Transatlantic Westbound Jet

A previous column (The Airport Song) looked at the early allure of airports as a gateway to the romantic and exotic, flying off to places new and unknown. It was noted at the time that though there were relatively few songs about airports themselves, there were plenty about flying. Pop music has always co-existed with air travel and there was a time when it was easy to merge the novelty, sophistication  and excitement of flying with music: Come Fly With Me or Fly Me to the Moon. Often, of course, songs about flying were metaphors for something else, partly because the mundanities of an actual airplane flight itself would rarely make for an interesting song. Instead, they were about going away ( Leaving On a Jet Plane, One Day I’ll Fly Away); about wanting to go away (Early Morning Rain, Aeroplane),;about escaping poverty (Fly Like an Eagle); of, possibly, being high (Eight Miles High).

Beyond these the airplane itself has been one of the most mythologized forms of transport, taking on in some ways the romantic qualities of the train and the spirit of adventure. As Gordon Lightfoot pointed out in Early Morning Rain, ‘you can’t jump a jet plane like you can a freight train’ but that hasn’t stopped the airplane at times becoming its modern day musical equivalent. The song here, Transatlantic Westbound Jet by the Hollies, is one of those. The Hollies are one of the very few groups - perhaps the Stones and Searchers are the only others - who have survived from the first days of British beat without being confined as living artefacts in the time-warp of the nostalgia circuit. They had in Tony Hicks a tasteful and inventive guitarist, who also provided a forgotten but charming piece of British Psychedelia, circa 1967 – Pegasus - that was part of the flurry of songs about giant albatrosses, tin soldiers and the like referenced in the column on Taking A Trip Up to Abergavenny

They also had in Bobby Elliot one of the finest drummers to come out of British pop, adding – like Charlie Watts - a touch of jazz cool to his band’s sounds; and amongst their string of hits, songs like I’m Alive and I Can’t Let Go remain as timeless 3 - minute pop classics . Graham Nash, of course, left such pop fluff behind for weightier stuff with Crosby, Stills and Nash. Like...umm....Almost Cut My Hair (“It happened just the other day. It was getting kinda long, I could of said it was in my way. But I didn’t”).

Transatlantic Westbound Jet, originally on a 1973 album , isn’t one of their best songs, even with two versions: one with Mikael Rickfors, the Swedish singer who was group vocalist for a short period in the early 70’s and the second with Allan Clarke, who turns in a weaker vocal with a faux American accent. Yet though it is probably unrealistic to read too much into a minor album track, there is something in the song that sums up the ambivalent attitude of British pop to America –and to Britain - at a particular era. Ray Davies and the Kinks were something of an exception in their focus at that time on a very English perspective, the George Orwell view of England: of old maids cycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist. More typical was to look west and pick up the myths of America - which had become the myths of rock and pop. The cowboy-come-troubadour, here today and gone tomorrow: have guitar, will travel

This is what this song represents and in one way that is maybe odd for a British group, though not unusual. (One of the first British pop records proper, Rock Island Line, had Lonnie Donegan, born in Glasgow, making a valiant attempt to sound as if he was from a Southern state). The Hollies were a northern band, its members from the towns of East Lancashire – Burnley, Nelson, Clitheroe - mentioned in the Life in a Northern Town column: as was presumably the subject of their Jennifer Eccles hit. The song came out in the year that the BBC series Life On Mars, located in Manchester, was set, a year of a three-day week and work to rule by the Miners Union. A world far remote from that of the song.

Yet in another way it isn’t odd at all. Pop music isn’t necessarily about reality. In fact, it most easily inhabits the world of myths: that is what makes some pop records timeless. This track is one step removed from that, a British perspective on another country’s mythology. Maybe it was just the Hollies being wistful at the fame, fortune and perpetual sunshine that Graham Nash had flown off to. But it doesn’t really matter if the reality of a trip in a transatlantic westbound jet, heading off to JFK airport, fails to match the song’s imagery. If, for example, the transport taking you to JFK to catch an early morning Delta airline flight is stopped by police for jumping a red light and you nearly miss the trip back to Heathrow; or the turbulence makes you wonder why on earth you had spread your wings. You don’t always want to turn reality into a song.


