There are many examples of towns and cities that carry their history in tandem with the present. Athens and Rome, obviously, where the monuments from centuries of long ago provide one of the main tourist attractions; London, where echoes of the past in the Tower of London, the Monument, the Jack the Ripper walks, mingle with the modern everyday; Dubrovnik, where you enter a medieval walled city in the 21st Century.

There are less obvious examples too, including Boston. It may seem familiar – though not as much as New York - from TV shows but the visitor there (eg me) also becomes aware of a past they may only be vaguely aware of. Take the Freedom Trail, for example, a walking trail along and past several historical sites in Boston: Paul Revere’s house, the site of the Boston Massacre and others. Knowledge of the American War of Independence by the average Briton is probably a bit hazy and can also get mixed up with the flotsam and jetsam of history that floats round the mind. Was George Washington cutting down a cherry tree sometime then? Weren’t the French pretty important in the outcome of the War of Independence and when did they then become cheese-eating surrender monkeys? A vague recollection of a Disney film, Johnny Tremain, sometimes shown on Sunday afternoon TV, with British redcoats stomping about colonial Boston like storm-troopers whilst the townsfolk sang Sons of Liberty.

The Boston Tea Party was in the film too, of course - also the unlikely subject of a hit by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band in 1976. This historical era, in fact, has cropped up a few times in pop music. 60’s American rock group Paul Revere and the Raiders performed in full historical uniforms. (This trend, as with Union Gap in American Civil War dress, seemed mainly an American phenomenon. I can only think of the New Vaudeville Band and their Edwardian toffs’ attire as a UK comparison). Lonnie Donegan had a big UK hit in 1959 with a version of Johnny Horton’s Battle of New Orleans ( not Boston, obviously, but same era), primly substituting ‘bloomin’ British’ for ‘bloody British’ in the lyrics. Horton’s version, though, is worth seeing just for the exploding alligator and balletic redcoats.

However, it is always something of an eye-opener to visit a country abroad and see a glimpse of history through their eyes and not through the lens of your own country. In Cuba, for example, seeing the photos - and hearing the accounts - of the missile sites of 1962 or realising, as you are asked to leave your rucksack at the entrance of a shop in Havana, that you could be seen as a potential terrorist come to bomb. In Boston, it was my daughter’s American partner urging us to see Bunker Hill; ”that’s where we whupped you”.

The historical side of Boston, however, is only one of many and there has always been pop music from and of Boston to keep its image contemporary as well. In the late 60’s record companies, seeing the success of West Coast groups, tried to kick-start the ‘Boston/Bosstown Sound’, largely based round local groups Beacon Street Union and the wonderfully-named Ultimate Spinach – though it never really got off the ground, any more than the ‘Farnborough Sound’ did in the UK. With Ultimate Spinach in mind one could, however, draw up a dinner menu of sorts based solely on the names of groups. It might look like this:
Eggs Over Easy with Salt ‘n Pepa and Bread with (Great )Peanut Butter (Conspiracy)

Meatloaf , Wild Turkey or Fish with Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Black-Eyed Peas, Ultimate Spinach and a Smashing Pumpkin

Raspberries or Cranberries with Jam and Cream
Vanilla Fudge

Since then however, there have been scores of songs that have looked at Boston from every angle: an impressive list was given in the comments on the Paris Bells column. Some, like Shipping Up to Boston by the Dropkick Murphys, have celebrated the boisterous waterfront life. There is the lyrical description of the Fens area by Jonathan Richman: “And there's a silence to that place as you stand there in the sun, and there's also this haunting silent sorrow, because the glory days have gone“. There is Augustana’s vision of escaping California for a new life in Boston, in their song Boston: heading eastwards, not westwards, to a promised land.

Against some of these the song here, also just called Boston, might seem at first a bit incongruous, too laid back and mellow, a geographical relocation of I Left My Heart in San Francisco . It is from a 2004 album, Outrun the Sky, by Lalah Hathaway, daughter of soul singer Donny Hathaway, and who has a smoky, velvety voice that has echoes of Cassandra Wilson. Yet, for me, the mood of it fits what I experienced there in parts of the city. Like watching people playing chess in an outdoor cafe in the afternoon sun; or going for breakfast - including Greek yogurt and blueberries - in the relaxed atmosphere of Zoe’s Diner in Cambridge; or ambling along the Freedom Trail, though giving up before Bunker Hill in favour of a drink and cake in the Faneuil Hall Market.

