Always The Sun

After the sea, it seems only fitting to consider a similar genre where a song about something universal is taken by the listener to be a backdrop to a very specific memory. In this case, the sun - linked to the sea in countless holiday brochures about Greece, Spain or Italy and sometimes overtly in song, as in The Verve’s The Sun, The Sea. And sometimes linked even further, as in Club 18-30 holiday brochures or by -who else-Serge Gainsburg in his Sea, Sex and Sun recording.

These songs sit apart from those about summer generally, which could fill a book on their own. Songs about summer tend to rely on producing a good - time feel through a range of stock associations, though these can vary according to the national origins of the song in question. Listen to the Beach Boys’ All Summer Long and you think of Californian sunshine, surf boards, glistening teeth and tans. However, Mungo Jerry’s In the Summertime is definitely a hot English summer, one that might include a lot of beer, packets of cheese and onion crisps, wasps and blokes with sideburns so extensive they needed planning permission.

Songs of the sun can be as equally vacuous/good-time ,I suppose, as in The Sun Has Got Its Hat On. However, by and large, they tend to be more lyrically and musically challenging and, like those of the sea, let the associations be made by others. They do not even necessarily conjure up the expected scenes of languid summer days. Pink Floyd took a sci-fi slant of the sun as a planet with Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun. Judy Collins took the magical process of Yeats’ poem , The Song of Wandering Aengus, with Golden Apples of the Sun. The Beatles Here Comes the Sun becomes more than just an ode to spring when interpreted by artists like Nina Simone and Richie Havens.

The song here, Always the Sun  - recorded in 1986 by the Stranglers, towards the end of their decade as a chart group - is an example of an occurrence when a view of a place previously unseen suddenly fitted perfectly with the personal mental image created by the music. The Stranglers were always hard to pigeonhole, a punk band that included a hippy- ish keyboard player and a drummer now in his seventies. Seemingly crass songs like Peaches ('Walking on the beaches, looking at the peaches'), sat along others about Trotsky, vikings and extra-terrestrial visitors. Their repertoire also included two evocative and poetically lyrical songs that bathed the listener in the moods of the sun. Their 1982 hit, Golden Brown, was a delicate and dreamy ballad in waltz-time with what sounds like a harpsichord and with lyrics supposedly about heroin but which could have come from a nineteenth century Romantic poem ('Golden brown, texture like sun...Every time just like the last, On her ship tied to the mast, To distant lands, takes both my hands').

Always the Sun had equally obtuse lyrics that at times pour out in such a wordy fashion you wonder how Hugh Cornwell will fit them all in before the line ends .It has a sharper and more powerful sound, with Jean-Jaques Burnel’s diving bass lines, the background swamped in the keyboards and Hugh Cornwell’s melodic guitar break reminiscent of that on Golden Brown. The overall mood, however, is just as evocative. One reviewer described it as like being in a deep ravine and looking upwards towards to the sun.

For me, both this song and Golden Brown for some reason brought an echo of a Van Gogh painting of a French cornfield. One day about 12 years ago, on a family camping holiday in France, I unexpectedly came across the view I had in my mind. Trying to find a go-cart track out in the countryside we stopped for a picnic at the edge of a cornfield. The sky was deep blue, the field stretched away red and yellow, there was the sound of crickets and the sun cast a warm blanket over the landscape. As in a film, Always the Sun came into my mind as the musical accompaniment. For me, at least, a song finding its place.


The Sea

There is a genre of song that is about a general sense of place but that each listener can relate in their own mind to a more specific time and place. Songs about the countryside, perhaps, or mountains or woods. Possibly the most extensive examples are about the sea, which lends itself to song lyrics as it did to poetry. I don’t mean so much those songs about events that happened at sea - like Procol Harum’s A Salty Dog or Gordon Lightfoot’s Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald - but just about the sea itself, the best of which enable the listener to identify with something in their own memory.

There is the classic La Mer, by Charles Trenet, which for some reason –possibly I heard it playing at the time on someone’s transistor radio –I always associate with Weymouth sea front: blue sea, sand and sandcastles with paper flags in them, ice-creams, Punch and Judy, donkey rides. The original words, apparently written on toilet paper on a French train, are actually a lot more lyrical –‘The sea, that one sees dancing along the clear gulfs, has silver reflections’ – than the much more chirpy English version that became Bobby Darin’s Beyond the Sea. Or there is the song Sailor by the American group Hem, which could be taken as a love song or a child’s lullaby. Listening to the words –‘over the ocean, pearls in the sky strung round the moon, pointing to you’ – the rich musical backing and the soft, almost murmuring, voice of singer Sally Ellyson, and the sea becomes a picture in a book of nursery rhymes. You can almost imagine Wynken, Blynken and Nod sailing past in their wooden shoe.