Tropical Iceland

For most countries, impressions come from an eclectic range of sources built up over decades or even centuries: thus, Italy, Germany, Spain, Russia, China, trigger a host of associations and impressions. These have little directly to do with the country’s name, however, and it is generally resorts like the Gold Coast near Brisbane or Sunny Beach in Bulgaria that paint an instant mental picture from the name alone. Yet there are a few countries whose name remains simple and direct: the Midway Islands (between North America and Asia), Greenland - and Iceland. Iceland: what else could it be but cold, snowy, bleak and a bit mysterious. When the TV advert for the frozen food store of the same name started decades ago –‘Mum’s gone to Iceland’ - it was supposed to suggest something rather heroic, a bit like Amundsen setting off to find the South Pole.

Leaping to conclusions from a name alone, however, can be misleading and there have been suggestions, in fact, that both Iceland and Greenland were named in a deliberate attempt to mislead, so that settlers in Iceland weren’t troubled any further by marauding Vikings or pirates. ’ This is Iceland-you wouldn’t want to stop here. Sail on a bit further and you will come to Greenland - doesn’t that sound much nicer”. There is ice and snow capped mountains- and volcanoes, of course - but there are also green fields, hot springs and expanses of lakes and rivers, where you can see wild horses crossing as in a Western movie; and its capital Reykjavik is warmer in winter than Boston or Chicago.

The feeling of something rather mysterious and haunting, however, is definitely real. Over the last week I visited Iceland with my daughter, guests at an Icelandic/Japanese wedding of two friends of hers. Standing on a beach 150 miles or so north of Reykjavik, with the Snaesfellsjokull glacier towering behind, an endless grey sky overhead and the sea stretching away to Greenland it was easy to feel that you were at the edge of the world. Snaesfellsjokull, in fact, was the location of Jules Verne’s novel, Journey to the Centre of the Earth. There is a children’s adventure type film of the book from 1959,  superior to the 2008 remake. In the clip below  (after about 4mins 40 secs in,) the explorers  - who include singer Pat Boone! -  find the entrance to the centre of the earth on the Snaesfellsjokull mountains - it seems somehow fitting that the fantasy was set in Iceland

Link to clip from Journey to the Centre of the Earth

The feeling that Iceland is different from anywhere else has also been found in songs, which have tended to be in two camps. One strand has looked back to the Viking mythology of heroic blokes with long hair on the rampage. Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song - “We come from the land of the ice and snow, From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow. The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands, To fight the horde, singing and crying: Valhalla, I am coming!”- was written after the band’s appearance in Reykjavik in 1970. American metal band Mastodon followed a similar theme of rock singer as Viking warrior with Iceland: “Hail people of Iceland, Journey of a land anew, Ram as our liaison, Vision inspire and move”. The other strand has presented Iceland in its mysterious guise, a land where the sun never goes down in summer and never comes up in winter and where some surveys suggest over half the population believe in elves and hidden people. Songs like Bjork’s Anchor Song:” I live by the ocean and during the night I dive into it, down to the bottom”; or Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Iceland: “When I'm left here on the shore, the ancient basalt moor will beckon me to sleep among its heather”.

The song here, however - Tropical Iceland by New York duo the Fiery Furnaces from 2003 - is rather more prosaic and possibly more realistic, with the imagery of a bleak church on a cold tundra and the lament that “I've seen enough stray ponies and puffins to get me through till the end of May”. I guess if you live in an isolated fishing town the grey and bleak sky and landscape could become claustrophobic and the shops and cafes of Reykjavik- even those with puffin on the menu - would seem as exotic as a bazaar in Marrakech. Yet for the visitor like me, there remains in the mind something rather haunting, and definitely different, about the place. The Vikings saw it as beyond the world’s edge- even a millennium later it is not hard to understand why.


