Hans Christian Andersen has had quite an effect on how people see Copenhagen. In reality he was supposedly grumpy, neurotic, a hypochondriac who went to bed with a sign round his neck saying ‘I’m not dead, I am sleeping’. However, his stories of the Little Mermaid, the Ugly Duckling and a score of others have forever linked Copenhagen to the imagination.

As a child, Copenhagen always had something a bit magical in its name . I think that came from two things. One was from hearing the Danny Kaye song,  Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen, on the radio. I never saw the film it came from, Hans Christian Andersen, so I constructed my own ideas of why it was so wonderful. These became intermingled with the Hans Christian Andersen fairy stories so that Copenhagen itself took on the quality of a fairy-tale town. I wasn’t even sure if it actually existed or was a made-up place. The other was from an old radio that lay about the house with a dial on which were the names of foreign cities, including Copenhagen. On occasion I would listen to the crackling of the static and the occasional burst of music and indecipherable language and it would only increase the sense of a rather magical place somewhere far away.

It was a long time before I actually got to the town, on a summer visit with my teenage son. Not everything was as imagined, of course, but the centre remains pretty much as it was in Andersen’s time and it didn’t disappoint. There was also the surprise of the unexpected – the autonomous commune of Christiana, vaguely reminiscent of the outer fringes of the Reading Rock Festival; or finding you could have a 5-course meal where each course was herring. Especially in the evening, when fairy lights in the Tivoli Gardens came on to cast ethereal light on the flowers and streams there, a glimpse of fairy-tale came through.

Not all songs about Copenhagen fit this picture. The Norwegian singer, Kari Bremnes, has a song Copenhagen Cavern, with a very different take - the story of a young girl from northern Norway, desperate and stranded without money in Copenhagen and waitressing/begging in ‘a run down bar beneath the ground, a place where the sun has never been’. It is always good to be reminded that any city has different sides to it. The song here, however, Copenhagen, by Scott Walker, was the one I took in my head when I went there.

As the focal point of the Walker Brothers, Scott Walker (Engels) had been hugely popular in Britain and Europe –but not his home country of the USA - in 1966/7, specialising in melodramatic pop ballads with Phil Spector-ish backing, soaked in heartache and loneliness and all delivered in his powerful but rather sepulchral baritone. The first line of one of their hits, The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More, summed up the existential tone: ’Loneliness is a cloak you wear’. Following the group’s split, Scott Walker took a completely different road, towards Jacques Brel territory and the European chanteur. He also became something of a male Greta Garbo, reclusive, enigmatic, seemingly tortured by his art, introducing references to Camus and Bergman in his lyrics ,and he became an influence on artists such as David Bowie, Nick Cave and Marc Almond. Not all of his new oeuvre worked. It could be over-dramatic or slushy and the Brel interpretations in particular seemed uneasy, partly because Brel’s songs don’t translate into English well.

What Scott Walker did, however, was to bring a love of European culture and history to his songs, some of which were later put out in a CD collection, An American in Europe. You just knew that he really wished he had grown up on the Left Bank, not Hamilton, Ohio. But it also meant that he brought new eyes to his observations on European places and conventions, introducing a child-like wonder at times. The self-penned Copenhagen is from this period, first appearing in 1969 on his third solo album, imaginatively entitled Scott 3, and later re-issued in 2006 as part of the 5 Easy Pieces collection. It is a short, delicate song, reminiscent of Paris Bells and it is like a musical miniature painting, capturing Copenhagen through mood rather than explicit lyrics. The lush orchestration, poetic words and veering to a MOR style in the vocals could have resulted in an overblown mess of pretension. What keeps it this side of that is Scott Walker’s obvious earnestness about the place and the second part of the song. The lines ‘Copenhagen, you’re the end, gone and made me a child again’ are a haunting mixture of sunny hope and melancholy.

The musical fade-out with echoes of a distant carousel is an integral part of the mood here. Listen to this and imagine being on a bench in a small cobbled square in Copenhagen on a sunny late afternoon, with dappled light through the trees. Nearby the street market of fruit and fish and craft is packing up. You can hear the sound of children in a playground, a faint peel of bells from a small church on the corner and in the distance the tinkling sound of the carousel in the Tivoli Gardens. Easy to be a child again.

Link to song



Mention Liverpool and most people can think of a well known song about it: Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields, Liverpool Lou, The Leaving of Liverpool. Mention its neighbour, and great rival, Manchester, and it is not so easy. From the Hollies and Mindbenders through 10cc, the Buzzcocks, Joy Division, the Smiths, Happy Mondays, Oasis, Manchester has produced plenty of musical artists but songs about the place itself have not sunk into popular consciousness in the way of other large cities. Even Stockport,6 miles away and part of the Greater Manchester conurbation, had a dedicated ode, by Frankie Vaughan: ‘I’ve travelled up and down this country, from the Pennines to Land End, but if you ask my favourite place of all, the answer isn’t hard to comprehend .I’m going back to Stockport.' (Though the song came out in 1983, unfortunately the town still came 12th in a 2004 list of the UK’s Crap Towns).

