Painting and Kissing

As touched upon before, songs about places can go from the macro to the micro, from the whole sweep of an entire country to a small individual spot at ground level, a cafe, a station, a hotel. These can include those songs about a particular street or road. These can be an ode to a famous landmark, as in On Broadway or Hollywood Boulevard, or ETBTG’s teenage yearning to be in Oxford Street. They can romanticise the ordinary , as with Donovan’s Sunny Goodge Street. They can push the unknown and obscure into the spotlight. Without The Beatles’ Penny Lane, who would bother going to see the street near Allerton Road and Smithdown Road in Liverpool? Or Woking’s Stanley Road without Paul Weller’s album of the same name?

It can be, however, that the filter of music and lyrics can cast even the shabbiest of thoroughfares in a new light for the listener. The Holloway Road in North London lies at the start of the A1 that runs up to Scotland. It remains a road that is resolutely ungentrified, one that sits amidst the noise of the traffic and sirens and police vans, the litter, cheap cafes and burger joints, the discount stores. It looks totally unprepossessing. Yet with its cultural diversity - Jamaican, Columbian, Brazilian, Russian, Mexican, Australian, French, Polish, Turkish, British, Swedish, Irish, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Bahraini, Chinese, Congolese, Japanese and Beninese all live here - it has its supporters: here is N7 Heaven. Metropolitan University is here, as is Holloway Prison.

It has also appeared  in pop songs at regular intervals. In fact, as a location it has a special place in pop history. Outside 304 Holloway Road, now a grocery store, is a small plaque to the eccentric record producer Joe Meek: ‘Joe Meek, the Telstar Man, lived, worked and died here’. In the almost forgotten pre-Beatles era of British pop music, Joe Meek was responsible for some of the most memorable and idiosyncratic records of the time, all recorded in his small studio above a leather goods shop on Holloway Road. The most famous was the Tornados’ Telstar, an instrumental intended to invoke the space age but which evokes more than anything a British funfair.Yet the Tornados were the first British group to get to number one in America - and Telstar was Margaret Thatcher’s favourite pop record. But there were a string of other Meek hits between 1961 and 1964, including the trio of hits by sometime actor, John Leyton, ( the ghostly Johnny Remember Me, Wild Wind and the grammatically correct Son, This is She) and Meek’s final big hit, Have I the Right, by the Honeycombs, ‘discovered’ in a pub in the nearby Balls Pond Road.(Have I the Right was marked by a tub- thumping sound from female drummer Honey Lantree, augmented by the other members of the group standing on the wooden stairs leading up to the studio and stamping their feet, the sound captured by microphones attached to the banisters by bicycle clips)

This, alone, was enough to make the Holloway Road a mini-Mecca for lovers of British pop. It has, however, been referenced since in a number of songs. The Kinks sang of “ my baby impaled in Holloway jail.” Marillion also sang of a Holloway Girl. St Etienne set their dreamy Madeleine there (“Down Holloway Road she goes, wasting time”). Koop’s Beyond the Son must be the only record in history to mention the South China seas and the Holloway Road in the same lyrics, with an intriguing reference – “ Saw Mr Brenan in the Holloway Road yesterday, Walked past with a bag of potatoes on his shoulder”. And the song here , Painting and Kissing by Hefner from their 2000 album We Love the City, a suite of songs about London and the lives of people living there.

Hefner were a British indie band that had echoes of Pulp and the Smiths. Against the deadbeat backdrop of Holloway Road and the Wig and Gown - a football pub named after Highbury Magistrate’s Court - the song is an ironic story of an unexpected relationship and self-delusion. Underneath, the music careers away driven by a tinny organ riff and at times seems to be going down a path of its own. On top, vocalist Darren Hayman tries to convince himself that the relationship was better than he sometimes suspects it might have been: “And as her kissing got worse, Oh her paintings improved, but what does that prove? It proves nothing.” The listener, however, is not really sure that he has learnt anything. For once, Holloway Road comes out on top and it is Linda from Holloway Road, with her paintings and Chardonnay, who is the sophisticated one in this relationship. Crikey.

When you come out of the tube station on Holloway Road , there are a lot of ghosts of the past about. From highwayman Dick Turpin; to all the groups of yesterday who lugged their amps and drum kits up the stairs to Meek’s recording studio; to John Lennon and Yoko Ono visiting Michael X at his Black House at No 101.The eyes might see Argos, Chicken Village, Pizza Zone, Holloway Express, The Nag’s Head; but it is not hard to find a bit of music to give a brief glimpse through coloured, if not rose-tinted, glasses.

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Alone in Brewster Bay

An early column looked at the Bee Gees’ song, Massachusetts, about a place the group had never been to and chose because they liked the sound of the name: a song more to do with feelings than geography. The same could be said of the subject of this column, also set in Massachusetts but where the actual setting was a mere backdrop for a song about something else, in this case the sadness of separation. A place becomes the trigger for the songwriter to explore emotions which the listener may or may not carry themselves to the physical location.

