“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.