A musical comparison with Liverpool is interesting. There has been a strong streak of sentimentality in many of its best known songs –from Gerry and the Pacemaker’s Ferry Cross the Mersey (‘We don’t care what your name is boy, we’ll never send you away’), to the Mighty Wah’s Heart as Big as Liverpool (‘Lay me down by water cool, heart as big as the city, heart as big as Liverpool’) to Ringo Starr’s Liverpool 8 (‘Destiny was calling, I just couldn’t stick around, Liverpool I left you but I never let you down’). Actually, 30 years or so before that last song there had been a much more perceptive sketch of the Liverpool 8 district (Toxteth) by the under-rated Liverpool group, the Real Thing, in their 4 from 8 album that included Liverpool 8, Stanhope Street and Children of the Ghetto. (‘Children of the ghetto, running wild and free in a concrete jungle, filled with misery’). However ,the point is that this perspective on Liverpool’s history was not one that fitted easily with the romanticised picture more commonly painted by songs and, perhaps not unconnected, the album didn’t sell well. Though Children of the Ghetto has been covered since by Philip Bailey and Mary J Blige, its Liverpool origins are rarely mentioned.

Though only 30 miles away, Manchester has always been distinctly different. One of the few musical pairings was an odd 1966 song, Manchester et Liverpool, by a French singer Marie Laforet. The original has a set of poignant lyrics of seeking a lost love amongst the streets of Manchester and Liverpool : “Manchester is a sad mood, Liverpool is crying over the sea, I do not know if I exist” (Relevant to this column, she also commented that ‘Manchester is in the rain’).     http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NuLV_LHY7mk
 The English cover version, by a group called Pinky and the Fellas, had more prosaic lyrics - ‘’Manchester and Liverpool, so noisy, busy and so typical, millions there with hopes and cares’ – and a plodding intro that sounded like the theme tune from Steptoe and Son. It was, however, No 1 in Japan, possibly on the mention of Liverpool in the title.     http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQDl6FXuqKk

It is hard to imagine a song called The Leaving of Manchester or Manchester Lullaby. Instead, songs about the place have largely been pretty dismal, leaving an image of gloom and grey, stuck somewhere round the time depicted in the Life on Mars TV series. A number of things contributed to this. The rain and leaden skies; the slate grey of many of the buildings; the tower blocks and motorway flyovers; the large housing estates; the dark history of the Moors above Manchester. Whatever the reason, the St Etienne touch of summer light on London is hard to find. The Smith’s back catalogue has several grim pieces about the town, including Rusholme Ruffians and their song about the Moors murders, Suffer Little Children, with the lines, ‘Oh Manchester, so much to answer for’. Or there was Mersey Paradise by the Stone Roses: ‘I want to be where the drownings are’. Or Northenden by the Doves: ‘The kids are deranged, they love guns and kidnap’

Then there is the rain. Statistics show that in reality Manchester is not the UK's rainiest city but perceptions are hard to shift. The song here, Manchester by Beautiful South from 2006, plays directly to that image. With the Housemartins and Beautiful South, Paul Heaton has often written dark, jagged and bitter lyrics but with an upbeat melody. Manchester is not one of his more biting analyses-basically it rains all over Manchester. However, his usual neat turn of phrase-‘the sun strolls into town like a long lost king’- the joint vocals with Alison Wheeler and infuriatingly catchy tune turn the whole thing into a little celebration, albeit a bittersweet one and probably not one the Manchester Tourist Board want to hear.

When I lived in North Lancashire, Manchester didn’t seem particularly gloomy. Actually, it seemed like the exciting big city, rather like Tracey Thorn viewed London from Hatfield in Oxford Street. It used to be said of Liverpool that you only had to walk down a street and you would bump into someone who used to be in a pop group. Something of that ilk did happen in Manchester, on a train from Lancaster when the person sitting across the carriage table turned out to have once been in a Manchester group, the Dolphins, with future Hollies Tony Hicks and Bernie Calvert. However ,it did really seem quite rainy there. Driving out of the town once was the only time in my life that the rain was so hard that the windscreen wipers fell off.

The song has echoes of a poem by Adrian Mitchell , Watch Your Step-I’m Drenched - ' In Manchester there are a thousand puddles.....In Manchester there lives the King of Puddles’. A bit of poetic licence where fact and fancy become indistinguishable

Link to song
Link2 to song


(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...'