As someone who grew up on the south coast, the sea was part of my childhood, something always there on the landscape and marking the edges of my world. Most of the time it was a backdrop to the sort of scene described in Morrisey’s Every Day is Like Sunday, with the trudging back over wet sands and the tea and chips in the seafront cafes. There were times however, as on Portland Bill or Chesil Beach, where the storms, the undercurrents and the breaking waves on rocks, made the world of the seafront seem pretty irrelevant. It is for associations like this that a different sort of song is more fitting

The song here- by Fotheringay, the short-lived group built round Sandy Denny after she left Fairport Convention for the first time - is also just called The Sea but it paints a very different picture. It came from their 1970 album titled after the group and though some of it now sounds dated – file under Folk-Rock, early 1970’s – The Sea, fittingly given its subject matter, is timeless. The musical backing is one of those moments when words and music provided a perfect complement for the subject matter. Cymbals crash gently like waves, the bass carries the listener forward as an undercurrent and the  guitar solo by Jerry Donahue sparkles like splashing droplets in the sun. There is a feel of the Fleetwood Mac instrumental, Albatross, at times.

The mood, however, is deceptive. The sea here is not wild but is certainly not the millpond calm of Sailor or the poetic horizons of La Mer. The lyrics, penned by Sandy Denny, paint the sea as something relentless, even slightly sinister at times, with the power to bring human effort to nothing- ‘Fall and listen with your ears upon the paving stone, Is that what you hear? The coming of the sea’ There are also not many lines like this – ‘Sea flows under your doors in London town, And all your defences are all broken down’ – that could have come from a song any time in the last 2000 years.

Whether Sandy Denny based the song on a view from a particular piece of coastline or not doesn’t really matter, for the listener will bring to mind their own place to fit it. For me, the association is with being on Brighton Pier one dark wintry evening, with stars bright in a clear sky. The sea wasn’t particularly rough but it crashed endlessly against the pier supports, with spray rising to splash my face, so that the whole structure felt fragile and the blackness below was a reminder that the whole facade of a seaside town can be pretty vulnerable. The coming of the sea.

Link to song



The song Oxford Street, based on adolescent memories of growing up in Hatfield, highlighted the genre of the song about small towns, typically about the homogeneity and stifling of creativity that such places can produce. Yet ‘small town’ can have a different meaning. Some capital cities are so big that you can only relate to a particular chosen district, whether it’s Stoke Newington, Cheetham Hill or Greenwich Village. Others manage to be big cities but still with a small town atmosphere, a term that in this context has a positive connotation. They are compact enough to be able to walk right across, they seem accessible and informal, more relaxed than places like London or New York. One writer said of Venice: ‘Venice is a small town with sweet, small town manners’ (Judith Martin in No Vulgar Hotel :the Desire and Pursuit of Venice).

The same could be said of several of the Scandinavian cities. In fact, just as it is said that visiting the Isle of Wight transports the visitor back in time to the 1950’s, so it easy to feel you have gone to the past in many parts of Norway, Sweden or Finland. It is not just the wooden houses and cobbled streets. In a conference venue in one of the smaller towns one might stumble upon not only a group such as Herman’s Hermits still on the road with original drummer Barry Whitwam and still doing I’m into Something Good – bringing to mind those Japanese soldiers who appeared from the jungle on Pacific islands in the 1970’s and 1980’s unaware that WW2 was over - but musical outfits that one might think only existed now in the pages of pop historical memorabilia: Johnny and the Hurricanes! (Big hit - Red River Rock 1959) The Spotnicks! (Big hit- Hava Nagila,1963)

So Copenhagen is one such place that has retained a small town atmosphere, with its gabled houses, narrow streets and churches. Another is Oslo, Norway’s biggest city with a population of half a million or so. Though it has a subway system, most of the centre is easily reached by walking and it isn’t hard to feel a sense of accessibility about the whole place, from the harbour to Vigeland Park. There is a novel called Hunger by the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun that is worth reading before visiting Oslo. It is set in the Oslo of 1890 (Kristiana) and can be read for what it is: a compelling account of a penniless writer wandering the streets of the city in an increasingly desperate state of hunger.(By page 108, readers are likely to be searching for a snack if they hadn’t eaten before starting the book). But is also worth reading because of the descriptions of some of the streets and squares and parks that haven’t changed that much in the last 100 years or so - the place that the author/writer calls "that strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him”. Dating from about the same time is the famous painting, Munch’s The Scream, set on a road overlooking Oslo.

