‘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.