Welcome to the Isle of Wight

Since the time of the ancient Greeks and the travels of Odysseus, the whole notion of ‘islands’ has drawn people in a romantic fascination. The history of literature is full of novels that reflect this allure: Treasure Island, Coral Island, Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson. In real life, the rich, the artistic and the drop-out have sought inspiration or escape on an island. Lawrence Durrell on Corfu, D H Lawrence on Sardinia. Tove Jansson, author of the 'Moomin' books, lived much of her life on a small island, Klovharu, in the Gulf of Finland. John Lennon handed over an Irish island, Dorrinish, to Sid Rawles and his Digger band to start a commune there. Agnetha Faltskog disappeared off for years to the Swedish island of Ekero when Abba broke up.

Songs about islands have generally followed this romanticism. Harry Belafonte sang of an Island in the Sun:”all my days I will sing in praise of your forest waters and shining sand”. Weezer did a song with the same title: “On an island in the sun. We’ll be playing and having fun” . The Beach Boys scored a late career hit with Kokomo, which rattled off a whole load of exotic islands. Blondie went for Island of Lost Souls. The Springfields settled for an Island of Dreams.

The British have tended to look to the Mediterranean or Caribbean islands for their holiday fantasies but it does have plenty of its own, including Jura, where Orwell wrote 1984. The largest off England, however, is the Isle of Wight and its popular image is probably as far away from the exotic fantasies of the above as you can get –definitely more towards the comfy end of the spectrum. There was a short-lived time when the IOW Festivals were the epitome of cool happening. In 1969, Bob Dylan chose to play there over Woodstock. In 1970 a line-up including Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, the Who and Miles Davis attracted an estimated 600,000, more than Woodstock. (Though Joni Mitchell did actually attend this one, it didn’t inspire any songs starting ’By the time I got to Afton Down’...). In 1971 the Isle of Wight Act was passed, preventing unauthorised gatherings of more than 5000 and that was that - the festival baton passed to Glastonbury.

Though annual festivals started again a few years ago, the Isle of Wight is largely known in the popular imagination for two things. The first is as one of the ‘this sounds unbelievable but maybe it is true’ statements that regularly turn up – in this case ,’if all the world’s population stood shoulder to shoulder they could fit on the Isle of Wight’. Statisticians disagree on this one, with the balance towards ‘probably not. ’The second is as the place to go for a trip that goes back to the England of the 1950’s, for a traditional bucket and spade week or two on the beach or the sort of holiday that Enid Blyton’s Famous Five might have had: bicycles, hikes along the cliffs past lighthouses, isolated coves, ice-cream and lashings of ginger beer. There can be simple pleasures – getting glass phials of coloured sand at Alum Bay; seeing an animated Allosaurus singing the Eton Boating Song in the Blackgang Chine amusement park; getting on a bus at Sandown, waiting till a woman gets on and exclaiming, “She’s got a ticket to Ryde”. And there are also little surprises. One might come across island resident Jet Harris, the original bad boy bass player and founder member of the Shadows, who lost their charismatic edge when he left.

Listeners often expect songs to reflect the image of the place they are about, so mandolins and strings for Venice, accordions for Paris, waltz-time for Vienna. New York fits a song like the Lovin Spoonful’s Summer in the City, with its snare drum/pneumatic drill intro and traffic sounds. With this in mind, what sort of song would fit the Isle of Wight? Brass band music or a folk song, or something that would suit the feeling of going back in time a few decades: a Craig Douglas song perhaps? Reggae, even if reggae-lite, probably wouldn’t come to mind. Reggae has, of course, been part of the British music scene since the early 60’s, with Millie Small’s bluebeat My Boy Lollipop probably being the first UK hit in 1964. Over the years it has had its highs and lows. There was Susan Cadogan, a librarian from Kingston (Jamaica) University, taking Millie Jackson’s Hurts So Good into the UK charts in 1975. There was also Paul Nicholas taking Reggae Like It Used To Be into the UK Charts in 1976. See his song and marvel at some dancing that is surely not like anything used to be. ( Trivia note. The 2 women dancers in the clip had appeared as scary blonde twins in the 1960 film Village of the Damned) .

