Driving Away From Home

The romance of air travel implicit in The Airport Song – the planes taking off into the blue, the departure boards - is perhaps matched by the romance of the open road: the allure of open spaces, distant horizons, freedom, rebellion. In songs, it used to be the train that provided the muse, hearing the lonesome whistle blow. Later the car took over, with rock and roll and growth in car ownership coinciding in time and songs celebrating driving for the sheer fun of it, with No Particular Place To Go.

As mentioned in the column on Watford Gap, songs about the road are largely an American genre from Route 66 onwards. It is, of course, largely a matter of space and distance and the whole mythology of heading west to conquer untamed lands. Whereas it is 3000 miles or so across the USA, coast to coast in England is about 190 miles. It is also, perhaps, a matter of place names, with the roll call of towns with Spanish, Native American, French, or Dutch origins sounding more romantic than the largely Anglo-Saxon names of England. Take By The Time I Get to Phoenix, with its names of Phoenix, Albuquerque and Oklahoma and a journey of 1000 miles or so and try moving it to an English context.

Yet the lure of the open road has always existed in England,. First it was by foot. Novels like The Broad Highway or Brother Dusty-Feet and a score of folk songs conjured up the traveller on the lonely road – ‘The winding road does call’,( as in Fairport Convention’s Farewell, Farewell.), bringing folk memories of the tinkers, peddlers and sheep droves of earlier centuries. With the invention of the bicycle, exploring the English countryside became more accessible and Edwardian-set novels like History of Mr Polly showed suburban clerks and shop assistants exploring the world and finding adventure by bike. There are even a few songs celebrating that freedom, as in John Shuttleworth’s Dandelion and Burdock; ‘Riding with my peers, the wind whistling past my ears. As we reached Mam Tor I was grateful for my Sturmey-Archer gears”

Unlike the USA, however, the advent of popular car travel did not lead to a rash of road songs, Watford Gap et al notwithstanding. One of the few is the one here, the 1986 Driving Away from Home (Jim’s Tune) by It’s Immaterial . It is a rare British example of this genre that works on two levels. At one level it is a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of the American ‘head on down the highway’ song moved to English dimensions. ‘Driving away from home 30 miles or more’. 39 miles and 45 minutes gets you from Liverpool to Manchester but probably wouldn’t get you out of Los Angeles. The lyrics sneak in little references back to American songs: King of the Road and the ‘move em on, move em out’ line from Rawhide, recalling the vast plains of the Western. This imagery is the more incongruous against the geographical landscape here-the M62 motorway stretching from Liverpool past Manchester and Leeds to Hull and notorious in places for thick fog. On a section there once, I had to get someone in the car to jump out when an exit sign suddenly loomed up to go and peer if it was the right one to come off at.

However, it also works as a road song. The song itself, particularly on the longer 12” version, is a perfect accompaniment to driving, with the syncopated rhythm moving the listener forwards against the relaxation of the gentle background harmonies and minor key. Then there is the evocative sound of the harmonica throughout, redolent of the lonesome prairie and the travelling man. (The place of the harmonica in pop songs is an interesting one. Though it was commonly part of folk and blues, the harmonica was once seen as a bit of a novelty instrument in pop music and rarely heard. I think the turning point was Bruce Channel’s big 1962 hit, Hey Baby, with a prominent harmonica part by Delbert McClinton. This influenced John Lennon enough to replicate the sound on Love Me do, Please, Please Me and From Me to You and, in turn, motivated Brian Jones to incorporate the now cool ‘harp’ into early Stones’ records.)

Yet it also works as a genuine celebration of driving in the landscapes of northern England. To an outside observer, the ambition of maybe making it to Newcastle or even Glasgow might seem limited. However, it is also a rather wistful, heartfelt sense of place, as is the lyric “When I was young we were gonna move out this way for the clean air, healthy you know”. To the industrial city dweller, the countryside , or even the suburbs, have always seemed a healthy escape.

