Hampstead Way

12 miles or so from Kew Gardens is Hampstead, not far at all geographically from two of the locations of previous columns – Finchley Central and Willesden/Cricklewood – but very far away in other ways. Houses there have sold for £50m but it has also long been associated with the literary, the cosmopolitan and the bohemian and presents itself as an urban village where film stars and musicians can find a home from home. Donovan, in one of his songs about London, Hampstead Incident, painted a rather mystical picture of the district: “Standing by the Everyman, digging the rigging on my sail, rain fell to sounds of harpsichords, to the spell of fairy tale. The heath was hung in magic mists, enchanted dripping glades”. (The Heath referred to is Hampstead Heath. The Everyman is an art house cinema ,once a theatre, and supposedly one of the oldest in the world. One Saturday years ago, a mist of intellectualism descended round me as I crossed the border into Hampstead from the Willesden direction and I found myself in the Everyman watching the Fellini film La Strada. In Italian.). There was also a curious British film from 1968, Les Bicyclettes de Belsize, which despite its title was a dream-like summery piece of whimsy shot round Hampstead village, with Englebert Humperdink scoring a hit with the title song. The clip below shows the opening credits panning over a scene across Hampstead.

At the same time as Mary Hopkin was singing of Kew Gardens, across London Linda Lewis wrote and sang Hampstead Way, released on her 1971 album Say No More. A British artist who has never really achieved the commercial success that her vocal and song writing talents suggest, Linda Lewis has some obvious parallels with Minnie Riperton. Before her solo work she was part of a psychedelic soul band, Ferris Wheel, that was not dissimilar to Rotary Connection. She has a 5-octave vocal range and ability to sing in the whistle register, a range hinted at in her first hit in 1973, the self-penned Rock-a -Doodle-Doo . And over her career she has blended a range of genres—pop, rock, soul, folk, funk – that make categorisation difficult.

At the time of this record, however, a better comparison was perhaps more with the singer-songwriters of the time like Joni Mitchell or Cat Stevens. This is one of her early songs and not one of her best but, unlike Kew Gardens, Hampstead Way is very much of its time. The song is apparently about a house she lived in at Hampstead Way – a road running north of Hampstead Heath – that was a kind of artistic/hippy commune: probably better situated at that time in Hampstead than her own home stomping ground of West Ham in East London. Rightly or wrongly, my mind’s eye imagines a house with a large kitchen (possibly the Funky Kitchen that is another track on the same album) where there is brown rice, aduki beans and hash cakes and a garden with a patch of herbs irregularly tended. On the record player would be an album by Captain Beefheart or the Staple Singers or maybe Fotheringay. Down the road on Parliament Hill, Pete Brown and his Battered Ornaments and the Edgar Broughton Band would be doing a free concert.

The music, too, is of an era, with just bass and guitars providing a pastoral and bucolic mood, with intermittent bursts of guitar virtuosity ( judging from the album credits these are by Chris Spedding, formerly of the Battered Ornaments and later popping up as a Womble on Remember You’re a Womble).It also ends rather pleasingly with something not that common in pop music: a burst of whistling that naturally fits the mood of sunny vibes. As shown here, whistling can work. Another effective instance was on Goldfrapp’s Felt Mountain album, on the title track and on Lovely Head, though there was a slightly sinister undertone to both of these. However, often whistling on records is either for comic effect (Always Look On the Bright Side of Life); as a musical shorthand to indicate a jolly mood,(Don’t Worry, Be Happy) ,rather in the way that milkmen in old British films are always whistling ; or sounds like the singer has temporarily forgotten the words (Jealous Guy). The story also goes with Dock of the Bay that when Otis Redding went to record it, the last verse hadn’t been written: hence the whistling outro.

To my knowledge, there have only been two hit records that had whistling all the way through: The Happy Whistler (surely a  tautology) by Don Robertson in 1956 and the 1967 record I was Kaiser Bill’s Batman. This tune had been recorded by the Mike Sammes Singers under the name of Whistling Jack Smith but when it became an unexpected hit - possibly because people found it easy to whistle to – someone had to be found to promote it on the road. For some reason, that task was given to Billy Moeller, brother of Tommy Moeller of Unit 4 +2 (Concrete and Clay) and roadie for the group. So one week he was lugging amps and drums, the next he was touring the world dressed up in Carnaby Street gear and miming to someone else’s whistling, as in the clip below.

