Previous columns have looked at stereotyping of other countries in pop music. One might think that Germany might suffer particularly here from a British perspective. At the time that pop music was coming of age, popular British culture was still full of an endless re-telling of World War 2. Films like The Dam-busters, or Reach For the Sky, or The Great Escape, packed the cinemas and were routinely shown on TV (In a 2006 UK poll regarding the family film that TV viewers would most want to see on Christmas Day, The Great Escape was  the first choice of male viewers). Children’s comics had strip cartoons of British pilots saying things like “Take that, you square-headed  sausage nosher" as they shot down another Messerschmitt.

This  constant re-run of the past was kept going for decades , satirised by Sparks in their 1972 song  Girl from Germany:Oh, no! Bring her home and the folks look ill. My word, they can't forget, they never will. They can hear the storm-troops on our lawn when I show her in and the Fuehrer is alive and well  in our panelled den “. In such a vein , I once had an elderly relative who would not allow two particular  words to be said in his presence: ‘German’ and ‘pregnant’.  It can still suddenly crop up in unlikely contexts. In a recent discussion about Eurovision between music critic Charles Shaar Murray and Cheryl Baker of Bucks Fizz, Murray made the curious remark that ‘If the Nazis had won, all popular music would sound like this (ie Eurovision).’  Oompah music   = a totalitarian and racist ideology. Hmm.

Yet this perspective didn’t seem to figure much  in pop songs , outside of football chants. In fact, in the early days of pop music Germany hardly figured at all, odd given the significance of Hamburg for the Beatles and the British beat boom and the continued popularity in Germany of artists that vanished from popular consciousness here years ago. (Even now in somewhere like Stuttgart or Munster you might see a poster for a concert by Stan Webb’s Chicken Shack or Alvin Lee). There seemed plenty there  to inspire songs -  castles with towers and battlements perched above the Rhine like  pictures  in a children’ fairy story,  outdoor markets on cobbled streets and the  Gothic Cathedral of a city like Cologne. Yet there seemed few equivalents for Germany of songs like Mary Chapin Carpenter’s What If  We Went to Italy, or Bonnie Tyler’s Lost in France, or even Sylvia’s Viva Espana. Horst Jankowski’s  jaunty piano hit  from 1965 A Walk in the Black Forest, didn’t really count – and unfortunately was a decade too early to be the musical  accompaniment to the classic 70’s English  (with a Germanic tone)  dinner party of cheese fondue, Black Forest gateau and Blue Nun wine. Mmm

 As time passed, this did change. As mentioned before, Berlin as a city has inspired plenty of musical tributes -  from Lou Reed and Bowie to Japan and Rufus Wainwright -  but other towns have attracted less musical attention. Regina Spektor did a song called Dusseldorf, but it wasn't really about the place, any more than Ben Folds’ Cologne gives the listener any sense of that city. A much more evocative piece was Randy Newman’s In Germany Before the War, also set in Dusseldorf and based on a serial killer of the 1930’s. The song has been covered by others, including Katie Melua, but Newman’s version best conveys the underlying creepiness.

The song here from 2006- Germany -  by American duo Ghost Mice gives a rather different perspective, a kind of Bill Bryson-type travelogue with an infectious hoe-down backing. The words, tumbling out before the music finishes, cover a quick backpackers’ tour, taking in a cathedral city bombed in World War 2 - maybe Cologne-, fairy tale castles, the Rhine and a passing mention of Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut’s novel on the fire bombing of Dresden. The song comes from their album Europe, a musical chronicle of the pair’s travels across several countries, apparently done on $10 dollars a day. It sounds an interesting, if hard-going, trip.

It also gives a reminder that reality and stereotypes can be a long way apart. During a  time in Cologne,I stayed with a family who were not sausage-noshers at all but vegetarians, who told a joke about Helmut Kohl and kohlrabi (the punch-line of which I have forgotten). In the column , Let’s Get Out of This Country, I mentioned the ease when in the streets and markets of some English cathedral towns of imagining you were in parts of Germany. A shared history, despite what the films say.


River Man

A previous column, (Let’s Get Out Of This Country),  looked at some of the more unlikely places that crop up as subjects of songs. There are some, however, which rarely figure. There are , perhaps unexpectedly, several songs about cathedrals and cathedral cities but less about universities and university cities. Schools - yes. Songs about school have been a staple of pop songs since  the early days of rock and roll, perhaps as the spirit of rebellion is easily inter-changed between the two. Hence songs like Chuck Berry’s School Days –“Soon as three o'clock rolls around, you finally lay your burden down, close up your books, get out of your seat, down the halls and into the street” – or Alice Cooper’s School’s Out. But there have also been plenty that have a nostalgic air to them: like Cat Stevens’ Remember The Days of the Old School Yard or Madness’  Baggy Trousers.