Oxford Street

The suburbs and small towns of England have never been highly thought of in songs. Suburbia has been shorthand for mediocrity, drab provincialism, respectable dullness, limited horizons, from where anyone with any imagination got out of as soon as possible. This point of view had a respectable history in literature. The characters of H G Wells in Mr Polly and Kipps and of George Orwell in Coming Up For Air and Keep the Aspidistra Flying all have aspirations and hopes crushed by the mundanity of provincial life.

Yet in this is a contradiction, for the same places have also provided a source of inspiration for a long lineage of songs. Ray Davies turned his sight from Waterloo to the outermost edges of London in Shangri-La (‘all the houses in the street have got a name, cos all the houses in the street they look the same’). The Bonzos trod the same path with My Pink Half of the Drain Pipe (‘My pink half of the drainpipe separates next door from me’). Paul Weller (Woking) created a whole line of songs about small town suburbia, as did Andy Partridge (Swindon) for XTC. Then there was Sound of the Suburbs by The Members (‘Same old boring Sunday morning, old man’s out washing the car’) or Newtown People by the Newtown Neurotics and a score of others

The song here, Oxford Street by Everything But The Girl, approached this theme from a different direction and with the subtlety that was the hallmark of much of their work. Though Oxford Street is the title, and plays a part in the lyrics, the song is really about growing up in one of the small towns circling London, in this case Hatfield in Hertfordshire, original home town for Tracey Thorn of EBTG.(and also Donovan and Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones). It is best heard in conjunction with another of their songs, Hatfield 1980,which gives a depressing picture of daily life there (‘You'll have to go through Suburban shopping centre ,Pedestrian walkways ,I think they were meant to make things better, But it's just emptier').
Hatfield was one of the New Towns developed after WW2 and dotted round London like a marauding army just within sight: Hatfield, Stevenage, Welwyn Garden City, Letchworth, Hemel Hempstead. The original intention was rebuilding a new, futuristic world and re-housing post-War Londoners as a brighter alternative to London itself. By the time Tracy Thorne was growing up - the 1970’s- the initial sheen had gone and the inadequacies of the original concept were fairly glaring, especially to a teenager. There was plenty of modernist architecture, inspired by Le Corbusier, that reflected the desire to build from Year Zero and ignored the core Old Towns that were already there in some places- so instead there were tower blocks like huge bunkers; glorification of the car that pushed people into the underpasses to cross town and saw the appearance of a whole rash of roundabouts, the jewel in this crown being Hemel Hempstead’s ‘magic roundabout’,(voted Britain’s second worst roundabout in 2005. Swindon’s own magic roundabout topped the poll.); the occasional bit of abstract sculpture that was later taken down for its own safety. In keeping with the laudable aims of creating a better future, some thought was given to parks and water gardens but seemingly little to the amenities of life other than schools and some shops. ‘No soul’ and ‘a graveyard with lights’ were some of the kinder things said about Hatfield and, at the time the song refers to, cinemas, clubs, theatres had to be sought elsewhere.

Oxford Town is an interesting comment on the experience of living this. It isn’t a rant about suburbia as such nor a critical observation on other people’s lives. It is a wistful piece of self-reflection in Thorn’s distinctive and rich alto voice, seen through the eyes of a teenage girl who had lived her whole life to date in ‘a little world’ and for whom the park that was once a playground has become a place for drinking with mates and the underpass to the shops a no-go area on the way back from a night out. Oxford Street was 40 minutes and a whole world away. Oxford Street in the 1970’s - 3 Virgin Megastores at one point, enough to turn anybody’s head and especially if your local Woolworths or W H Smiths was the only source of records otherwise. London was exciting and scary at the same time. Tracey Thorn has written somewhere of the exhilaration of going to an Anti-Nazi League gig in Victoria Park at the age of 15 or 16 and then feeling panic at trying to find her way back to Hatfield.

It is possible that a lot of the musical angst about alienation and small towns comes from the state of mind whilst growing up more than anything. No doubt a morose 15 year old could live in the middle of Leicester Square and still imagine that the whole world is at a party whilst they sit at home with their mum and dad watching Bruce Forsyth on the TV. However, the sort of towns described in the songs here were particularly bland and lacked individuality and could turn a teenage mood into frustration or, equally, introspection.. There is something in the rather mournful sound of EBTG and the small detail of the lyrics that conjures up the very ordinary, the feel of a Sainsbury’s car park on a wet afternoon. In the song, the author thought University would provide an escape route but discovered there was no ‘real world’ out there after all. Probably not a place to go back to once you’ve left -but difficult to leave entirely behind.


Gloomy Sunday

A song, on occasion, can become inextricably linked with a place, even though it is not actually written about anywhere in particular. On a personal level, this can happen all the time - you hear a song and are immediately reminded of a place and moment . It can also enter the general consciousness, with a song recalling a location despite whoever is delivering it.