The song here, Alone in Brewster Bay, by the Chicago-based singer Minnie Riperton, is titled after a small settlement south of Boston overlooking Cape Cod Bay. Minnie Riperton is probably best known for her 1975 hit, Loving You, and for her extraordinary 5 ½ octave vocal range that went into whistle register, first showcased on a record, Lonely Girl, released under the name Andrea Davis at the age of 18.

Stevie Wonder once described her voice as that of an angel, with the capacity to produce a sound both ethereal and haunting for the listener. Her musical work, however, was much wider than Loving You might suggest. As part of the Chicago-based Gems in the mid-sixties (Trivia note: their biggest success was a record with the intriguing title, That’s What they Put Erasers on Pencils For), she supplied backing vocals to records such as Fontella Bass’s Rescue Me; and as joint lead vocalist with the psychedelic rock group Rotary Connection covered an eclectic range of styles from rock to soul to jazz and all points in between. Listen to their 1968 release Christmas Love and you are transported via a little historical snapshot (‘Nixon and Humphrey need a little love’), to a world of headbands, anti-war demonstrations and keeping the freak flag flying.

Alone in Brewster Bay came from her 1975 album, Adventures in Paradise, written during a holiday in the Cape Cod area sometime in the early 1970’s.With the evocative sounds of seabirds in the background and a gentle guitar backing, the song is a romantic lament that shifts between mournfulness and hope. The mood and lyrics, with the imagery of birds and bleak sky set against an awareness of time passing, is reminiscent of Sandy Denny’s Who Knows Where the Time Goes. You then realise that both women died at the age of 31 within a year of each other, both leaving a few pure gems of work and a sense of a potential unfulfilled. You also wonder whether the early deaths have inevitably tinged their work with a retrospective sense of sadness that perhaps wasn’t intended. Certainly, it is difficult to listen to Minnie Riperton’s final song shortly before her death, Back Down Memory Lane, ( ‘I don’t want to go back down memory lane, save me, save me, back down memory lane’) without an overwhelming feeling of poignancy.

Perhaps because of this, it would be easy to carry a melancholic feeling from the song to the place that inspired it. On a visit to my daughter in Boston a couple of years ago, we went to a number of the towns and villages in the area where Minnie Riperton vacationed nearly forty years ago. In many ways, the harbours, little antique and gift shops, white boarded houses, the ice creams and beaches and sounds of seabirds, must be closer to the English south coast than Chicago. I was reminded of that stretch of coast round Poole and Sandbanks and Brownsea Island, though without the sandals and socks and occasional glimpse of a front garden gnome. (I later satisfyingly discovered that Brewster, MA, is twinned with Budleigh Salterton in Devon).

It wasn’t, of course, melancholy at all. I was seeing the places with my own eyes and had my own experience to take away. In such ways can memories of a place differ.

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N 17

One of the songs most beloved of the sentimental and the drunk alike is Danny Boy, the archetypal Irish ballad dripping with pathos from its famous opening lines:” Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling, From glen to glen, and down the mountain side”. In fact, songs about Ireland have often combined two themes – the lament of the exiled and emigrant romanticising their homeland and the magical and mysterious rural Ireland rooted in ancient cultures. Songs that painted pictures of a never-never land of rolling green fields, misty mountains, Guinness in country pubs served by a red-haired colleen and a hint of leprechaun have always found a ready market in England and the USA. One of the best-selling acts in the British charts in the sixties were The Bachelors, who had more hits than the Beatles in 1964 by laying on the Irish charm and whimsy thicker than butter on soda bread. (In 1966 , rather bizarrely, their version of Sounds of Silence outsold Simon & Garfunkel’s in Britain). In a post-punk era, groups like The Pogues may have had a harder, less romantic, edge but songs like A Pair of Brown Eyes could still lament “the streams, the rolling hills ,Where his brown eyes were waiting”.

Equally a recurrent theme in songs has been a nostalgic sense of loss voiced by those living and working overseas and who sought to recreate Ireland elsewhere. Songs that range from the purely sentimental to the ambiguous-the Pogues’ Thousands Are Sailing - to the dark bitterness of Christy Moore’s Missing You:"So you sail cross the ocean, away cross the foam, to where you're a Paddy, a Biddy or a Mick, good for nothing but stacking a brick”

The song here, N17, first released by the Saw Doctors in 1989, combines both themes in a infectiously joyful ode to the trunk road that goes through Sligo and Galway. An echo of Watford Gap and Driving Away from Home but with a more romantic setting. Over the last 20 years the Saw Doctors have produced a string of Irish folk/rock songs, often based round their home area of Tuam and County Galway. At times, you think that songs like The Green and Red of Mayo or Never Mind the Strangers might topple into sentimental cliché. What stops that, apart from the general upbeat and uplifting mood of much of their music, is the little snapshots of everyday life in the lyrics and the wry humour behind much of the observations, as in Music I Love –“ I've tried going to disco, throwing shapes on the floor, nothing ever happens. I don't go any more. Girls never know what I'm talking about, so I think I'll just take the easy way out. I'll just sit in my room with all the lights off, my mother and father think I'm gone daft .I stay home with the music I love”

