As seen in previous columns, songs about places can paint a broad picture by bringing the focus down to a particular building. In Coles Corner, Richard Hawley used a long-gone department store in Sheffield to create a nostalgic mood for a bygone time and place. St Etienne’s Mario’s Cafe was equally evocative of an era : “Button up your sheepskin caraway, rainy cafe, Kentish Town, Tuesday...and Eubank wins the fight and did you see the KLF last night?” Nick Cave’s Grief Came Riding put Battersea Bridge at the centre of a study of introspective gloom.
The scope of music is such that the most unlikely places for a pop song can strike a chord. The public library, for example, may in folk memory - if not current reality - be a place where stern-looking librarians go ‘SSSHH’ but it has figured in several songs, like Young Adult Friction ( The Pains of Being Pure at Heart) or Librarian (My Morning Jacket).Even the public toilet has been musically covered: 60’s popsters Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich did an EP entitled The Loos of England, firmly in the Carry On tradition.
Then there is the cathedral, an image of history, holiness, scale and height and a certain timelessness: musically associated with choral and organ music. Yet cathedrals across the world have been the backdrop for a number of songs, often ones in tune with the traditional solemnity of such places. Joan Osborne sang of the cathedrals of New York and Rome in Cathedrals. Death Cab for Cutie chose the architecture of St Peter’s Cathedral for a ‘why are we here’ lyric in St Peter’s Cathedral . Graham Nash, ex of the Hollies, wrote up a religious experience/acid trip on a visit to Winchester Cathedral in Cathedral, on the 1977 CSN album.
Winchester Cathedral, of course was also the subject and title of a more famous song from 1966, by songwriter Geoff Stephens and recorded initially by the New Vaudeville Band, (see column on Finchley Central), with later versions by Frank Sinatra and Petula Clark. The song has gone so much into the public memory that it is difficult now to say 'Winchester Cathedral' without putting the stress on the second syllable of Winchester, as in the song, instead of the first.
Geoff Stephens could presumably have used Salisbury Cathedral, 25 miles away, in his lyric instead: it scans the same. But he didn’t and the chance of pop immortality slipped away from Salisbury, leaving it to make do with being the home town of the aforementioned Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich. ( Drummer Mick, in fact, went back to Salisbury after leaving the group to become a driving instructor and Yellow Pages still show a Mick Wilson School of Driving in Salisbury. Maybe it is too fanciful to imagine him encouraging his learner drivers by saying ‘You make it move’ or ‘Hold tight’.)
Winchester, however, remains largely in my memory not because of the cathedral but because of a childhood disappointment that ranks alongside discovering there was little at Westward Ho! to justify the ! (as described in the column Taking a Trip Up to Abergavenny); or being taken at the age of 4 or 5 to an event at which the Sheriff of Poole was to appear. Instead, however, of a tall, heroic figure with a Stetson, silver badge and holster and a laconic ‘This town ain’t big enough for the both of us’ falling from his lips, there was an elderly and rather portly alderman in a waistcoat and suit. En route to Winchester, I had been told that I would see the Round Table at which King Arthur and his knights had gathered . I imagined a huge, imposing thing, possibly with a knight or two still sat at it quaffing mead from goblets .What I saw was a tabletop hanging on a wall that in my mind’s eye has now shrunk to the size of a dart board. If I had then known the Peggy Lee song, Is That All There Is, it would probably have come to mind.
Yet Winchester, Salisbury, Norwich, St Albans and the other UK cities boasting a cathedral do share a certain atmosphere, something captured by the song here from 2006, Lets Get Out of This Country by Scottish indie band, Camera Obscura. In a bittersweet and wistful song about escape, Tracyanne Campbell and the group imagine taking off from the everyday grind to a new life: "We'll pick berries and recline, Let's hit the road, dear friend of mine .Wave goodbye to our thankless jobs, We'll drive for miles, maybe never turn off. We'll find a cathedral city, you can be handsome, I'll be pretty”. What were they looking for? Escape to a quieter, slower, more romantic way of life perhaps. They could expect to find an area of quiet streets and second-hand bookshops in the shadow of the cathedral, time-warp cafes serving cream teas and lemonade, a walled garden or two where the sound of bells and evensong drift across at dusk. But for some reason –perhaps it is the tourists, or the blend of old and modern – cathedral cities also attract the quirky and out of the ordinary: buskers and street performers, healers and astrologers, vegetarian restaurants.
There is a steam train called the Cathedral Express that aims to take passengers ‘travelling back in time...getting away from it all for the day..to an era long gone”. That is a nostalgic view that the adverts for Cathedral City cheese have milked for all its worth. But it is also not hard to imagine you are in parts of France or Germany as you wander round the streets and markets of some English cathedral towns. A reminder of a shared past and a brief lesson that history and nostalgia aren’t the same thing.