Reminisce Part 2

The overall theme of these columns has been the interplay between place, song and listener in acting as a trigger for memories or impressions. The ability of music to do this is well known, a Proustian effect by which hearing even a snatch of a song can bring recognition of the past in a present moment. It can easily be tested. Search out a song you haven’t heard for many years, perhaps since childhood: close your eyes and listen to it and see what it recalls. I can’t hear the opening bars of Wings’ Listen to What The Man Says without thinking of going to Athens for the first time: it must have been playing on a radio en route somewhere. For those with a certain way of thinking, it can also be quite a useful tool in fixing dates in your mind. Which summer did we go on a family holiday near St Michaels Mount in Cornwall? Wet Wet Wet were singing Love Is All Around for weeks on end, so it must have been 1994.

Songs, of course, aren’t usually written with this mind – they are, more likely, intended for the moment. The track here, however, Reminisce Pt 2 by Dexys Midnight Runners, takes a step back by being a song not primarily about a place but about memories –in this case, of a teenage love affair – recalled by songs of the time. This came from their 1985 album, Don’t Stand Me Down, produced in their phase of looking like Ivy League students or accountants that had succeeded the raggedy gypsy image of the Come On Eileen period. In it, Kevin Rowland remembers, largely in spoken form, a teenage romance , with Jimmy Ruffin’s I’ll Say Forever My Love providing the musical backdrop: this being the song that he and his girlfriend, as they walked home from evenings in Oxford Street and Edgware Road in London, had adopted as ‘their song’. The effect could have been overly - sentimental and twee but somehow comes over as genuine, rather sweet and evocative of a particular place and time - and also a reminder  that the musical landscape of that time wasn’t all flower power or street fighting man. It was also the Kinks and a Soho transvestite, soul and Peter Paul and Mary re-appearing from the early sixties to have their biggest UK hit with a John Denver song.

There is, however, something troubling about this reminiscence – the date the song recalls and the tunes it is remembered by don’t match up. The words place the romance in the summer of 1969. However, the two songs in the running for the couple’s special tune, Lola by the Kinks and I’ll Say Forever My Love by Jimmy Ruffin, came from the summer of 1970, a summer musically over-shadowed by Mungo Jerry’s very non-PC In the Summertime (‘have a drink, have a drive...do a ton or a ton and twenty five’). Likewise, the two songs played on the radio and by which Kevin Rowland remembers that summer - Wedding Bell Blues and Leaving On a Jet Plane – weren’t summer songs at all by the time they reached the UK. Wedding Bell Blues was an early Laura Nyro song, performed by her at the Monterey Festival in 1967, but the USA and UK hit was by the Fifth Dimension, reaching the UK charts in January 1970. Similarly, Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of Leaving On A Jet Plane was on the radio in the winter of 1969 and in the charts in early 1970.

In a real sense, this doesn’t matter and could be poetic licence. This is a song, not a historical record, and there may be good reasons for the switch in year and telescoping songs over a period of time into one summer. There could be also something of the same syndrome you sometimes see when people are asked to name the first record they ever bought, with a temptation for achieving credibility to triumph over reality. Hence, the answer is more likely to be “I saved up for ages to buy an import of BB King playing Blind Lemon Jefferson” rather than the more prosaic “I went with my mum to Woolies and got Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah) by Gary Glitter”. Perhaps, in the same way, a lost love is more appropriately remembered by I’ll Say Forever My Love rather than, say, by Middle of the Road and Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep.

Perhaps, too, it merely shows that memory is fallible though, in truth, both Leaving On A Jet Plane and Wedding Bell Blues do sound like summer songs. It is human for the mind to recast the past. It didn’t always snow at Christmas ; the first gig you went to wasn’t really the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club; and it wasn’t always a golden summer on Cromer beach. It only becomes dangerous if you go searching for a rewritten past and expect to find it in the present. This is an odd song. It doesn’t make me think about a place –Oxford Street or Edgware Road - because it is not my reminiscence. It does make me think about the past though, and realise that the distance between now and this song is greater than between the song and the young love it describes. In the interplay of past and present it has itself become a marker along the way.