Once past school days, however, the inspiration from education starts to wear thin. There was a time, of course,  when pop music was pigeonholed as plebeian entertainment  and performers weren’t expected to have experience of any education past school. When the Zombies hit the UK charts in 1964 with She’s Not There, the papers found it so unusual  that the group members had 50 ‘O’ levels between them that it became the main part of their publicity. More common were the sorts of quotes from some head teacher lamenting  an ex-pupil who had left school early and gone onto success with a group like The Applejacks or Mindbenders; “He is a foolish young man. All right, he has bought himself a car and a house but he hasn’t got  a Maths ‘O’ level to fall back on”. It is also easy to forget just how young some musicians were. When  the original Shadows’ drummer, Tony Meehan, left the group after 3 years or so, he had recently turned 18. By the time Helen Shapiro was 16 she had had a string of hits, including 2  UK Number 1’s and headlined a tour over the Beatles.

With the influence of  graduates of Art School or  university  on 60’s pop and the move of pop music towards  the realms of intellectual and cultural acceptance  this changed –but there were  still few songs  about this in the  way that school days were remembered. Too respectable to sing about?. This is perhaps why there are relatively few songs – as opposed to poems or novels - about Cambridge, so identified with the university and its colleges. Marillion had a rather jaundiced view of it  in their 1985 hit about social elitism, Garden Party (The Great Cucumber Massacre): “Aperitifs consumed en masse display their owners on the grass. Couples loiter in the cloisters. social leeches quoting Chaucer “

 A different perspective was found in a  rare rock eulogy to the place – in Roger Waters’ Granchester Meadows on Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma album. You can walk to Granchester from Cambridge, along by the river  and willows and past the sights  and sounds described in the song. In the village there  is the church in Rupert Brooke’s  poem, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, with its famous closing lines:Stands the Church clock at ten to three? And is there honey still for tea?”. The clock tells the right time now but you can still get honey –and tea and scones –at The Orchard opposite whilst you sit in a deck chair under an apple tree as the bees and wasps circle round. Next door is the Old Vicarage itself, now owned by Jeffrey Archer and the fragrant Mary.

Yet despite the pastoral idyll nearby and the sense of timelessness amongst the colleges and cloisters, there is something about Cambridge that seems to cast a melancholic air over some of the work inspired by it, including the song here River Man by the English singer-songwriter Nick Drake, from his 1969 album Five Leaves Left. Like much of his work, the lyrics are open to interpretation. Is the river man meant to  be Charon the ferryman taking the souls of the dead across to Hades? Is he a drug dealer? A god of nature, like the Piper at the Gates of Dawn? Is the Betty who comes by a reference, as has been suggested, to Betty Foy in Wordsworth’s poem The Idiot Boy, studied by Drake at Cambridge University? Whatever, the song is like a journey in  a punt  down the river Cam, the rise and fall of the rhythm and of Drake’s voice – from major to minor and back -  like the ebb and flow of the water on the banks as you drift by the lilac trees and fallen leaves

As with much of his work, there is also an autumnal sadness about it, the more acute when the listener knows that Drake was to die 5 years after this record, commercial success eluding him in his lifetime. You think then of another Cambridge musician and drug casualty, Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, who had also sung of a river in See Emily Play. His own musical star flared brightly but briefly before a return to decades of seclusion in his mother’s home in Cambridge. Look at this photo of a 5-man Pink Floyd in 1968: Barrett, the former front man, is at the back fading from sight in front of your eyes. Or there is the central character in Sebastian Faulk’s novel, Engleby ,which  explores the disturbed mind of a Cambridge student from the 1970’s. It is as though there is for some a golden age in Cambridge - maybe childhood, perhaps  university – after which life is never as bright again, like a colour film changing to black and white
Link to See Emily Play

Maybe Cambridge has that effect  because it is so easy to find the past there in the colleges and cloisters and the punting on the river.  Some of Barrett’s work took inspiration from Victorian literature and a piece like Grantchester Meadows could be describing a Victorian landscape painting. A friend and musical colleague  of Nick Drake is quoted as saying :”Nick was in some strange way out of time. When you were with him, you always had a sad feeling of him being born in the wrong century. If he would have lived in the 17th Century, at the Elizabethan Court, together with composers like Dowland or William Byrd, he would have been alright”.(Robert Kirby).As with Brooke, Drake’s early death means he will always be  remembered as a young man. Out of time - I guess Cambridge is a good place to be for that, where you can float on a river for ever and ever.


