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.