The song here is simply called Oslo, by the Oslo-based Little Hands of Asphalt, largely the musical project of singer-songwriter Sjur Lyseid. It came out on the Leap Years album in 2009 but is timeless enough to have come from almost any era. The harmonies and soft melody sound at times like Teenage Fan Club of the mid-1990’s.The harmonica that comes in towards the end could be Donovan circa 1965.The lyrics have some witty touches- ‘But your good intent was clear when you split and left me here, to my regret I left my high horse upstairs’ – and they revert to the double meaning of ‘small town’. The song is a slightly awkward, introspective account of an adolescent romance breaking up or a friendship that has ended –but ‘I’ll be seeing you around, because Oslo is a small, small town’. In that regard, it could be the personal statement from someone growing up in any number of towns and finding the horizons too limited. It does also, however, have strong echoes of Oslo - the swimming in the lake and the closeness to nature, the celebration of the sunny summer months before the winter darkness sets in, a bit self-effacing, a slight touch of melancholy,

I had a possibly unusual experience of Oslo. I was staying in a hotel/conference centre an hour or so away and for reasons I never really understood in a country where gender equality has been long entrenched, women travelling with their husbands on the country bus into Oslo got a reduced fare. I therefore trundled back and forward a few times as a pretend husband so conference attendees could travel cheaply to shop in Oslo. However, it did enable me to wander round the streets and parks like the character in Hunger, though obviously not reduced to eating my pencil. A small town still at heart, perhaps, but probably not as easy to understand as it might first seem to a visitor.
Link to song


And If Venice Is Sinking

The column on Paris showed how easy it was for songs to pick up on the common stereotypes of such a city. Perhaps the only other city that rivals Paris for that, at least in Europe, is Venice, a place with a resident population of around 60,000 but visited by some 20 million every year. Most will bring with them a collection of expectations of what to see gleaned from postcards, TV, films, songs: the canals and gondolas, the churches and cathedrals, the Bridge of Sighs. Some even get what they want from a distance. At The Venetian in Las Vegas, visitors can experience the wonders of Venice without the hassle of actually going there. As its publicity blurb puts it, ‘ Escape the hustle and bustle of the Las Vegas Strip with a relaxing gondola ride at the Venetian. From the soothing sound of water lapping the sides of the gondola to the eloquent singing of the gondoliers, passengers will feel as if they have truly been transported to Italy...Surrounded by a ceiling emulating blue sky as well as architecture inspired by Venice landmarks, a gondola trip down the Grand Canal delivers a unique Vegas experience’

Equally, pop songs about Venice have often tended to the O Sole Mio to It’s Now Or Never to Just One Cornetto end of music, redolent of operatic gondoliers proffering an ice-cream to the sound of rippling strings .Like Connie Francis’s Summertime in Venice (‘I dream all the winter long of mandolins that play our song’) or Perry Como’s Mandolins in the Moonlight (‘in tune with the strings of my heart’). Or the string-laden pathos of Charles Aznavour’ s How Sad Venice Can Be (‘When the mandolins play a song she sung for me, One unforgotten day’).They certainly like their mandolins there. A bit of an exception lyric-wise was Steve Harley’s Rain in Venice, though his assertion that ‘Love has flooded my heart, there’s rain in Venice for the first time’ is not really true. It rains in Venice quite a lot. When I was there one July there was such a sudden torrential downpour it caused the waiters to come racing out of the cafes and restaurants to grab tables, chairs and canopies before they were swept away into the canals.

The song here, And If Venice Is Sinking, recorded by the Canadian group Spirit of the West in 1993, is very much a tourist view of Venice and was written by the group’s singer, John Mann, after his honeymoon there. (The laugh that can be heard during the lines about Marini’s Little Man is apparently from his wife, the actress Jill Baum, joining in the backing singing). Musically it is a joyous celebration of the city from someone – like many of the annual visitors - who has fallen in love with it and is willing to go down with it like a ship if it eventually sinks into its own lagoons.: a possible reality that has troubled the city for years. There is the sound of the accordion and mandolin as might be expected but also a tuba and a rollicking sing- along chorus that veers between a Celtic folk dance and a German polka.

