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
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.