Miranda Sawyer has described in her book about the suburbs of the North West, Park and Ride, the love of families there of just driving- “in the suburbs a car isn’t only a necessity, it’s the ticket to all your dreams”. And driving over the Pennines on the M62, 1200 ‘ above sea level, can be an exhilarating experience. There are a lot of nice places to see out there.

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The Airport Song

In 2009 the author and philosopher Alain de Botton spent some time at Terminal 5 of Heathrow Airport as writer-in-residence capturing the poetry of aviation and the romance of air travel. His account was written up in A Week at the Airport; a Heathrow Diary. It talked of the dreams of travel -" it's easy to fall into daydreams at the airport and remember the good and the bad trips and where you are in life's journey”. For those whose view of airports is lost luggage, queues for security checks, queues for a lift, queues for passport control, expensive coffee, exhorbitant parking charges, terminals as shopping malls and waiting, waiting, waiting, such a soliloquy might not come so easy.

Airports have always seemed not quite part of the real world, a kind of no-man’s land between journeys with its own boundaries and ways of behaving. Back in 1978 Brian Eno recognised the potentially tense atmosphere of an airport terminal with his ambient Music for Airports, designed to defuse and relax and actually installed at some airports for a while, including La Guardia. There have not, however, been a huge number of songs about airports (as opposed to flying, of which there are plenty) and even less about particular airports like Heathrow. Somehow they haven’t quite played the role in songs that railway stations have. There was L.A International Airport (where the big jet engines roar) by Susan Raye; Luton Airport by Cats UK, jumping on a passing Lorraine Chase Campari advert bandwagon; Airport by The Motors; The Byrds’ Airport Song, also written about Los Angeles International Airport.

The song here by Magna Carta has the same title, The Airport Song but was supposedly inspired by a wait at Heathrow Airport. Magna Carta were a British folk-rock group perhaps remembered now, if at all, for the fact that Davey Johnstone, guitarist with the Elton John Band in the 70’s, passed through its ranks. The song is reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel put to a summer bossa-nova rhythm and, in many ways, is Homeward Bound transposed from Widnes Station to Heathrow Airport: guitar and suitcase and a photograph to remember.

The song is interesting for two reasons. There is an obvious mismatch between the picture of the airport drawn by the song and the reality that most people experience, partly because of the age of the song :it came out in 1970 and reflects a different world of air travel. To quote from one account of flying in the mid-sixties: "...boarding a plane was such an event that stewardesses took souvenir Polaroids of passengers as if they were sailing on an ocean liner or catching a dinner show. Once, there were planes with piano lounges. Once, a first-class meal might have included turtle soup served from a tureen, Chateaubriand carved seatside, and cherries jubilee. Steaks would be cooked to order -- eggs, too, on breakfast flights." The song’s narrator is sitting in the departure lounge not just with a coffee but a cigarette and news about the weather is given by ‘the girl in information turning with a smile to break the news..the fog is on its way’. At Heathrow?? Flying then was still a novelty for most people. I had an aunt who around the time of the quote given above went on an aeroplane for the first time, determined not to look out of the window. After what appeared to her a lengthy period she did take a glance out and to her relief saw they were on land -- the flight must have been so smooth it had passed unnoticed. The plane, was of course, still manoeuvring towards take-off.

The second reason, however, is that the mood of the song does also capture the romance and excitement of being at an airport ,waiting to set off somewhere, that De Botton described and which travellers still hope to capture, despite it all. The memories and nostalgia for other trips and times; the destination boards with names of cities you have barely heard of and the realisation that you could just go and buy a ticket to fly there. I'll be leaving in the morning on a plane bound for the sun.

Reality, of course, can still fall short. The narrator is waiting for a flight to Singapore-what could sound more romantically exotic? I did go on a flight from Heathrow to Singapore a few years ago, en route to Brisbane. The night flight was overbooked, a mother spent much of the time chasing her toddler up and down the aisle to tire him out and during one of the flight meals the seat in front suddenly reclined so much the tray went flying. However, even a fog-bound delay in Heathrow’s departure lounge can sound an almost pastoral experience if you try hard enough.