A song by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, They Came to Boston, criticises visitors just like me, seeking out Quincy Market or the Swan Boats in the Public Gardens: ‘They came to Boston on their vacation. They came, they saw, they annoyed me. They saw it all, what! Faneuil Hall! It's best if they just avoid me..they found the Hub confusing,looked for the Swan Boats in Mattapan, well, I find that real amusing".  A similar attitude, I guess, to the derogatory South Coast term of ‘grockle’ to describe seaside holiday tourists. I subsequently looked up an old Ultimate Spinach track - Genesis of Beauty - and sensed in the opening bars the same sort of drift away feeling as the Lalah Hathaway tune, a side of Boston no less, or more, real than that seen in the songs of the Dropkick Murphys or in Boston Legal –or, for that matter, the Mighty, Mighty Bosstones. Different sides in tandem, just like the past and present.

Link to song


Niagara Falls

There are some places that tend to figure more in songs as an image for something else, as a symbol or metaphor, rather than as a place in reality. This was touched on in the column on Rome (Weekend a Rome), where a song is as likely to reference the place with lyrics about ‘all roads lead to Rome’ or ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ as to be about the actual city itself. There are other examples, sometimes with places seemingly so remote that actual travel there seems akin to going to the moon. The trend was perhaps started by an early 50’s big band record, Kalamazoo to Timbuktu (which also became the title of a children’s story book later). Both are real places but the train journey the song describes is as unlikely as the names themselves. In fact, ‘going to Timbuktu’ passed into everyday speech as the epitome of something that would definitely never happen: as in ‘ Try getting to North Walsham by bus from Norwich after 3pm. It’s like going to Timbuktu’. Billy Joel later used another real place ,the Great Wall of China, with a similar intention in his song of the same name:“We could have gone all the way to the Great Wall of China,if you'd only had a little more faith in me”.

There is another famous landmark that has cropped up time again in songs not as a place to actually visit and see but as a metaphor: Niagara Falls. There are many other spectacular waterfalls across the world, of course: Iceland has several, including  one  at Gullfoss. However, it is Niagara Falls that has captured the imagination most, with assorted folks going over it in a barrel or walking across it on a tightrope for the past 150 years or so. Yet it has also been the inspiration of several songs that have turned it into imagery for something else. Take Niagara Falls by Sara Evans, which starts off with the promising and undeniably true statement of “Standing at the edge of this cliff, gravity being what it is, I'm afraid that I might stumble” but then resorts to a lyrical clichĂ© in “asking me not to love you is like asking Niagara not to fall” . Chicago used the same metaphor in their Niagara Falls: “As long as Niagara falls, as long as Gibraltar stands, till hell freezes over I'll always be your man” (Gibraltar is roped in presumably to supply a suitable rhyme for ‘man’). Rapper Lil’ Wayne came up with an inevitable – actually the only possible - rhyme in Love Me or Hate Me:”I've been through it all, the fails, the falls. I'm like Niagara but I got right back up like Viagra.”

Perhaps the best example here is Everybody Knows (Niagra Falls) by Elliott Murphy. He was one of those singers who had the misfortune to be labelled ‘the new Dylan’, a phrase thrown at selected artists from Phil Ochs onwards, taking in Bruce Springsteen , John Prine, Conor Oberst and a long list of others on the way. In Everybody Knows, Elliott Murphy not only uses the image of going over the Falls in a barrel without it seeming contrived but gets in a mention of Buffalo, a kind of staging post 20 miles away from Niagara Falls. Buffalo seemed to me in the same category as Westward Ho!, a town whose title doesn’t live up to current reality. With a name redolent of the Old West, it should look like this, with a tumbleweed or two drifting down the main street:
Link to photo
The bit I saw was more like an industrial estate, with –somewhat incongruously- a prominent House of Horrors as a main attraction.

The song here from 2009 - another titled Niagara Falls - by Brooklyn indie rock band, Harlem Shakes, is a more lyrical ode , driven by piano and drum machine and a simple chorus that nevertheless captures something of the sight of Niagara Falls, something difficult to do in words: ” Always awake, you break and break and crash and crash, and flow and flow”. Sailing through the spray below on the Maid of the Mist, or standing watching at night as the light show turns the waters blue and red and purple like a vision from an unsettled dream, you get a sense of what has inspired the musicians and novelists over the years - though it did come as a surprise to discover that the Falls can effectively be turned off (which would mess up Chicago’s song). You can also see why observers turn so readily to symbolic meaning, with the endless and powerful falling of water, the drop down into an abyss, the mists and rainbows. But maybe best to see it for what it is - a place to remember.


Summer In The City

As with classical music, it has been a recurrent characteristic of songs that they easily lend themselves to the changes of the seasons, both lyrically and musically. Sometimes, the result can be surprisingly effective: Bettye Lavette’s powerful performance of Through the Winter is so desolate it makes the listener feel as bleak as the title. At other times, the association of song and season can be a bit, well, obvious. In the Chi-lites’ Coldest Day Of My Life, the lines “I remember, oh, yeah, the signs of springtime. There were birds, music everywhere “ are accompanied by a flute chirruping like a blue bird in a Disney cartoon.