Reggae has done plenty of songs about places - like Steel Pulse’s Handsworth Revolution or Sandra Cross’s Country Living - but rarely about family seaside resorts. However, the 2009 offering by Derek Sandy, Welcome to the Isle of Wight, is just that, with a song that seems destined for use by the Tourist Board with its praise for the place. In some ways it is from the same genre as Taking a Trip Up to Abergavenny in that the place described in song exists more in the imagination or parallel universe than reality. Just as a visitor to Abergavenny might be disappointed by the lack of sunshine forever and paradise people so a visitor to the Isle of Wight should not really expect a tropical paradise after a journey over the sea, on the ferry across the Solent from Southampton or Portsmouth. They may well find it fits the laidback mood of the tune: whether it is the best place they have  ever seen is, of course, up to them.


Week - end a Rome

Some places have stock sayings or proverbs associated with then that immediately spring to mind. ‘If you are tired of London, you are tired of life’, or ‘See Naples and die’. Rome has perhaps more than most. It wasn’t built in a day; all roads lead to it; when in Rome... In fact, all of these have turned up in song titles- by Morcheeba, the Stranglers and Phil Ochs respectively.

It is also one of those places that writers have waxed lyrical about over the centuries. ‘A poem pressed into service as a city’; or ‘The city of echoes, the city of illusions, and the city of yearning.’ Like Athens, tourists flock to see its antiquities, the Coliseum, the Catacombs and Pantheon. But, like Paris, it has also had an added dimension of chic cool, with its bars and boutiques, coffee bars, the scooters and leather jackets. Think of some of the iconic cinematic images of Rome: the Trevi Fountain scene with Anita Ekburg in La Dolce Vita or Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck whizzing round the streets on a Vespa in Roman Holiday.

Songs about Rome have tended to the romantic. Three Coins in the Fountain set the tone back in 1954, with the song and film actually adding to one of the city’s legends . Since then the story has been that throwing 3 coins in the Trevi fountain is lucky, overlooking the fact that 3 coins were thrown in the film/song because there were 3 characters. By such trivialities are some myths made. (A similar one might be the famous Zorba’s dance by Alan Bates and Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek, copied by sozzled diners in countless Greek restaurants ever since. According to Quinn it wasn’t a traditional Cretan dance: he made up the shuffling dance steps at the time because he had injured his foot.). A string of other songs took forward the notion of a city of romance. Petula Clark sang of Romance in Rome; Perry Como of Arrivaderci Rome; Elvis Presley promised that he would ’make a wish in every fountain’ in Heart of Rome (unlikely given his lack of travel outside the USA). It took Bob Dylan and When I Paint My Masterpiece to put Rome in a different light.

The song here, Week-end a Rome, goes more for the chic bohemian image. The song has a complicated history. It first appeared in 1984 on the electro pop album La Notte, La Notte by French singer Etienne Daho. In 1995, it turned up - remixed and with totally new English lyrics - as the St Etienne hit, He’s on the Phone. In 2010 Vanessa Paradis went back to the original and slowed it down with a gentle bossa-nova rhythm , with Daho popping up to provide the spoken Italian segments. Daho is only known in the UK, if at all, for his work with St Etienne in the 90’s. Vanessa Paradis, however, first appeared in the UK charts in 1988 at the age of 15 with Joe Le Taxi, becoming one of a small number of artists to have scored a hit there with a foreign language song – joining the Birkin/Gainsbourg collaboration, of course ,as well as the Singing Nun ( Dominique), Kyu Sakomoto ( Sukiyaki,) Plastique Bertrand ( Ca Plane pour Moi), Yolanda Be Cool (We Speak No Americano), and Los Lobos ( La Bamba) amongst others.

With lyrics in French and Italian, some of it slang, it is the general feel of the song that hits an English listener first, making Rome sound the epitome of stylish cool. The general gist of the lyrics seem clear. It is raining in Paris and the song’s narrator suggests that a weekend for two in Rome-perhaps Florence and Milan too - would give a taste of the good life : imagine driving with the wind in your hair and the radio playing. ‘Because we are young, Italian weekend’. In the video accompanying the Daho version, he is seen sitting in a cafe under a poster for the Antonioni film, La Notte (La Nuit), suggesting the ‘La notte, la notte’ refrain has a cultural reference as well.

So far so good, There are, however, some tricky bits. Take these lines:

"Afin de coincer la bulle dans ta bulle, D'poser mon coeur bancal dans ton bocal, ton aquarium."

A literal translation suggests the intriguing statement:

"To jam the bubble in your bubble ,to put my wobbly heart in your jar, your aquarium"

It may well be that it reads differently in French. Or they could be lines left over from a Serge Gainsbourg song.