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Andalucia/Spanish Bombs

‘This year I’m off to Sunny Spain, Y viva Espana’. So sang the Swedish singer Sylvia in 1974 in a piece of Euro pop that provided the musical backdrop for British holidaymakers heading for the Costa Brava for years to come. Sea, sun and sangria,  British breakfasts and pubs -so became the picture of Spain for many summer visitors, with irritating singalongs like The Ketchup Song becoming an annual holiday fixture.

This is, of course, a partial and highly distorted view of a country also known for the flamenco, the classical guitar and an Islamic legacy in its past history, no more so than in Andalucia ,the large area to the south and home to Picasso, Segovia and Federico Lorca, whose poems were of the landscapes of Andalucia as well as the Vienna of With This Waltz. One summer I stayed with my family on an olive farm in travelling distance of Seville and amongst the same sort of countryside described in Chris Stewart’s book, Driving Over Lemons (trivia note-Chris Stewart was the original drummer with Genesis, before Phil Collins). The scenery was medieval in many ways, often stark under brilliant light with olive or orange groves, whitewashed walls and the sound of church bells from a distant village. Once, on a walk in the hills nearby, with rabbits all around , a group of wild horses appeared a few yards away as though from a fairy tale landscape.

The feel of the place, with the mix of Moorish and Christian influence and the patterned landscape, is captured in the first song here, Andalucia by John Cale, from his 1973 album Paris 1919 and later covered by Yo La Tengo. John Cale has had an idiosyncratic musical career -founder member of the Velvet Underground, work with artists from Nick Drake to the Happy Mondays, rock music, electronic music, instrumental ballet music, cutting the heads off dead chickens on stage. This lilting ballad, however, with Cale’s Welsh accent coming through, is reminiscent of Scott Walker’s Copenhagen in that the overall sound is more important than the lyrics, which-as with much of Cale’s work-are pretty impenetrable: though he does manage to rhyme Andalucia with ’see ya’. It is largely a love song with a few broad descriptive strokes – 'castles and Christians' - as background and with gentle guitar-led musical accompaniment by Lowell George and some of Little Feat.

However, it is difficult to visit Andalucia, as with much of Spain, without being aware of a more recent history than the echoes of the distant past hinted at in this song. The Spanish Civil War is still a reality with mass graves being found, and you can still see anti-aircraft shelters and bullet holes in buildings. It had huge significance inside and outside Spain. It was when Lorca was shot by Falange militia, Picasso painted Guernica and George Orwell and Laurie Lee fought with the Republicans and wrote their accounts in Homage to Catalonia and As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. It also provided the inspiration for a number of songs, including Phil Ochs’ Spanish Civil War Song and the Manic Street Preachers’ Number 1 hit of 1998, If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next (which holds some sort of status as the longest number one song title (without brackets))

So the second song here is one of these and gives another side of Andalucia, with Spanish Bombs by The Clash, off their 1979 London Calling album. In 3 minutes or so, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones give a potted history of the Spanish Civil War as the song’s narrator flies into Spain for a modern day holiday, with an ETA (Basque separatist) bombing campaign going on, and sees echoes of the Civil War all around. Lorca, the trenches full of poets, the Anarchist flags, the International Brigade, all get a fleeting reference - a striking illustration of the past and present merging. (In an admittedly tenuous link with a previous column, I once met on Waterloo Station the Scottish anarchist Stuart Christie, who had been imprisoned and nearly executed under Franco’s regime).

The Andalucia in these songs and described by Lorca – ‘Green, how I want you green/Green wind. Green branches/.The ship out on the sea/and the horse on the mountain’ – is a short drive from Malaga and the Costa del Sol but could be a different country .Still ‘ Y Viva Espana’ of course.


