called Captain Kangaroo. After all these years I can still "hear" the first line in my head. I had no idea if I was remembering correctly and remembered the place name as (sounding like) Abrakabenny. Of course an internet search for that word brought up nothing. So I tried searching for the first line up to the place name and found it to be Abergavenny. I was pleased to find your site. A lifelong mystery is solved! Cheers!

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    1. I too had the memory of this song from Captain Kangaroo - probably 45 years ago. I thought the 'place' sounded like Africa-gumby. HA!

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  20. Thats a very vivid description, Sam! I wondered if Marty Wilde had some link with the place then. I think he managed the Bystanders, a Welsh group who later metamorphosed into the hippy favourites, Man

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  21. THIS IS THE FUNNIEST THING I'VE READ IN A VERY LONG TIME!!: "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)"

    BRILLIANT!!!! Oh dear, I'm still a bit breathless from laughing.

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  22. I was in the States in the summer of 1969 when they played this song on the radio a lot. We found it quite amusing that: a) disc jockeys had such trouble pronouncing the name, which is one of the few Welsh words that is said exactly like it’s spelled and b) in a sign of the times, many people took its lyrics about “taking a trip” to mean it was a drug song, rather than an ode to a beautiful place in a green valley surrounded by mountains. After all these years, I still get a big kick out of the song. I really don't think it's about drugs though.

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  23. I grew up there too, Sam! Don't forget the Abergavenny market on Tuesdays and Fridays, which was the most exciting thing to happen in the course of the week.

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  24. In my LPs of this song, from 1968 and 1969, it is credited to Mansion and Gellar or Frere Manston on the labels. Which is very strange.

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  25. Clinton, I'm pretty sure that Frere Manston was a pseudonym of Marty Wilde.....

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  26. I think Manston and Gellar were writing pseudonyms for Marty Wilde and his songwriting partner Ronnie Scott (not the jazz club one)

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  27. Ha ha, I probably thought it was "there's a bathroom on the right" as well! :) Also, I found out recently that the REM song "Losing my Religion" doesn't include the line "Let's pee in the corner, Let's pee in the spotlight." Apparently it's "That's me in the corner, That's me in the spotlight."

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  28. Thanks Geoff! You could be right. I did some more googling though and this website refers to Abergavenny being a hit in Australia in 1968.... So maybe it was Marty Wilde I heard, you never know! - http://www.poparchives.com.au/466/rob-e-g/jezebel

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  29. Hey Geoff, now that you've written about Hatfield and Abergavenny, maybe it's time to tackle some equally unpoetic places - Grimsby by Elton John or Croydon by Captain Sensible.

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  30. Ha ha, I bet Karen's comment opens another floodgate of suggestions, like a couple of weeks ago in the comments about the Paris song:) I bet we're all going to recommend our own towns, too. Here's mine: "Durham Town" - Roger Whitaker

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  31. I reckon we need an entry about the North:) How about:
    The Dubliners - The Leaving of Liverpool
    Manchester - The Beautiful South

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  32. Geoff have you been to Brooklyn? If so how about
    No Sleep Till Brooklyn--Beastie Boys
    Brooklyn Rocks the Best--Cutmaster DC
    Brooklyn--Mos Def
    In Brooklyn--Al Stewart

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  33. Thanks for suggestions. I've been to the Brooklyn Bridge-would that count! I didnt know Al Stewart had done a song about it-he seems to have covered most places.

    Re Kevin's comments, I'm not convinced there wasn't at least the intention for the song to appear something more than an ode to a market town. Its not just the paradise people-the final refrains of 'a little photograph, a little photograph...' seem to have a slightly suggestive tone-or maybe I'm just mishearing it! However this undated clip from Dutch TV looks like he is doing a deliberate parody of something.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cY-izX9PXI

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  34. I'm nominating On Canvey Island by British Sea Power. Because there's not many songs about Essex that mention floods from 1953 and bring in bird flu and global warming.

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  35. How about Half Man Half Biscuit - Totnes Bickering Fair?

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  36. How about some Scotland, Geoff? Like The Proclaimers - Sunshine On Leith.

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  37. Oxford Girl from the Oysterband, or Brighton Rock by Queen. Or You're not from Brighton by the Fat Boy.

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  38. If he's up for doing Half Man Half Biscuit, then how about "For What is Chatteris.." , perfectly summing up a dull small Cambridgeshire town:

    Car crime's low, gun crime's lower,
    the town hall band CD, it's a grower,
    you never hear of folk getting knocked on the bonce,
    although there was a drive by shouting once....

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=628RtFiQNzI

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  39. On the misheard lyrics, don't forget that Benny and the Jets did play numerous sold-out concerts throughout Africa. :)

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  40. I'm not sure but I think Ronnie Scott managed The Bystanders and Marty Wilde wrote music, including "When Jesamine Goes" from 1968..... I like the fact there is a Welsh connection for Wilde there in the Bystanders! It makes Abergavenny seem a lot less random.

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  41. Yes, I agree Geoff: I think it was the exaggerated Britishness that appealed to the U.S. audience, like several other songs you've written about so far.... Maybe this is a whole area of research: music that appeals to particular audiences through its exaggerated foreignness!

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  42. Geoff! You wrote about Abergavenny! I like the column a great deal. In answer to a few questions: it was definitely tongue-in-cheek about "taking a trip" and you're spot on about me mocking the town's tourists with "a little photograph", Geoff. Sorry Kevin. We did release it in Australia to some success. I see the connection to "The Prisoner". I'm pretty sure entry to the Condor was less than a quid. I've been to Snodland, Geoff, it doesn't look like Smurfland at all, don't go there. You're right that Manston and Gellar were our pseudonyms. And I think the US people just liked it because it's a good song. But I'm biased.

    Anyway, cheers for this, noone ever wrote about the song before. If you come to a concert I'll sing it and dedicate it to you.

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    1. Marty, it was a great song. A very lively and upbeat recording. Should have been a top 10 hit in Europe and the U.S. One of my all time favorites!

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  43. Cheers! That clears up that up then from the horse's mouth!And a few other queries are answered as well. Many thanks for this.

    I think you are spot on, Laura, with the exaggerated foreignness as the appeal of some songs. It doesnt always seem to work-some artists we see as very English dont mean a thing elsewhere.

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  44. Thank you Judie for your very nice comment - it WAS on an album of mine.( Beryl Middleton )
    I used to love to do the song.
    I'm also a huge fan of Marty Wilde - always have been - great singer/songwriter.Cheers, Beryl.

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  46. I heard this song on Captain Kangaroo and always thought the song was about a trip to Africa, Finney. No wonder I could never find the words on the internet before! Another mystery from mychildhood solved thanks to the great folks on the internet.

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