For What Is Chatteris


The other side of the coin from being in the sticks and dreaming of the bright lights, big city or making it on Broadway is being in the fast lane of the city and dreaming of the sticks, or more likely the countryside – finding something like the title of David Ackle’s 1969 song, Subway to the Country. That view from the other end of the telescope, of course, has often been a pretty idealised one of rural life, a picture postcard view of a cottage with roses and ivy looking out across a rolling landscape. The desire to get back to nature and a simpler way of life has been a common theme in literature for the past 200 years or so and something similar happened musically in the late sixties, with a string of artists - Bob Dylan, The Band, Stevie Winwood and Traffic, Jethro Tull - suddenly wanting to get it together in the country with a more pastoral hue to their music. The arrival of pop groups in the countryside to discover themselves was not always welcomed. One former resident of the Berkshire village where Traffic recorded their 1967 Mr Fantasy album recalled: “They were a strange looking lot. We'd never seen anything like it. My dad reckoned they were a sweaty, smelly lot. He warned me to keep away from them because of the sex and drugs and that.".

I am not sure who was first. Cliff Richard and The Shadows could possibly lay claim, with their In the Country hit dating to 1966, though the sound here did conjure up the notion of a Sunday drive in a Ford Cortina to have a picnic of hard boiled eggs and jam sandwiches in a field somewhere more than aduki beans and dope in a rural commune. Whoever it was, it set in train several years of British and American artists finding their historical rural roots. Take the Small Faces, the mid-sixties epitome of urban East End mods whose idea of something rural was the bit of waste ground of Itchycoo Park: by 1974 former member Ronnie Lane could bring out the bucolic The Poacher – “Was fresh and bright and early, I went towards the river, but nothing still has altered just the seasons ring a change”. Some songs went for a mystical, magical approach to the countryside, as in Carolanne Pegg’s Witch's Guide to the Underground; some for the whimsical, as with Stackridge and Pinafore Days; some for the comical, as with the Wurzels and I’ve Got a Brand New Combine Harvester.

Most of these painted, in different ways, a rose-coloured picture, though some did point out that life in the countryside could actually be pretty miserable. Recently, Billy Bragg and the Imagined Village band updated the traditional Hard Times of Old England to incorporate the Countryside Alliance and the impact on rural life of the encroachment of Tesco and the closure of post offices.

What is striking, however, is that the view was usually of the deep countryside of cottages and farms. The large village/small market town hardly figured as a vision of escape, yet to a resident of London or Manchester these were just as much ‘the countryside’.

The song here from 2005, then, For What Is Chatteris by Birkenhead indie band Half Man Half Biscuit, redresses that with a double-edged commentary, like much of their work over the past 25 years. A seemingly anonymous small market town in the Fenlands of Cambridgeshire is presented with a blend of witty irony and poignancy, not as a dullsville to escape from to the big city but a gentle idyll which has only lost its charms after a girlfriend upped and left. (Note: there is an extensive internet debate on some of the lyrics and whether the words near the end  say ‘prick’ or ‘crick’ barriers at both ends. Either seem plausible!). I must admit that I have only passed through Chatteris once but it was on a cross-country route to visit my father in a very similar place some 70 miles away, North Walsham in Norfolk. Like Chatteris ,it is a rural market town with some 10,000 inhabitants where the worries are out- of - town supermarkets closing down the local shops, teenagers pulling up the floral display in the park and the odd ‘drive by shouting’.

I often wondered why my father chose to retire there after 40+ years of working in London and the South Coast, as we never went on holiday there or even passed through Norfolk at all to my knowledge. Many years later I found a black and white photograph of a far distant summer, my father as a teenager but looking grown up as though the world was at his feet, standing with his own father on Cromer beach, the seaside town adjoining North Walsham where one stormy evening once I saw Alan Price play at the end of the pier as the waves buffeted the structure. What had pulled my father back there perhaps was the North Norfolk coast shimmering in a remembered golden summer holiday  of a lifetime ago shortly before his father died and his life changed for ever.

Perhaps too it was the predictable nature of life that was attractive. Over the visits there I sometimes thought about the families in the small park down the road from his house. The children went there to play on the swings and roundabout and eat ice - creams; a few years later they were back with their school or college friends, hanging about the park and War Memorial drinking cider and smoking; a few years after that they were back with their own children playing on the swings, whilst around them the town changed little. I was reminded of the Little Bear books by Else Minarik. Only small things happen in these stories: Little Bear puts a box on his head as a space helmet, climbs up a little mound to pretend he has flown to the moon and eventually jumps off again to have his tea. But young children love them because of the safe reassurance of the stories: like North Walsham and Chatteris, you look to enter a small but complete world protected from change. Life there is not being on Broadway, true, but then Broadway -either in reality or the imagination - hasn’t got three good butchers, two fine chandlers, an indoor pool and a first class cake shop.