Voyage to Atlantis

Places are not always straight forward. A previous column looked at places that no longer exist but live on in some people’s minds as current reference points (Cole’s Corner). Then there are places that really do exist but sound so exotically remote that it is easy to imagine they are made up. Timbuktu, in Mali, has already been mentioned, with the tune From Kalamazoo to Timbuktu.  Xanadu is  another. Xanadu  (Shangdu)  was the capital of Kublai Khan’s dynasty and the ruins still remain in Mongolia. It is probably best known, however, from one of 3 sources, each of which might lead the listener/reader to think  that it was an imaginary place. In order of credibility, there is the poem Kubla Khan  by Coleridge, written  (in 1797) after waking from a  dream and in which Xanadu sounds like the Garden of Eden. Then there is Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich’s Legend of Xanadu (1967),  complete with sound of whip cracking but which  is possibly historically incorrect in describing the place  as ‘a black barren land’.  Finally, one’s ideas might come from the take by Olivia Newton-John and ELO in  the film Xanadu and song of the same name (1980), a place ‘where your neon lights will shine” and almost definitely historically incorrect.

Then there are places that do not exist but sound plausible enough that you might have to think twice about their possible reality. Shangri-La, for example, the title of a Kinks song as well as a 1930’s novel –maybe it is  a Himalayan kingdom somewhere between Tibet and Bhutan. Or El Dorado (ELO again!)  - perhaps it is somewhere near El Salvador and Guatemala (instead of being, as Edgar Allan Poe put it in his poem of the  same name, “Over the Mountains of the Moon. down the Valley of the Shadow” .You cant miss it).  Or Echo Beach, made famous by Martha and the Muffins. Surely that existed: the single came out with a map on the record sleeve - but apparently it was a figment of the lyricist’s imagination. These, of course, are different from those places that do not exist but no-one ever imagined that they really did., Like The Land of Grey and Pink (Caravan). Or The Land of Make Believe ( Bucks Fizz). Or The Land of Oo-Bla-Dee (Dizzy Gillespie)

There is another  category too, best described as places which may be fantasy or may  have actually   been real but which also now exist in a modern, though more prosaic, form. One example is Albion. It was  an early  name for Britain but took on  more mythical overtones over the centuries, the idea becoming a recurrent theme in Pete Doherty’s music. A more well-known example is Atlantis, the  legendary island that was also supposed to host a lost civilisation and has provided the inspiration for countless books, films, comic strips and video games. The geographical  origins for the story have been placed everywhere from Mexico to Antarctica. However, its inclusion in this blog of places I remember only makes sense if one particular theory is accepted: that the legend was based on  the Mediterranean island of Crete and the Minoan empire of 2000 years or so BC , destroyed by a massive volcano eruption on nearby Santorini.

The theory seems more plausible than most and there are parts of Crete where it would be very easy to believe it. Admittedly it is a  long time since I went to Crete and certainly there was nothing mystical about the stormy journey over from Piraeus on an overnight ferry that had a below-deck toilet almost as bad as the one at Milton Keynes bus station. However, when you see the ruins of Knossos Palace - source of the myth of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur – or the Dictean cave where Zeus was supposedly born, you get a sense of the antiquity of the island. You also realise that there are places there a world away from the clubs and nightlife of the coastal resorts -  decades after the end of World War 2 a Resistance fighter emerged from a hidden mountain location like a Japanese soldier on a Pacific island.

 Most songs that have taken inspiration from the idea of Atlantis, it is true, have taken a more fanciful perspective and Crete doesn’t really figure in them  much, if  at all. Musically, the Shadows were first off the block with a 1963 instrumental hit Atlantis, though in truth the tune didn’t really conjure up Atlantis, any more than their  Kon Tiki conjured up Thor Heyerdahl and his raft. (Sun Ra’s instrumental album, Atlantis, will give the listener a better vision of Atlantis -  or possibly a headache).Donovan really went to town, with quotes from Plato sprinkled through  his Atlantis hit  in 1969: “The antediluvian kings colonised the world..All the Gods who play in the mythological dramas in all legends from all lands were from fair Atlantis.”  Australian outfit Flash and the Pan offered Atlantis Calling in 1980, with lyrics  actually mentioning a Greek island and throwing in the Flood, the Pyramids, the Tiahuanaco ruins and Stonehenge for good measure.

The song here from 1977, Voyage to Atlantis by the Isley Brothers, is really a love ballad with Atlantis as a hook to hang it on. The Isleys were a band who transformed themselves from a 60’s Motown-type vocal group into a rock/funk outfit in the 70’s, with classics like Who’s That Lady and the definitive  Summer Breeze characterised by the silky lead vocals of Ronald Isley and the Hendrix-influenced soaring guitar of Ernie Isley (who also played drums on many tracks). This song follows that trend. Yet  if I listen to the echoing closing bars and imagine  ancient white temple pillars silhouetted against a blue sky, the smell of a lemon grove and wild thyme in the air, and the hot sun throwing spots of  light reflecting  off the dancing waves of the sea, Atlantis/Crete seems quite plausible.