My own experience of Rome was a day rather than a weekend, during a family holiday in Terracina an hour or two to the south. The Italian couple who managed the apartment in Terracina spoke no English so conversation was comfortingly predictable, with variations on a fixed set of questions. Stanco? (tired). Fame? (hungry). Caldo? (hot). Freddo? (cold). Early one morning the husband dropped us at the local station to get the train to Rome, where we spent a hectic tourist day seeing the Coliseum, Trevi Fountain, and Vatican and having gelato and coffee. When we returned late in the evening he was waiting for us at Terracina station and asked us about the day in Rome. Stanco? Fame? Freddo? What he meant was ‘Rome, Pour la douceur de vivre, et pour le fun’

Link to Etienne Daho song

Link to Vanessa Paradis song


Waterloo Station

Mention has been made before of the nostalgic lure of the train and the station in British psyche, a way of time travel to the past. In the very first column of this blog, Waterloo Sunset showed the interplay of past and present and the repository of memories lodged at Waterloo Station that the song tapped into. Ray Davies revisited the same place and the themes of nostalgia, regret and a lost England in Return to Waterloo in the mid-1980’s. In 2006, both station and song cropped up again in a record by another artist also associated with the heyday of Swinging London, Jane Birkin.

Despite a dozen or more albums and the 50+ films over the years since appearing in The Knack and Blow Up in 1966, Jane Birkin will probably always be first associated with her 1969 Number One record with Serge Gainsbourg, Je t’aime...moi non plus. Gainsbourg had previously recorded the song with Brigitte Bardot (though it wasn’t released till years after) and had also apparently asked Marianne Faithfull – who later said, ‘Hah! He asked everyone’. It is the Birkin collaboration, however, that became the definitive one and established a number of ‘firsts’ in the UK.

1)The first banned record to get to Number One. It was also banned in many other European countries, though radio play in France was only restricted until 11pm. Top of the Pops got round the problem of the ban by getting a group of session musicians to record an instrumental version called Love at First Sight, which sort of missed the point but promptly became a hit in its own right. At least mums and dads could safely tap their feet as Herbie Flowers, Clem Cattini and co doodled away.

2) The first foreign language song to get to Number One. The title itself , Je t’aime... moi non plus, was a sort of Gallic existentialist joke –Woman: ‘I love you’. Man: ‘Me neither’ – that was totally lost on the British. Instead, schoolboys searched their French dictionaries to find what on earth Gainsbourg was muttering about with ‘ l'amour physique est sans issue’ and could it perhaps work as a chat-up line on the next school trip to Calais.

(3) More debatable this –it is often solemnly cited as the ‘rudest pop record ever ’. When, rather predictably, a comic and very British version involving golf was done in 1971 by Frankie Howerd and June Whitfield, it was also banned by the BBC, presumably on the strength of the title alone.

However, despite Je t’aime, her relationship with Gainsbourg and the decades living in France, on Waterloo Station Jane Birkin sounds so awfully British that it could be Mary Poppins singing – which leads to the uncomfortable thought of Mary Poppins doing Je t’aime...moi non plus with Serge Gainsbourg. In some ways Waterloo Station, from her 2006 album Fiction, almost sounds incomplete. The song was written for Birkin by Rufus Wainwright and she seems to have difficulty fitting some lyrics to the tune, stretching the word ‘Abba’ to such an extent it is scarcely recognisable. There is also a point towards the end where it sounds as if the song has run out of steam, before suddenly picking up again.

However, there is also something haunting and poignant about it, something to do with Jane Birkin’s slightly weary tone over the delicate backing and shimmering guitar work of Johnny Marr, with the 'la la la la la' refrain from Waterloo Sunset that drifts in and out like a puff of smoke from a steam engine and with the theme of re-visiting the past. This emerged in several of the songs on Fiction. In Home, a song again written for her - this one by Neil Hannon of Divine Comedy – she wistfully recalls ’skipping ropes and pipe smoke, church bells..., marmalade on cold toast, endless summer holidays’ and , in a oddly effective video of meeting herself as a child, wonders where home is; London? Paris? Neither?