Kommander's Car

An earlier column, on the Baltic Sea, looked at the British tendency for stereotyping when considering other parts of Europe but that it seemed harder to get a handle on some countries than others. The same could apply to cities . Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen: everyone thinks they know them, everyone knows songs about them. Berlin is familiar through numerous films – often either ones full of shadows, raincoats and furtive conversations or of gigolos, brothels and night clubs in the Weimar era-- and artists from Bowie to Japan have covered the city. But other capitals stay a bit hazy at the back of the mind. What could you say about Tallin? Ljubljana? Podgorica? Lutenblag? (The last named doesn’t actually exist, it is the capital of the spoof fictional country of Molvania)

There are other places that sort of fall between these two camps: there are a set of widely held images, and a handful of songs, but they tend to be fairly monochrome, a very partial view. Poland and its capital Warsaw perhaps fall into this category. Western songs about Warsaw are generally pretty bleak: if given visual form they would be some graffiti on a grey rain -flecked wall of an apartment tower block. It seems hard, too, for song writers to escape the shadow of World War 2. Take Warsaw by Joy Division (whose original band name was actually Warsaw and whose change of nomenclature was inspired by the prostitution area of a concentration camp): it is a bleakly dark and gloomy sound that supposedly references Rudolph Hess. The 1977 David Bowie/Brian Eno collaboration, Warszawa, is an equally stark and desolate largely instrumental evocation of the city. In Warsaw Girl, Olenka and the Autumn Lovers painted another depressing picture: ’Standing in the line waiting for her daily bread...bedroom in a concrete slum, a narrow alleyway, a shadow in a smoke-filled bar”. It comes as quite a relief to find Mike Batt’s Warsaw is just about a tragic romance: “In Warsaw a heart is breaking and now there’s nothing we can do. In Warsaw she will be waiting but I can’t go back again” (It is not clear why not: hasn’t he heard of Wizz Air?)

It is true that it is not difficult to find the grey and gloomy in Warsaw to match the songs above. Away from the cobbled streets, alleyways and outdoor cafes of the Old Town area there you can soon find the housing blocks and graffiti, concrete expanses, the anonymous shopping arcades where you can still espy 'Man at C&A'. (Rather like the Hatfield of the Oxford Street column). But you can also find the parks, theatres and concert halls. And you can also see the mixture of past and present and the echoes of the Second World War that many songs still reference. You can see it not just in the large areas totally rebuilt since 1945 and in the museums and memorials to the Warsaw Ghetto but sometimes re-enacted in a real living sense. On a visit there last week there was a late night altercation between a Pole and German visitor at the hotel. The German was later seen in the early hours wailing by the war memorial outside; ’Nobody likes the Germans’ came the lament.

In some ways the song here, Kommander's Car by Katy Carr, is in the same genre as those mentioned that see today’s Warsaw or Poland through the prism of the recent past. It is also, however, an unusual sort of song, an example of an artist of today building a song round the reminiscences and memories of someone else: a kind of oral history returned in musical form. Katy Carr, a singer of English/Polish heritage, wrote the song around the story of an escape from Auschwitz of four inmates in the camp commander’s car: it was subsequently performed in Poland to the surviving escapee and to audiences in Warsaw and London. (The song only makes sense with the accompanying video. The first link below shows the trailer and shortened song version. The second link gives the full song) By such an exchange does the past and present become interlinked.

Impressions of places are, I suppose, a mixture of personal experiences and preconceptions gleaned from song and film and photos. The expectation of Warsaw might, therefore, be bleak and – like Budapest –gloomy. My own experiences are based on a few days – but ,then, Bowie wrote Warszawa after a brief train stop-over there. What struck me most was the blend of past and present into one, where sometimes what seemed old was a recent reconstruction. And what I take away as images are perhaps trivial things- a shop window in a cobbled street full of different kinds of breads and pastries or eating beetroot soup whilst the sun sets over the clock tower opposite – but they give colour to the black and white tones put up by many songs. The Shangri-Las once did a song called Past, Present and Future: it wasn’t about Warsaw but the title maybe fits.