I have not been to Hampstead that often and, because those times have been in the summer I always think of it as sunny, which suits Linda Lewis’s voice and music. There is an odd thing, however, when comparing this song to Kew Gardens from the same year. Kew Gardens could have been describing a little potential romance 100 years or more ago but it also seems very appropriate to wandering round Kew Gardens today. However, I would not imagine that any of the world in which Hampstead Way was set would be visible  today if you walked down the road. The street and buildings are there and the views would be much the same as 40 years ago, I guess, but the rest might as well be from 500 years ago. Maybe this says something about how the past can be recast or erased to suit the present. Or maybe ‘Everything’s OK now, Hampstead Way’ was always a state of mind more than anything : somewhere where it is always sunny and someone is whistling in the garden. If so, then perhaps after all Hampstead Way does escape its moorings in the London of 1971 as much as Kew Gardens has.


Kew Gardens

An aspect of many places, commented on in previous columns, is that they can hold the past and present simultaneously. London, in particular, has always been a good example of this, where you can quickly move from the present to find a hidden square or side street that seems little changed since the London of Dickens or beyond, or a park that seems a hidden world away . The best songs can enhance this perspective –as with Cath Carroll’s London, Queen of My Heart, taking the night bus from Camden over the ancient plague pits.

In some ways this searching of the past by pop songs can seem odd. Pop music’s initial concerns were very much of the here and now but at some point - maybe it was with Sgt Pepper - artists started taking off into past centuries. Strange instruments like harpsichords and dulcimers started to appear on pop records. One musical path headed back to the 19th Century English surreal whimsy of writers such as Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear: the spark was the Syd Barrett - dominated Pink Floyd first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the title taken from a chapter of Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows. Another path at the turn of the sixties went further back to a courtly Elizabethan age, perhaps kicked off by the Stones and Lady Jane. Sandy Denny brought her song about Mary Queen of Scots, Fotheringay. to the Fairport Convention album, What We Did On Our Holidays. Soon after she named her own group after the song, their first album depicting the group members dressed up in cod mediaeval clothing. Around the same time the folk rock outfit, Trees, brought out The Garden of Jane Delawney, also drenched in echoes of the 16th century.

The song here, Kew Gardens, is not time - bound and could be set at any time in Kew Gardens’ history, with the same kind of courteous and graceful feel of the songs mentioned above. Prominent in the musical backing is the recorder, previously associated with the mediaeval court or small children playing in school concerts. It was written and first recorded by Ralph McTell, of Streets of London fame, before being picked up by Mary Hopkin and is very characteristic of some of his work: veering to the whimsical but carried by his ability to tell a descriptive little story in 2 or 3 minutes (In the 1980’s he featured in an oddly compelling children’s TV series, Tickle on the Tum, in which he appeared in a grocery shop in a fictional village every week to showcase songs like this one). In this case, the musical vignette is a brief and rather sad love story-that-never-was against a backdrop of the Pagoda and the griffin statues outside the Palm House.

This version is by Mary Hopkin, released as a ‘B’ side in 1971. She holds a comet-like place in pop history. Her debut single in 1968, Those Were The Days, was the first release after Hey Jude on the prestigious Beatles’ Apple label, was produced by Paul McCartney, went to Number One and sold over 8 million copies worldwide. By 1970, after 3 or so smaller hits, her chart career was over. In some ways, she seemed out of time, like this song and Kew Gardens itself. She was too late for the pop folk boom of the mid-60’s, too early for the singer-songwriter genre of the 1970’s and caught between the rapidly diverging worlds of rock and pop. Her crystal-clear voice was not dissimilar to the early Marianne Faithfull and she recorded some of the same sort of folk tunes that Marianne Faithfull had in the mid-sixties. Image-wise, however, she was the opposite, marketed on TV variety shows and in cabaret as a ’girl next door’ with family appeal.

She also suffered, I think, from associations with two shows: Opportunity Knocks and The Eurovision Song Contest. Opportunity Knocks was a long-running talent show on British TV in the 1960’s and 1970’s, with winners chosen by public vote. These included a singing dog and, for 6 consecutive weeks in 1964 when the Beatles and Rolling Stones were topping the charts, by a bloke twitching his muscles to the cha-cha-cha sounds of Wheels by The Stringalongs. This can be glimpsed on the clip below. (This is from 1978, by which time he had been doing the act for 14 years. Viewers were less demanding then).

Mary Hopkin won the show in 1968 but, as another winner/subsequent chart act, Sweet Sensation, found later, that did not help in giving wider musical credibility. Neither did being the British entry for the 1970 Eurovision contest with Knock Knock, Who’s There – it took Abba winning in 1974 to turn that view of Eurovision around.