In this song, Waterloo Station takes on the guise of a portal to the past, a version of Over the Rainbow. Imagine this. Jane Birkin returns to London from years living in Paris. As the Eurostar pulls into Waterloo there is a blur of memories. Though it is 2006 it is also a sun drenched afternoon in the summer of 1967. The new Kinks release , Waterloo Sunset, plays from a transistor radio and Blow-Up is still showing at the cinema outside the concourse. It is also the summer of 1951 and a porter helps a young Jane Birkin climb into a carriage with her parents en route to the Isle of Wight for their summer holidays. No Waterloo Sunset then but Ray Davies passes through the station with his father to see the Festival of Britain on the South Bank. Fast forward to 2010. On the now disused Eurostar terminal, (the link having shifted to St Pancras in 2007), a staging of The Railway Children, set in an Edwardian golden summer a hundred years before, is taking place. Forward again to 2011. Ray Davies is Director of the Meltdown Festival, a few minutes away from Waterloo Station and celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain.

If you miss one memory there, another will be along in a minute.


Hey Manhattan

On my first trip to New York I spent an idle moment trying to compose an email consisting of names of songs about the place. It started off something like, ‘I am an Englishman in New York, having arrived in Manhattan by a Big Yellow Taxi to stay in the apartment of a Native New Yorker. Looking over the Manhattan Skyline, however, I realise I am not The Only Living Boy in New York...’. It didn’t progress much further. However, it did make me think about the significance of names here. The subject of the last column – Harlem - is, of course, part of Manhattan but the names themselves carry a very different set of associations : rather as, in London, Soho signifies something different from the larger area of Westminster.

Perhaps more than any other part of New York, just the name ‘Manhattan’ carries before it a history of images from songs, films and TV, images that were cinematically summarised in the opening credits of Woody Allen’s Manhattan as Rhapsody in Blue plays. These have become so pervasive that it has become hard to separate reality and myth, perhaps not surprising given the importance of the advertising industry there However, the generic picture that has persisted seems to hark back to a specific ‘golden age’, roughly from post - WW2 to the mid-sixties. It is the Manhattan of Madison Avenue and Mad Men; of Holly Golightly and Breakfast at Tiffany’s; of Frank Sinatra’s Wee Small Hours of the Morning that has lingered in the popular imagination, rather than, say, the Manhattan of Wall Street and the 1980’s.

It is the triumph of a mythical era in the UK as much as the USA itself: hence the popularity of Mad Men or the peculiar success of the various Rat Pack Experiences (Manhattan plus Las Vegas), coming to a theatre, club, pub or corporate event near you soon so the ‘ unforgettable halcyon days of hip, cool and style’ can re-appear at Hainault Golf Club. In this phenomenon of buying into another country’s myths I am reminded of a radio interview I heard a few years ago with Dennis Locorierre (ex-Dr Hook singer ), who had been asked to join a reformed Lovin’ Spoonful as vocalist. His reply was “I don’t want to sing my old hits. Why would I want to sing someone else’s old hits?”.The same comment could apply to mythologies.

There have, of course, been plenty of songs inspired by Manhattan, from the Hart-Rodgers classic - “We’ll turn Manhattan into an isle of joy “ – onwards, a tune turned into an evocation of a smoky New York jazz club by Sonny Rollins’ saxophone interpretation. In Manhattan Skyline, Julia Fordham compared the iconic skyline to a doomed and broken relationship between a New Yorker and Londoner (containing the winceable line, ‘You are my Ireland, I am your ‘Nam’). Kate Voegele extended this metaphor by describing the lover in Manhattan from the Sky as ‘ You are my Manhattan from the sky, you look so neat and tidy when I am way up high’. In a further display of lyricism the singer in Death Cab for Cutie fantasised about a marching band of Manhattan coming out of his mouth ‘to make your name sing,and bend through alleys and bounce off all the buildings.” (Marching Bands of Manhattan)

The song here, Hey Manhattan by Prefab Sprout, neatly sums up the pervasive image of Manhattan in one line - ‘hey Manhattan, doobie doo’. For a while in the late 1980’s it appeared as though Prefab Sprout could be huge. The King of Rock ‘n Roll was a big hit in 1988, Stevie Wonder and Pete Townsend guested on the album, From Langley Park to Memphis, from which this song came and Prefab Sprout mainman Paddy McAloon was spoken of as a lyricist in the same league as Sondheim and Cole Porter. It didn’t really work out that way, however, and the Prefab Sprout distinctive sound, with the half-whispered vocals, was not to everyone’s taste: ‘too-clever by half’ was a comment sometimes heard.