The example here is Gloomy Sunday, sometimes known as the ‘saddest song in the world’ and forever associated with Hungary and Budapest, a link strengthened by the 1999 film of the same name, a cinematic version of the story of the song against a backdrop of Nazi-occupied Budapest. It suits the crumbling grandeur of the city ,in many ways similar to Vienna and Paris, though the pockmarks of bullets in many buildings are a reminder of a more turbulent recent past. The mood also fits with the supposedly legendary Hungarian pessimism. (What is a pessimist? A realistic optimist)

The song has had dozens and dozens of vocal and instrumental versions since it was written in the early 1930’s . The perhaps best known one was by Billie Holiday but other English language versions have been as diverse as Paul Robeson, Bjork, Marianne Faithfull, Elvis Costello , Marc Almond, Ray Charles, Sinead O’Connor, Acker Bilk, Rick Nelson, Heather Nova, Lydia Lunch and Sarah Brightman. However, partly because of the urban myths about Gloomy Sunday being responsible for a spate of suicides, the song itself has always been more important than its interpreters and has taken on a life of its own. Some of this is attributable to the success of American music publishers and record companies in originally marketing it as The Hungarian Suicide Song and releasing stories about those who had taken their lives after hearing it. It is also perhaps part of the long tradition of listeners trying to find magical powers or hidden messages in songs, with countless students damaging their records and styluses by trying to play their Beatles or Black Sabbath albums backwards. There is fact with some of the myths about Gloomy Sunday.It is true that the song was banned by the BBC - but then so was Joe Brown’s My Little Ukelele and the Cougar’s Saturday Nite at the Duckpond. It was also true that the song’s author committed suicide in 1968 - at the age of 78 and in poor health, a consequence of war -time experience in a German labour camp.

However ,what is more fascinating is how a song can change radically from its original source but retain its identity. The story of Gloomy Sunday is a particularly convoluted one. The original tune was composed by Rezso Seress (originally known as Rudi Spitzer), a self-taught pianist in Budapest who had written several songs now lost to history but with intriguing titles: Waiter, bring me the bill; Come On Dog Dimples; Hi, You Old Don Juan and I Like to be Drunk . He worked as resident pianist at a Budapest restaurant, Kispipa, then in the Jewish quarter on the Pest side, and played his new composition there, a melancholy melody in C-minor made even more mournful when played on the violin.

There is confusion about the original Hungarian lyrics. One view is that the first lyrics were by Seress–entitled The End of Love –and were about the decline of civilisation and threat of war, not unlike the general expression of pessimism by writers like Huxley and Wells at that time. It is possible, however, that these particular words were written later by Seress, during or after WW2. Whichever was true, the lyrics that became the ones known in Hungary were by the Hungarian poet Laszlo Javor, turning the piece into a morose and depressing lament of someone contemplating suicide after the death of their beloved. English translations of both these sets of lyrics can be seen at:

The transformation from the original was not yet complete. On reaching American music publishers, 2 separate pieces of English lyrics were then provided. One , by Desmond Carter, followed the sense of Javor’s Hungarian lyrics and was that used in the version done by Paul Robeson in 1935 and occasionally since.

However, the alternative set, by Sam Lewis (author of For All We Know), became the one generally known, popularised by Billie Holiday and used by most artists today. The words were fairly radically changed and, most significantly, an extra stanza was added to turn the whole thing into a dream, with a change of key in the melody to make the ending more uplifting.

This was presumably to make the song more palatable for public play on the radio and is a bit reminiscent of a college student in an English writing class extricating themselves from an improbably far-fetched story by ending it with   ‘so, it was only a dream…’.  However, in the right hands it can actually make it more haunting and blur dream and reality. 2 versions are given as links below, not particularly because they are the best but to give a sense of the alternate lyrics. The dramatic and ultra-dark interpretation by Diamonda Galas, once described as a mixture of Sylvia Plath and Maria Callas, goes back to the Paul Robeson version without the ‘dream’ ending and also uses a stark accompaniment of piano , the way it was composed. The other, by Sarah McLachlan, is the more common reading of it, with an evocative and haunting vocal over guitar background.

You can still find Kispipa, where Seress once played. Since those days, both Khrushchev and Ray Charles have dined there, aware of the song’s significance. The decor, posters, porcelain plates and menu - with literal English translations of dishes such as ‘crepes stuffed with brains’ - have remained unchanged for decades and the current pianist of 30 years or so residency there, sitting under a photograph of Seress, will play Gloomy Sunday if asked. The place itself, however didn’t seem gloomy at all. Like the song, the city - at the crossroads of east and west - has been constantly re-interpreted, from heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire through Stalinism and beyond, but kept its distinctiveness. Perhaps the best way of listening to Gloomy Sunday and conjuring up Budapest is through the melody alone, with piano and violin - melancholy, sentimental, richly resonant of past histories.