Her gentle and rather wistful style, however, is perfect for a song about  Kew Gardens, where it is easy to feel you have gone back to a more sedate age of the Victorians or Edwardians as you stroll along tree-lined walks or through the elegant buildings. I first went there as a young child and three things stuck in my mind. 1) The entrance fee through the turnstile gates was 1p, which even then struck me as good value. 2) The Chinese Pagoda there seemed wildly exotic, as though suddenly transplanted from China itself ( I am sure that a group in the 1970’s put out an album with them standing by the Pagoda on the cover and claimed that they had recorded it in China). 3) In one of the cafes I was served, I believe for the first time, the dish called ‘salad’. This was both unexpected and disappointing, being the great British Salad of the time – some lettuce and tomatoes, a piece of ham, a chopped hardboiled egg and Heinz Salad Cream. Years later, however, on a family visit there, we spied a much more fitting meal for Kew Gardens: seated by the river was a group dressed entirely in white - white suits, white flowing dresses – with a hamper picnic of smoked salmon, strawberries and cream and champagne laid out on the grass. Somehow it did not seem out of place.

The song, in some ways, is a period piece but then so are parts of Kew Gardens, with the Walled Gardens and Queen Charlotte’s Cottage and the maids of honour cakes in the tea room on the road opposite the entrance. Go through the gates - you can then find what ever age you want as you wander round the gardens.


Made In Malaysia/Here In My Home

A theme of these columns has been that some places, for many reasons, carry before them more mental associations than others. For me, Malaysia was one of those that remained hazy. Many of its neighbours - Vietnam, Thailand, Java, Bali - called a set of images,rightly or wrongly, to mind. However, Malaysia was never really a country that figured much in my consciousness and before going there I had no real idea what to expect. What notions of the place I had came from a random mix of sources over the years. I had no real picture of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, other than knowing that for a while it had the tallest building in the world, the Petronas Towers. The Straits of Malacca, with a history of piracy, sounded wildly exotic. The Tea Plantations of the Cameron Highlands sounded like a genteel echo of a colonial past.

There had also been the occasional old films on TV set in Malaya: The Long, The Short and the Tall, based on a play about British soldiers in Malaya in WW2, and A Town Like Alice. There were sometimes reminiscences in the paper or on the radio of British National Service time spent in Malaya, with memories of the jungle and Kuala Lumpur and Tiger Beer. National Service in the UK ended in 1960 so there was a short overlap with the rise of British rock and roll and pop and the odd musician – like Danny Thompson of Pentangle - found themselves doing their bit overseas in Penang. However, not only did national service seem incompatible with the ethos of rock and roll but the time out of civilian life could also end a pop career before it had really got going. Singer Terry Dene was probably the biggest pop casualty of this at the time but  Adam Faith apparently considered having one of his toes cut off to avoid call-up and his career crashing. It was therefore ironic when the cry from Middle England went up at the sight of the early Rolling Stones - “What they need is a bath and a hair cut and a spell of national service would do them all good” . This overlooked the fact that one of the band, Bill Wyman, had already done his National Service – 1955-1958, RAF Oldenburg, Germany –and look what it did for him.

There seemed few non-Malaysian songs about the country. The Small Faces gave the capital a mention in their 1968 song, Rene, “romping with a stoker from the coast of Kuala Lumpur”. More recently American outfit Bombadil also sang of Kuala Lumpur: ”monsoon winds will take you home to my Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, Kuala Lumpur all day, so much to say”. There seemed little else. When I went to Malaysia, therefore, I went with no set expectations. Parts of Kuala Lumpur , with the Petronas Towers, the huge artificially lit shopping malls of consumer goods and elevated rail system, seemed ultra-modern, rather like those futuristic drawings people in 1960 produced when imagining the cities of 2000. However, a train and boat ride away there was Crab Island - Pulau Ketam, an island fishing village built on stilts – and which sounds like the title of a really exciting Famous Five adventure story (The only flaw in going is that if you are not that keen on crab, you are a bit stuck as to what to choose in the restaurant there).

A couple of hours to the south, Malacca lived up to its exotic image, with the bonus of a canal system from a Dutch past and the Dutch Harbour Cafe, serving hagelslag and apple cake. There were also unexpected musical delights. At the Geographer Cafe on Jonker Street in the Chinese quarter, Mr Burns, the coolest cat in town, entertains most evenings with an eclectic range of songs from early rock and roll through the Bee Gees to J J Cale and all points in between. One evening his version of Cliff Richard’s The Young Ones floated incongruously over the nearby street stalls selling frog porridge , mingling with the sounds of outdoor Chinese karaoke.

What was also apparent was the wide mix of cultures - Malay, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian - and the active promotion of a sense of national unity and ‘one Malaysia’. This is reflected in different ways by the two songs here. The first is Made in Malaysia, a patriotic anthem by Roots n Boots, a Malaysian skinhead punk band influenced by the Oi! sound. Though it sounds like something Sham 69 might have done in 1978, it came from their 2000 album Working Class Heroes, part of a largely underground music scene. The other is the 2008 Here in My Home by Malaysian Artists for Unity: a more ‘official’ musical statement and a kind of Malaysian We Are the World.