Lyrically, it takes a rather different slant from the usual one of serenading gondoliers. Instead, it captures another side of Venice that many visitors take away memories of. As you go about by foot or boat, there is a constant sense of religion and ornate and crumbling history, not just from the grand architecture of buildings such as the Basilica di Santa Maria but from the icons, candles, statuettes, window boxes of flowers seen down every alleyway or canal side. In a different musical context, some of the imagery in the words –‘they come in bent backed,, creeping across the floor all dressed in black... come to kiss their dead’ – could seem darker, drawing the listener into the shadowy and eerie Venice of the film Dont Look Now. Here, they seem the recollections of a visitor to Venice awestruck, christened with wonder, by what he sees. Equally, the Marino Marini priapic Little Rider sculpture that caused the merriment on Mann’s honeymoon is at one of the museums and art galleries - the Guggenheim Museum on the Grand Canal- that is firmly on the tourist trail.

Venice is a strange place that seems to exist in its own world, with its own special light and sky. It can, at times, seem as though you have wandered into a Canaletto painting. You can look from the top of the Campanile at the people and pigeons in the mosaic square below and know that millions of others have shared the same view - yet that and all the sights down the alleys and canals seem somehow a unique experience. Thomas Mann once described Venice as ‘half fairy tale and half tourist trap’. Somehow the fairy tale part becomes the reality and the one you take away with you.

Link to song


I Often Dream of Trains

Trains and cars and planes, as Bacharach and David might have put it, though that would perhaps sounded a little less romantic than the actual line. So after Heathrow airport and the M62, the train. The train journey and the railway station have long been part of the language of songs. The record that sparked off the skiffle era in Britain, which in turn provided the catalyst for the Beatles and the other early sixties groups-Rock Island Line – was about a train and recent comments on this blog have pointed out just how many train songs there have been. Many have titles and lyrics that shimmer with the promise of adventure and exotic travel: Marrakesh Express, Trans-Europe Express, This Train Will Be Taking No Passengers. I did, however, experience a tinge of disappointment in reading that the last train of the day from L.A to Georgia leaves at 2.30pm and that leaving on the midnight train would never really be feasible.

As with driving songs, however, songs about trains show a difference in the American and British perspective. The American genre tends to be in the spirit of car songs, heading off west to unexplored territory with the spirit of independence "Everyone loves the sound of a train in the distance”, sang Paul Simon, calling to mind the travel writer Paul Theroux’s comment: “Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.”

There are far fewer songs in the English version of this genre and the perspectives tend to be different. As with motorways, there isn’t the physical space to imagine an expanding frontier so trains and stations have come to symbolise something else in songs. In part, they mean departure, the train pulling out and loss. UB 40’s She Caught the Train (‘They said she'd take the train ,I ran to catch the train, Oh my, the train is gone’) or The Sundays’ Cry (‘I’m standing on a platform, Now I’m staring from a train’). However, in England they can also signify a journey that is less about entering physical space and more about another dimension-the past, real or mythical. The age of the steam train and all it signified in terms of a different picture of England hangs heavy still, decades after it passed away, which is why The Railway Children became such an iconic film for some people.

The song here, I Often Dream of Trains by Robyn Hitchcock, picks up on this idea of trains as metaphor, mixed up with some semi-Freudian analysis of a relationship. It is from his 1984 album of the same name, which also included another set of musings on transport from days past, Trams of Old London (‘Trams of Old London, taking my baby into the past...on a clear night you can see where the rails used to be’). Robyn Hitchcock was/is something of an acquired taste. Some of his work is very reminiscent of the post-Pink Floyd Syd Barrett, though perhaps more self-conscious, with an eccentric, surreal, at times whimsical, Englishness also found in artists like Viv Stanshall of the Bonzos.

I Often Dream of Trains is a characteristically odd mix of the banal and poetic imagination. There is the image of a train beside a frozen lake and summer turning to winter overnight, painting a rather dream-like and stark landscape suddenly brought down with a bump to the destinations of Reading and Basingstoke, presumably picked for the ordinariness. I once lived in Reading –judged at one time as the most average town in Britain - for four years and had several train journeys to it, none of which I have ever dreamed about. I also once saw a TV interview with Pete Staples of The Troggs, who hailed from Basingstoke’s neighbouring town of Andover. He remarked something like ‘There was a lot going on in Andover. It wasn’t like, well, Basingstoke.’

The surreal bit about this is that the train journey in the real world here doesn’t exist either. Hitchcock has described it as “a kind of imaginary route in my head that goes from Southampton to Oxford. I don't think it ever really existed, but I often find myself on it, in a very old railway carriage,” It’s the sort of train journey that might well go through Adlestrop-the station of Edward Thomas’s famous poem of the same name-as well as Basingstoke. Trains, particularly in England, can sometimes retain the romance of travel longer when they stay in the imagination.

Link to song