In Brooklyn

First-time visitors to New York take with them ideas of what they will find there. There are the well-known landmarks, of course, but many of the areas of the city will have some associations for the newcomer from virtue of movie, TV, song or book. Manhattan, Harlem, Greenwich Village all have an immediate picture in the mind - even Queens, if you watched Cagney and Lacey. Brooklyn, however, at least to the British visitor, doesn’t carry so many prior expectations of what to expect. There’s awareness of the Brooklyn Bridge, perhaps the Brooklyn Dodgers, some notion of the Brooklyn accent based on My Cousin Vinnie or The Goodfellas. There are plenty of songs about the place-from Neil Diamond to the Beastie Boys to Mos Def to Salem al Fakir- but somehow a clear picture seems illusory before you actually see it for yourself

The song here, In Brooklyn by Al Stewart, is a perspective very much from British eyes and is also something now of a period piece in the way of Sunny Goodge Street - it came out in 1969 and you can almost smell the patchouli. Al Stewart is perhaps best known for his hit Year of the Cat but at the time of this song he was on the same club/college circuit as Roy Harper, with a style not unlike Donovan’s. His work was not to everyone’s taste and could range from the somewhat twee to the slightly bombastic, with later songs tackling Nostradamus, the French Revolution and the German invasion of Russia in WW2. His earlier albums were more introspective, foreshadowing the singer-songwriter beloved of bed-sitter land in the early seventies. In Brooklyn comes from his second album, Love Chronicles, on which he was backed by Jimmy Page and most of Fairport Convention, including Richard Thompson, in a jangly folk-rock style and features a number of personal and contemplative stories in a confessional song manner.

The title song, Love Chronicles, an 18 minute auto-biographical epic chronicling every sexual crush and encounter from ‘ Stephanie in the kindergarten arithmetic class’ onwards, gained some notoriety from supposedly being the first mainstream record to use the f-word (though Dylan’s Rain Day Women 12 &35 reputedly contains it if you listen hard enough) and then print it on the record cover. Hearing some of the lyrics now does, unfortunately, bring to mind Tony Blair’s reminiscences of him and Cherie in his Memoirs. However, it was quite brave. Singing his accounts of being a successful Lothario across Europe and America - along with a song called You Should Have Listened to Al- round the provincial college circuit was, frankly, asking for a punch on the nose.

Where Stewart excelled was in detailing a descriptive story in 3 or 4 minutes and In Brooklyn - the account of an encounter with a girl from Pittsburgh during his first trip to New York- is such a song. It paints a picture that was very much of its time at the tail end of the sixties. The girl with the harmonicas was probably called Moon Child, had long hair and a copy of the I-Ching and was a bit loopy. Though living in Brooklyn, New York to her was between Fourth Street and Nine (Greenwich Village) The whole feel of it is reminiscent of Hair or Stoned Soul Picnic and it also reminds me of Simon & Garfunkel’s America for some reason. Maybe it is because characters in both songs started their journey in Pittsburgh; or maybe it is that the relationships in both songs seemed doomed and are set against an era coming to an end. (As a bit of trivia here, Al Stewart shared lodgings with Paul Simon when he was in England in the mid-sixties).

What gives the description of Brooklyn-with the smell of the hamburger stand in the rain, the pawnbrokers and the winos begging money - an added dimension here is the vocal delivery. Al Stewart was actually born in Scotland before moving to the English south coast but on In Brooklyn he sounds like Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, impeccably English-‘mine was cold anyway and just grand’ - and an outsider looking in, which oddly enough makes it all the more accessible and believable. With that accent, the long hair and the afghan coat, no wonder he turned the head of a wannabe hippy from Pittsburgh.

I, too, got to Brooklyn on my first trip to New York, on the Brooklyn loop of the bus tour and some 40 years behind Al Stewart. It wasn’t enough yet to write a little narrative like this song but I did get to see the Brooklyn Bridge and to stand looking at the panorama of the lights illuminating the city against the night sky. And I was definitely in Brooklyn.