The same applies to places and seasons. For various reasons - to do with geography, cultural association or just the peak time when tourists go there – some cities are musically linked more with one season than another. Paris and springtime, Rome and summer. Yet what is striking is how the musical images raised by summer, in particular, can change when linked to particular places. Take Greece, for example. The sub-Abba song In the Summer Sun of Greece by A La Carte is typical of musical visions of Greece - all orange groves, sparkling sea and sunshine. If, however, you focused in and imagined that there was such a song called Summer in Athens, the mood would be different. It might have to deal with darting from cafe to cafe to avoid the heat, standing in a bad-tempered queue of backpackers to get a glimpse of a bit of the Acropolis and wondering who on earth might buy the bear that has been hanging outside a butcher’s window for at least a week.

To some extent the same sort of difference can be found in summer songs of England and London. Summery songs about England tend to be about the countryside or seaside, like Seaside Shuffle or In the Summertime. Songs about summer in London, however, are more ambivalent.  Madness described 'Summer in London' in  A Day On The Town with a characteristic cynical perception - seeing the union jack t-shirts and mugs and £6 ice cream cones.: “Chip on your shoulder, chips in your mouth, Can you see the old lady, with tickets to tout. Getting the tourists into their traps, taking their money, the shirts off their backs”. The Pogues had a downright depressing picture in Dark Streets of London: “And every time that I look on the first day of summer takes me back to the place where they gave ECT, and the drugged up psychos with death in their eyes and how all of this really means nothing to me”.

For the outsider, summer in New York, however, carries a more stereotyped set of images gleaned from TV shows and films set in the city: sticky heat and rising tempers as electricity cuts hit, kids splashing in the jets of a sprinkler fire hydrant, a cop wiping sweat off his head as taxi sirens blare. The song here, Summer in The City, neatly captures that picture and mood, with its driving rhythm, pounding drums , sounds of traffic and descriptive lyrics; “All around, people looking half dead, walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head”. The song has been covered a number of times - by Joe Cocker and Quincy Jones amongst others - and has been used as background music in a number of adverts and films, including Die Hard: With a Vengeance: not surprisingly perhaps as there is a cinematic element to the song. The version here is the original one from 1966 by New York group The Lovin’ Spoonful , a contrast to their more familiar good-time and laid-back summery feel. In a relatively brief period of time in the mid-sixties, the group notched up an impressive number of John Sebastian-penned songs that remain timeless, with an instant feel-good effect: their first big hit, Do You Believe in Magic, with the priceless lines “I’d tell you about the magic , it’ll free your soul but it's like trying to tell a stranger about rock and roll”; You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice (I would have liked you anyway); and a dozen more. (Sebastian was also a skilled harmonica player and can be heard to good effect on Judy Collins’ Thirsty Boots).

In the clip below, the group are miming. That is not unusual but it is an example of a performance when it is obvious that the act are miming through deliberate intent: guitarist Zal Yanovsky is having a conversation at one point. Some acts seemed to do this, possibly to show their disapproval of having to mime as it implied a slight on their capabilities. Guitars remained slung at the side, drumsticks hit the air, at times signs saying ‘We are miming’ were held up. This was different from those occasions when a technical hitch left an unfortunate act stranded and mouthing like a fish out of water. One such time was All About Eve performing Martha’s Harbour on Top of the Pops in 1988, when the group were unable to hear the backing track and sat patiently waiting for it to start.

There is another song - Up On the Roof - that does not actually mention New York but was clearly inspired by it and which acts as a neat counterpoint to Summer in the City – it takes the listener to rooftop level above the traffic noise and jackhammers drilling in the road. It was a Goffin/Carole King song - written in the Brill Buildings on Broadway that remain a landmark on the bus tours round New York - and was originally a USA hit for the Drifters in 1962. There have been several versions since, including Carole King herself, James Taylor and Ike and Tina Turner but oddly the hits of the song in the UK have been from unlikely sources. Singer-songwriter/entertainer Kenny Lynch had the first hit in 1962, followed in 1995 with a Number 1 by TV actors Robson and Jerome, the video of the song showing them prancing about against a Manhattan skyline with - being British-an obligatory afternoon cup of tea. Perhaps the most sublime version, however, was by another New York singer-songwriter, Laura Nyro, capturing hustle and bustle and serenity in 3 minutes: ironically for a prolific songwriter in her own right, this was her only hit as a performer.

Hot town, summer in the city. The words somehow imply the need to escape somewhere – to the roof top in New York, to the relative cool of a museum or cafĂ© in Athens, to the shade of a willow tree in London’s Regents Park. Waiting for the autumn leaves to start to fall.

Link to song