The visit also gave rise to a common holiday experience. A glass of retsina can taste wonderfully authentic in an outdoor Athens cafe in the shadow of the Acropolis but can start you worrying if you have mixed it up with the Jeyes pine disinfectant when tasted in the front room at home. A CD of Croatian folk music can suddenly sound less interesting when heard again out of context. And a sketch of Malacca purchased from its Chinese artist in his shop can seem not really naïf art when opened up after the journey back to England. What remained, however, was a sense of a kaleidoscope of a place: shifting images of colour and sound. It is then not hard to see where the Tourist Board marketing slogan of 'Malaysia, Truly Asia' came from.



A desire to see a place can come from the smallest incident. A wish to visit Greece came from seeing a photo of Mount Olympus in an encyclopaedia once. Then as a child I came across a Moomin book, either as a present or from the library: Moominland in Midwinter, I think, where the hibernating Moomin wakes halfway through the long dark winter and unexpectedly sees a strange and sometimes frightening world previously unknown to him. More than the characters, it was the settings of the book that really got my attention, with the descriptions and pictures of the forests, hills and valleys, lakes and islands and the sudden surge of colour as winter ends and everything springs back to life. There was something magical - in the sense of a fairy tale - about it and also something rather surreal, (though I wouldn’t have recognised the term then).

But at the same time I was also vaguely aware that it was based on a real country. The back of the book I read had a note about the author, Tove Jansson, who did much of her work on a small island in the Gulf of Finland where she, and sometimes her mother and brother, were the only inhabitants. This seemed a wonderful adventure . She later wrote of it:

It is so small you can walk around it in ten minutes. It is shaped like an atoll and surrounds a deep lake which in good weather makes a fine swimming pool, but in bad weather turns into a raging torrent surrounded by waterfalls. Then our boat has to be pulled right up to the house and tied to the veranda. We only have one tree, a rowan, which bloomed for the first time last summer. But we plant wild roses in the crevices, and potatoes. And we fish. We use rainwater for our coffee and driftwood for our fires. My favourite weather is fog, when the island seems to be afloat at the very end of the world in perfect silence and solitude. Only rarely does one hear the foghorns from the open sea where big ships go by for foreign countries.’

It was this notion of Finland – a mysterious, rather melancholy, place of endless forests and lakes and full of silence – that I carried with me. Statistics said there were 187,000 lakes, 180,000 islands, forest over 70% of the land. This was brought home on my first visit there. Having been dropped in the small town of Karjaa one evening from a union conference centre a few miles away in the countryside, I realised when it was time to get a taxi back that I wasn’t sure where it was - other than it was in a forest by a lake.

Solitude seemed easy to find. A teacher from Kuopio told me of some supply work she had done in a tiny country school, where she brought in finger puppets to bulk out her class of two children. At least it made calling the register last a bit longer. At lunch time they went into the fields outside and picked blueberries. The Finns also have a reputation (when sober) for silence or not talking much. I remember reading about an exchange student whose family hosts didn’t speak to him for the first 3 days. They weren’t being rude, it was just how they were.

Music from Finland , other than Sibelius and Finlandia, is not much known in the UK. It was a novelty to discover, for example, a popular Finnish dance called the Humppa (derived from German oompah music) and which looks like the name sounds. There is also a Finnish tango though, unlike the better known one from Argentina, its mood is apparently sad and nostalgic . Neither have there really been any Finnish equivalents of Abba, Bjork, A-Ha or even Aqua. The first, and apart from Hanoi Rocks possibly only, Finnish group to spring to mind is Lordi, the heavy metal group dressed as monsters that unexpectedly won the 2006 Eurovision contest with Hard Rock Hallelujah: a long way from All Kinds of Everything and Puppet on a String.

Neither have there been many songs about the country. As mentioned in a previous column, the Monty Python song Finland summed up the general lack of knowledge about the place-“You're so sadly neglected and often ignored, a poor second to Belgium when going abroad”.  Helsinki has fared a bit better. 70’s prog-rock band Wigwam painted a little picture of the city in Helsinki Nights: “An' you can go up by the railroad yard, coast on down by the Boulevarde, out along past the shipping docks, Fisher women all counting their stocks” .Swedish-Finnish group Laakso gave a rather different image of Helsinki in their rather kitsch song and video, Italy Vs Helsinki.

However, the song here, Finland, by The Redwoods (primarily American artist and musician Wesley Berg), is from a whole 2010 album about Finland, Jarvi,  ‘written and recorded in a small cottage in Alajarvi’. The lyrics of this and some of the others are cryptic but the sound of the songs captures, for me, the feeling of Finland. There is a sense of the dark forests and lakes –“quiet lakes with pinewood dust” - , a feeling of space and also of melancholy, noises at the edge of the music like something in the trees just at the periphery of your vision.“Fall Winter breeze has whispered things and carved out words on evergreens” (Bonfire). In this setting it is easy to see where the dream-like quality of Tove Jansson’s books came from.

Link to song