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Going Down To Cuba

Sometimes, songs about places are about not where someone has been but where they would like to go, either because they have idealised it in their mind or perhaps because they just like the sound of the name (as with the Bee Gees and Massachusetts). On occasion, they may even know they will never get there because the place is imaginary (Somewhere Over The Rainbow). The song here, Going Down to Cuba by Jackson Browne, is a different sort of song of this ilk - about a place the author hasn’t been to yet because obstacles have been placed in the way. These aren’t the usual obstacles that appear in songs for someone to overcome in the pursuit of their heart’s desire-“ You can reach me by caravan, cross the desert like an arab man....you can jump on a speedy colt, cross the border in a blaze of hope” etc, etc. These are not heroic challenges but political barriers and not the usual stuff of songs.

The motivation for this song has, of course, a perspective from the USA - one can get on a plane in London and arrive at Havana 9 hours later with no more difficulty than flying to Spain. However, the travel restrictions between the USA and Cuba have added an extra dimension - and maybe the frisson of forbidden fruit - to American songs about Cuba over the years. As early as 1964, Phil Ochs covered the visit to Cuba-and subsequent arrest- of the African-American reporter, William Worthy, in his typically witty Ballad of William Worthy-“Well, there really is no need to travel to these evil lands, Yes, and though the list grows larger you must try to understand. Try hard not to be surprised if someday you should hear that the whole world is off limits, visit Disneyland this year”.

44 years, and 8 American Presidents, later Jackson Browne echoed the same sentiments in Going Down to Cuba. It is a longer and more earnest song than Ochs’ and reads at times what it actually is - a musical rewriting of his article in the New York Times of 2004 about the embargo on cultural exchange: 'Songs of Cuba, silenced in America’. It is not often one expects to hear a line like “They make such continuous use of the verb, ‘to resolve’ “ outside of a Paul Simon song. As such, it is less a song about Cuba itself than about another country’s perspective on it, though at a different end of the political spectrum than, say, Gloria Estefan’s Cuba Libre. Music and politics have always mingled easily in Cuba, with the murals of Che Guevara and posters of the Cuban 5 overlooking the musicians playing at every street corner and cafĂ©. That mix does not always come so easy to songs that look at the country from outside,

However, it is a song that quietly grows, with the gentle rhythm of the music and background vocals and the hopeful expectation of the singer of finally experiencing the Havana landmarks that any visitor to Cuba might expect to see. The Hotel Nacional overlooking the Malecon, where once in pre-Castro days Frank Sinatra sung at mafia gatherings where guests dined on tortoise and flamingo and where now you can stay in the Nat King Cole room or look at the photos in the lobby of more recent visitors like Naomi Campbell and Ken Livingstone. Or the Malecon itself, the long coastal stretch where the crumbling grandeur of the palatial buildings is buffeted by the waves and sporadic hurricanes and the smell of brine and fish hangs in the air. Or the initially bizarre sight of 1950’s Chevrolets,  Dodges and Cadillacs still driving round, held together by Soviet parts and the ingenuity of Cuban mechanics." It’ll put a smile on your face to see a Chevrolet with a Soviet transmission”. Or the ubiquitous mojitos and cigars. It is through these little touches and the gently barbed comments-‘they know what to do in a hurricane’- that the song becomes more than a worthy editorial on the cultural and economic blockade.

The music of the Beatles was once seen as western decadence in Cuba. However, now in a small park - known as Rockers’ Park- - in the Vedado district of Havana there is a bronze sculpture of John Lennon, with a plaque of some of the lines from Imagine in Spanish, ‘You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one’. (Tourists trying to find it need to pronunciate the name clearly to taxi drivers, as they may end up looking at the statue of Lenin in Parque Lenin south of the city instead.) There is, of course, another memorial to John Lennon in a park: in Central Park, New York, a 3 hour flight away. There must be a moral there somewhere.

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