The column this week is intended as a kind of tribute to a recent contributor to the comments on this blog, ex-Shadow Jet Harris, who died on 18 March
To date, all the columns have been about songs and their associations with places but it is not only words, of course, that carry meaning and leave memories. Often, in fact, it is the melody itself that can act as a Proustian trigger for recollection, so that a snippet of music can waft you back to sitting on the beach as a child or on a boat on the Seine. The association for the listener can be totally different from what was intended because it depends on the circumstance in which it was heard. Eye-Level, the theme from Van der Valk, for example, - mentioned in the column on Holland Song - reminds me not of Amsterdam but Morecambe. That is because I was staying in rented accommodation there that had a strange coin-operated TV set which would show, when you put your money in, whatever channel had been programmed by the owner. I came across an episode of Van de Valk when I put in my 50p, or whatever it was: hence the memory of Morecambe sea front rather than the canals of Amsterdam when I hear the tune. Likewise, it is difficult to hear The Blue Danube without thinking of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, rather than the Danube itself.
Instrumentals can, of course, be very evocative of place - in the instruments used, in the mood, in the very rhythms, so that hearing Salsa and thinking of Cuba is inevitable. St Etienne are effective in conjuring up a dreamy London landscape in some of their instrumental pieces ; or listen to some of the atmospheric tracks by St Etienne-influenced duo, Keep Shelly in Athens, and the mood is of a Greek beach sunset or, in the case of their Fokionos Negri Street track, sitting in a sun-drenched Athens street cafe.
They can also be misleading. Take the 1956 UK Number One hit, Poor People of Paris, by Trinidad-born pianist Winifred Atwell, one of the first black artists to get into the UK charts. This is actually an instrumental version of an Edith Piaf song, La Goulante de Pauvre Jean (The Ballad of Poor John), about a French hustler/gigolo. The story goes that the English music publisher mis-heard the title over the phone as ‘pauvre gens’ and called the tune Poor People of Paris, the ‘of Paris’ bit presumably added to signify it was French. In truth, this was probably needed as the boogie-woogie style of Winifred Atwell conjured up a knees-up in a pub rather than the boulevards of Paris. (Both versions are below to indicate the transformation in the tune that took place to accommodate cultural expectations. The rather eerie sound that comes in halfway through the Winifred Atwell version is a musical saw courtesy of record producer Joe Meek, the Telstar man, a decade before the Beach Boys used a theremin to get a similar sound in Good Vibrations - and a lot cheaper).
This little episode gives a very mixed message about Britain then. On the one hand Winifred Atwell had a string of hits in the UK at a time when she was barred from appearing on the American Ed Sullivan Show in case her colour upset viewers. On the other, it seems to bear out the column on European Lover, that the British at that time liked something vaguely ‘continental’ as long as it was put in a familiar package. Edith Piaf would be much too French: better to have a ragtime style that had been current for the previous 20 years or so and give it a title about Paris. Having listened to that, why would you actually need to go to Paris? It also says something about the fondness for sing-along piano tunes at that time, possibly an attempt to recreate the communal solidarity of the Blitz years and already tinged with nostalgia. When Winifred Atwell’s star waned, her place was taken by another pianist Russ Conway, who also had a string of hits in the late 50’s in a similar style - he also had an unusual characteristic for a pianist in that he had cut off part of a finger in a bread slicer accident and later in his career nearly severed a thumb in a car door. As late as 1965 German pianist Horst Jankowski had a UK hit with the jaunty Walk in the Black Forest.
The most successful British group for producing instrumental hits-and the biggest UK group of the pre-Beatles era- were The Shadows. Though staying virtually unknown in America they were for many years huge across much of Europe. In his 1969 history of pop, WopBopaLooBop LopBamBoom, Nik Cohn said of the Shadows: “ Even now, if you’re traipsing around the backwaters of Morocco and you stumble across a local group, they’ll sound exactly like the Shadows, flat guitars and jigalong melodies and little leg kicks and all. In Spain or Italy or Yugoslavia they’re regarded as the pop giants of all time. Elvis Schmelvis, Beatles Schmeatles. Viva los Shads! “. Their success was helped by two things, I think. Britain got its first guitar hero with Hank Marvin, who gave his name to a new verb of ‘hanking’: teenage boys vanishing to their rooms with a tennis racquet to pretend being an axe-man in front of the mirror. They were also given in the early years an image edge by bassist Jet Harris, whose quiffed dyed blond hair and reluctance to play the show-biz game gave an air of cool reminiscent of the Fonz in Happy Days.
The tracks here are the ‘A’ and ‘B’ sides of the last record he did with the group in 1962 before departing for a solo career and both are nominally about places. Stars Fell on Stockton is a throw-away ‘B’ side, with whistling a la Hampstead Way, though this bit does rather sound if the Seven Dwarves had wandered into the studio on their way to see Snow White. It was apparently written by the group after Jet Harris crashed his car after a performance at the Stockton Globe Theatre and was fined for driving without ‘L’ plates but gives no impression of Stockton, a northern town not to be confused with Stockport. The ‘A’ side ,Wonderful Land ,had the distinction of remaining at Number One longer than any other single in the 60’s, including the Beatles hits.
It is very much a tune of its era, suggesting less the wonderful land of Oz and more the Britain of the period between the ending of post-WW2 austerity and the explosion of Swinging London and the ‘sixties’ proper. A time of black and white TV with 2 channels (only one if you didn’t want to buy a licence) and summer holidays on the beach or, if really exotic, a caravan park in Wales or Somerset, whilst the local funfair blasts out Apache and FBI. However, also at a time when the charts were full of anodyne American ‘Bobby’s’-Darin, Rydell, Vinton, Vee – it is a reminder of a strand of distinctly British pop that flourished before the Beatles: and a brief period when a bass player from Willesden was one of the coolest faces on the musical block.