Link to song


Nights On Broadway

“Oh, Mary, this London's a wonderful sight, with people all working by day and by night. Sure they don't sow potatoes, nor barley, nor wheat, but there's gangs of them digging for gold in the street. “ So started the lyrics of the Nineteenth Century song The Mountains of Mourne. For those who grew up in the sticks, the seaside or small town, the attraction of the big city - especially a capital city like London or New York – has been a strong one, the ‘streets paved with gold’ story. Going up to London for the first time as a child and seeing more people in one place than you had ever seen before and coming back with a head full of memories of strange things: underground trains, chocolate machines, Beefeaters , weird flattened ducks hanging in the Chinatown windows I had been taken past that looked like a steamroller had passed over them . Or arriving in London to live later on, and seeing the neon lights, cinemas and theatres and amusement arcades of Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus and thinking – yes, this must be where it is all at.

The same thought occurred on my first trip to New York and seeing Broadway for the first time from the Night Loop Bus, a view only slightly marred by the fact that it was pouring with rain and the bus driver was handing out plastic sheeting. This persistent allure was summed up in the title of the Jimmy Reed song, Bright Lights, Big City, though ‘Big City’ is, of course, a relative concept. On the horse - drawn caravan holiday mentioned in the column on N17, after days slowly meandering in the fields and back roads of County Sligo we came to a large-ish village with a pub or two and some shops, where you could buy things. It felt as though we were rolling into Las Vegas.

The notion of the big city, however, has also had an added moral dimension - the source of temptation and corruption, as with Sodom and Gomorrah – and songs have often seen going off to the metropolis as equalling loss of innocence. There are generally two types of stories here. One is where the narrator/subject either manages to make their escape in time or fails and is chewed up. For the former here, there is, for example, Midnight Train to Georgia - “back to his world, the world he left behind..a simpler place and time’ – or Do You Know the Way to San Jose –‘I’m going back to find some peace of mind’: both about escaping Los Angeles. For the latter there have been several songs about those who headed for the big time and failed to either make it or make it back, including, I suppose, I Guess The Lord Must Be in New York City. A particularly bleak one was by Southern soul singer, Doris Duke, I Just Don’t Care Anymore, from her 1969 album, I’m A Loser, which remains a weary and desperate account of the downward spiral of someone moving to the big city - possibly New York – looking for work and ending up in penniless prostitution. The album has been judged by some as the best deep soul album ever but commercial success eluded both this and Doris Duke’s subsequent work. (There was a similar trajectory with a contemporary of Doris Duke, Chicago/Detroit -based singer Laura Lee who also made some classic soul tracks, such as The Rip-Off, that failed to get much recognition at the time and, like Duke, she moved towards gospel. One of her most haunting songs, Her Picture Matches Mine, even slipped by virtually unnoticed as the ‘B’ side of a single)

The other scenario is where the narrator ,is left behind on a metaphorical station platform, sadly watching as their former friend/lover pulls away and out of sight in the glitz and glamour of big city life. What better to represent this than the archetype of glitz and glamour - Broadway , where the neon lights are bright and there is magic in the air. The song here is Nights on Broadway, written and originally recorded by the Bee Gees on their 1975 Main Course album that acted as the bridge between their earlier ballad-focused work and the disco/funk sound of Saturday Night Fever. Though they had the USA hit, oddly enough the UK hit was by Candi Staton, another Southern soul singer whose early 70’s soul records had gone largely unnoticed in Britain. Instead it was the disco-tinged Young Hearts Run Free that first saw her in the charts in 1976, followed by Nights on Broadway the following year. Whereas the Bee Gees’ version had a feel of the stalking theme of Every Breath You Take to it – ‘Standing in the dark where your eyes couldn’t see, I had to follow you’ – Candi Staton’s take on it , though faster and more disco-fied than the Bee Gees, sounds more a lament from someone left behind and knowing they are up against something far more glamorous.