Hey Manhattan is perhaps not one of their best songs but shows McAloon’s typically neat ways with words. Written as a kind of faux show-tune, it manages to look behind the myths of Manhattan –‘just to think the poor could live here too’ - whilst recognising their allure: ‘These myths we can’t undo, they lie in wait for you, We live them till they're true’. You see in a place what you want to see: for the narrator, this includes Sinatra, Fifth Avenue and the Carlyle Hotel, where Kennedy owned his own apartment. My own initial experience of Manhattan was more prosaic but probably more enjoyable. My daughter took me to the Morning Star diner (I went in vaguely expecting, from the name, a communist menu) between 50th and 51st Street : waffles, eggs over easy and not a doobie-doo to be heard.


Bells of Harlem

A residential and business section of upper Manhattan, New York City, bounded roughly by 110th St., the East River and Harlem River, 168th St., Amsterdam Ave., and Morningside Park. That doesn’t sound a likely basis for a song. Call it Harlem however, and mental images change. From a faraway viewpoint, impressions of Harlem come from a pot-pourri of images: the Harlem Globetrotters, the Harlem Boys' Choir, the Cotton Club, Bill Clinton’s office, the churches – and the Apollo Theatre, a fabled Shangri-La for lovers of soul music, where Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and Sarah Vaughan once played. There was also the book, Manchild in the Promised Land, the autobiography of Claude Brown, which left a lasting impression on readers from its memorable and vivid picture of growing up in Harlem in the 1950’s. The title of the book came from the ‘promised land’ image that New York and Harlem once held for black Southern share-croppers, before they actually arrived there.

As with most districts of New York, Harlem has had its share of songs about it over the years, adding to the mythology surrounding the place: a mythology that U2’s Angel of Harlem picked up on with its references to Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Some, like many songs about Liverpool, have focused on the vibrancy amidst the poverty. The Drifters’ Midsummer Night in Harlem, a 1974 release, sung of ‘a kind of smell in the air like the whole world’s cooking, so many girls and they’re so good looking, big sugar daddies sitting in their caddies’. This particular line-up was Charlie Thomas’ Drifters: the Drifters’ market in the UK at that time was largely sewn up by the line-up featuring Johnny Moore and the record did not sell that well there.( The Drifters had a notoriously large number of versions circulating at various times. On a walk along Hadrian’s Wall, I saw a country pub miles from anywhere with a poster advertising the forthcoming, and frankly rather surprising, appearance in the saloon bar of The Drifters, ‘direct from the USA’,).

A few years previously to the Drifters song, Bill Withers had released his own Harlem with a similar sentiment, recalling the drink and parties on Saturday night and Sunday best the following morning:’ Saturday night in Harlem, hey everything’s alright, you can really swing and shake your pretty thing, the parties are out of sight... Sunday morning here in Harlem, now everybody’s all dressed up”. One of the best known songs here, Spanish Harlem, recorded by Ben E King, Aretha Franklin and Laura Nyro amongst others, was positively lyrical about the place.

Other songs have given voice to a different Harlem. Rappers Immortal Technique and Jim Jones, in their Harlem Streets, Harlem Renaissance and Harlem gave a kind of updated version of Manchild in the Promised Land.:“ The subway stays packed like a multi-cultural slave ship, It's rush hour, 2:30 to 8, non stoppin'.........It's like Cambodia the killing fields uptown, We live in distress and hang the flag upside down”. The gentrification of Harlem - rezoning - means little but more exploitation..

However, the song here, Bells of Harlem by the Dave Rawlings Machine, takes a totally different approach and echoes the title of Claude Brown’s book. Here, Harlem is less a geographical district of New York and more a vision, both spiritual and political - a promised land. Though it came out in 2009, as a Rawlings/Gillian Welch composition on the A Friend of a Friend album, it sounds like something Bob Dylan might have done round the time of Chimes of Freedom in the Civil Rights era. with a nod to Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come. In fact, musically and lyrically it is drenched in the past. Part of the final verse – “The Brazos rose, ain’t no more cane, we ground it down to sorghum” – is a deliberate lift from the tune Ain’t No More Cane, a work song of chain-gang prisoners cutting sugar cane along the River Brazos in Texas; recorded by Leadbelly and later by Lonnie Donegan and then Dylan and the Band. In this respect Bells of Harlem could be seen as a kind of modern spiritual reverie of hope and redemption.

It could also perhaps be heard as a comment on the Obama election. On a trip to visit my daughter in New York we went to Harlem - in part to see the Apollo - a few days before the November 2008 Presidential election. Amidst the street stalls selling 'Yes We Can' badges and t-shirts and shops with cakes with Obama’s face on them, there was also a sense of anticipation and excitement about what the election results might bring. On the night of November 4, at least, the church bells rang on 125th Street and beyond..

Link to song