N17 became one of their perennial sing-along anthems. As with many other songs about Ireland, it is written from an exile’s perspective ,of someone daydreaming on the filthy overcrowded trains of the stone walls and the grasses green. Yet it also recognises the usual truth behind such yearning: “I know things would be different if I ever decide to go back”. The same truism as in Kari Bremnes’ Song to a Town: you return at your peril as a stranger.

Even with the Saw Doctors, it seems sometimes hard to escape the clichés about Ireland. Yet cliches are usually just such because they are based on some sort of common experience and it is not difficult to find the Ireland of these songs. I once went on a holiday in Sligo in a caravan drawn by a monster of a horse called Ross who, over-dosed on oats, took out a farm gatepost in his urgent desire to get into the field. Maybe I expected to see what I saw because of the songs but there really were rolling green fields and the misty mountain of Knocknarea and country pubs where people with accordions and concertinas, fiddles and pipes wandered in for a ceilidh.

I don’t remember the N17 in that slow meander round Sligo. However, in the last week I have experienced the “twists and turns on the road” of the N20,further south near Cork, sitting in a mini-bus with a group of Finns and Poles as heads bounced off the ceiling with the bumps and swerves as the driver gave assurance he was only driving slowly, mind. Yet there was a feeling of going back in time, to the past as a foreign country- and perhaps a sense of the never-never land hovering somewhere just out of sight.

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Harvest Moon

Comment was made in the last column about the age-old influence of the sun on the earliest writings and music. The same is true of the moon, which has exerted perhaps even more of a mystical pull on the poetic and musical imagination over the centuries. Worshipped as a god/goddess, linked to witchcraft, werewolves and lunacy, waxing and waning over the years.

In song, inspiration has been more diverse than with the sun, from the stereotyped moon/June romantic odes through the more imaginative reflections of Moondance and Moonshadow to the philosophising of Dark Side of the Moon. There has been a Blue Moon, covered countless times from the Marcels’ doo-wop version through Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley et al, with a particularly atmospheric version by the Cowboy Junkies. But there has also been a Pink Moon (Nick Drake), a Yellow Moon (the Neville Brothers), a Black Moon (Emerson, Lake and Palmer),a Red Moon (David Gray). It’s been a Bad Moon and a Sad Moon and a Harsh Mistress. Jonathan King claimed that Everyone’s Gone to the Moon. And the B-52’s put it quite clearly, without room for argument –There’s a Moon in the Sky (Called the Moon).

The first landing on the moon might have lessened this allure but didn’t. There was a brief flurry of songs like Space Oddity and Rocket Man but the moon generally remained something aloof to admire from afar. One of the most hauntingly effective songs in this genre was Monochrome by The Sundays, which turned a childhood recollection of the moon landings into something wider- a child trying to understand an adult’s experience. “It’s 4 in the morning July in 1969, me and my sister, we crept down like shadows. They’re bringing the moon right down to our sitting room, static and silence and a monochrome vision. They’re dancing around, slow puppets silver ground.....And something is said and the whole room laughs aloud, me and my sister looking on like shadows”

In fact, it almost seemed as if it had been forgotten that man had been to the moon and songs continued as they always had done.The song here, Harvest Moon, reverts to the softer, more benign notion of the moon, albeit with an emotional hold over human feelings. It is a Neil Young composition but the version here, by jazz singer Cassandra Wilson from her 1996 album New Moon Daughter, adds another dimension. She has a rich, smoky, sometimes breathy, contralto voice that can have the timbre of a saxophone, and her timing and interpretation can turn a cover version into a different song. Here, as with some other of her covers - such as Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time or, oddly, The Monkees’ Last Train to Clarkesville - the song is slowed right down. Words hang in the air, time passes , and the song becomes a wistful reflection the listener is drawn into. The technique is perfect for such a song about gazing at a full moon whilst, behind her languid voice, the guitars shimmer over the sounds of crickets and frogs.

As with Always the Sun, the listener will find their own setting for the song. My mind takes it to a view from over 20 years ago on a holiday with a young family on the Greek island of Kos. We had been to the Asklepion Temple above the town amidst cypress and pine trees, where lizards bathed in the hot sun on rocks, and had walked over the hills back to the coast. In the evening, I sat looking out over the dark sea towards Turkey, as the bright moon hung in the night sky amidst a sudden shower of shooting stars and the sound of crickets provided an incessant backdrop. Time passed slowly.

The sea, the sun, the moon – universal themes and countless songs. The listener will find the one where a time falls into its place.

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