There is, of course, something of the consciously unreal about Broadway, in some ways the opposite of soul. It is the portal to layer on layer of illusion, whether of the traditional dreams of finding fame and fortune, the plays and shows or the diner/restaurant there that has recreated a mythical recent past where servers sing and dance to 50’s rock and roll tunes in between serving and a waitress fed me birthday cake whilst singing ’Happy Birthday to You’ a la Marilyn Monroe (A ‘Beam me Up Scotty’ moment). People come to see the place of Broadway  but perhaps it is more the idea of it they are looking for.



The last column was about the oddity of places no longer here but that still live on in people’s minds. Those are generally of the local and small-scale: a shop or block of apartments or a cinema or a park. The same thought process, however, can apply on a much grander scale, to whole countries, those which no longer can be found on a map of the world but which still inhabit imagination and songs. Some sound so romantic you can hardly believe they were real places. Like Bohemia – imagine living there. You could probably lie on a sofa all day reading a French novel and drinking absinthe out of the bottle. Reference was made in an earlier column to the continuing allure of Siam in songs – probably in many mental maps being somewhere east of Shangri-La rather than being the more prosaic Thailand. The Beatles’ Back in the USSR is now a historical statement. Johnny Wakelin’s 1976 hit about Muhammad Ali, In Zaire, would have to be re-released as In the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There was Cat Steven’s pre-Sri Lankan Ceylon City. Then there is, of course, an example nearer to home, with Yugoslavia – which was slowly broken up from the mid-1990’s and had vanished from maps of Europe by 2003.

One of the striking things about songs about Yugoslavia, and also about the countries that emerged from its breaking-up, is the bleakness of many of them, coming from the period of the Balkan conflicts. One of the best known is The Cranberries’ Bosnia, from 1996, one of those songs whose good intentions is marred by clumsy lyrics :’Bosnia was so unkind, Sarajevo changed my mind’. Like Culture Club’s War Song -‘ war is stupid, people are stupid’. (These are different from another group of songs whose lyrics can actually seem at odds with the supposed overall theme. Take, for example, the 1970 hit by Blue Mink, Melting Pot, a song about multi-cultural harmony by a group of session players that included soul singer Madeline Bell and with a second verse starting ‘Mm, curly latin kinkies, mixed with yellow Chinkees’. Or Siouxsie and the Banshees’ 1978 ode to a Chislehurst Chinese takeaway, Hong Kong Garden, which Siouxsie described as a tribute to the restaurant staff being harassed by National Front skinheads - ‘Slanted eyes meet a new sunrise, a race of bodies small in size, chicken chow mein and chop suey’ ..).

Other songs about Yugoslavia have been as equally dark as Bosnia. They have included the forceful Yugoslavia by Tatu about the NATO bombing of Serbia - ‘For the death during the spring rain, For that I never came to your rescue ,Forgive me my sister, Yugoslavia...’ - and Dubrovnik is Burning by the Croatian Liberation Front (an American-Croatian rap group). And the song here , Lyla ,by Cocorosie from their 2004 album La Maison de Mon Reve, the song title inspired by the film Lilya-4-Ever, about a teenage girl from Estonia forced into prostitution.(Note the track is not distorted, it is supposed to sound like this!).

Cocorosie are 2 American-born sisters based in Paris whose work tends to the experimental – few conventional musical instruments are used - and is perhaps best listened to in small doses. What keeps this track this side of irritatingly discordant is the overall sense of resignation and bleakness from the lyrics and tone - the sound of tower blocks and graffiti - combined with vocals that seem dreamlike to the point of drifting away: one reviewer described their sound as the sort of voices you might hear coming through at a séance. As the ‘It’s not Yugoslavia,’ refrain comes round you can almost see the country dissolving in front of your eyes. There goes Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Slovenia, here comes the capitalism of MacDonalds and child prostitution. ‘It’s hardly Yugoslavia at all’.

As it happens, my own images and memories are very different from the ones of the song, or any of those mentioned above. Dubrovnik in 2002 was not burning any more but appeared as a fairy - book medieval walled town of winding alleys and archways, the newer tiles on the redbrick roofs marking where rockets had landed ten years before. On the Trebizat River in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the pastoral scenery of overhanging trees and flowers and butterflies could have been an English river in Surrey or Oxfordshire, a surreal thought at the time when put against the Cranberries' song. Hardly Yugoslavia at all.