Most of the columns have been about places that exist in real time, although artist and listener may well see them in very different ways. There is another, and rather unusual, type of place. You may have seen it mentioned, and people may talk about it in the present tense, but you won’t find it on any map. That is because it no longer exists - but in some people’s minds it is still there in the here and now. I have come across this phenomenon myself. ‘You know, next to the Co-op’, someone has said, oblivious to the fact that the Co-op referred to was shut and turned into something else 20 years ago. Or, “Go past Baileys and down the road’, when the last time the nightclub in question was called Baileys was when The Searchers played there, with Mike Pender still as lead singer. It is a curious concept of time, and one that brings to mind Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five, where time is presented as a continuous loop or as a mountain range already laid out: step back and you can see it all there still, stretching behind and in front.
There are obvious problems in writing a song about a place that no longer exists in reality but is still there in some people’s heads - the listener probably won’t have been there nor will even know of its previous life. I suppose Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane fall into this category and there are probably others. It is even harder to write a song that makes you feel you must have been to such a place . The song here from 2005, Coles Corner by Richard Hawley, manages just that though. Like many of Richard Hawley’s songs, Coles Corner is about a part of Sheffield, Coles Bros being a large department store on the corner of Fargate and Church Street, near the Cathedral, that actually moved out in 1963: the building has housed a whole variety of businesses since then, most recently the HSBC Bank. The spot was, however, mainly remembered as a place for courting couples to meet up on a date and it kept its name, Coles Corner. There is thus a conundrum about this song. Though I have driven past Sheffield on the M1 many times heading further north I have only visited the city once and though I walked past Coles Corner I didn’t realise it at the time –why would I, it doesn’t exist now. However, hearing this song makes me feel I have been there when it did exist, though I haven’t. Hmm.
The song is decidedly retro - the Sheffield here is nothing like that seen in the music of the Human League or Arctic Monkeys or even Hawley’s previous group, Pulp. This is a Billy Liar Sheffield. Echoes of the musical past run through it, from the overwhelmingly lush intro to the touches of ‘hold back the night’ and ‘downtown’ , though it is a much more melancholy downtown than the rather brash one of Petula Clark. But somehow there is nothing of a self-conscious pastiche about it. It is like two eras separated by 45 years have somehow touched –Vonnegut’s time loop. Hawley’s baritone voice has been compared to Scott Walker and certainly there is something about Coles Corner that is reminiscent of Copenhagen. However, Scott Walker seems too cosmopolitan and ‘European’ for this record and a more apt comparison might be with Matt Munro - variously known as ‘the singing bus driver’ and ‘the English Frank Sinatra’ - and his songs like Softly As I Leave You and Portrait of My Love. As surely as the early Shadows, this sound was part of that era of British pop after rock and roll had faded and before the Beatles arrived. With the sweeping orchestration and the heavy sense of nostalgia hanging over this tune, this song if given visual form would be the rich red velvet curtains in an old fashioned cinema just before they opened for the start of the ‘B’ movie.
For me the track sounds like a musical backdrop for a little scenario set in England round about 1961 or so, in fact the era of the last column on Wonderful Land. In this scene it is early Saturday evening in a terraced street in a provincial town. Sheffield, Blackburn, Weymouth –whichever one, London is a long way away, only seen on school trips or the occasional family visit. The younger son is upstairs in his bedroom practising the Shadows walk and wondering if he dare borrow his sister’s hair dye and turn his head blond like Jet Harris. He would really like to go and see Mike Berry and the Outlaws rocking it up in the Corn Exchange but knows that even if he nips out before they play the national anthem at the end he won’t get home in time. His older sister is watching Juke Box Jury on the TV, hoping they will play the latest record by Craig Douglas, who she secretly thinks looks rather like her new boy friend, who is taking her to see Breakfast at Tiffany’s at The Gaumont later. Only, crikey, there is a young actor called David McCallum on the panel and he’s better looking than Craig Douglas. His mother is washing up, before coming in to the living room later to watch the Billy Cotton Band Show. She likes Russ Conway tinkling away on the piano: such a handsome man, she can’t understand why he hasn’t been snapped up by some nice young lady by now. His father is sitting in an armchair –he has done the pools but no luck this week. He is not that keen on the Billy Cotton Show. There is one of those rock and rollers, Joe Brown, on it now, making a racket. All right, he can play the guitar behind his head but what is the point of that? Pity National Service has finished, that would have given him a proper trade. The older son is also in his room. He would like to be meeting someone with a smile and a flower in her hair - by Coles Corner, or the Roxy. Only he doesn’t know anyone to meet so he puts Marty Wilde’s Tomorrow’s Clown on his Dansette and settles for an evening in.
Somehow a song about a place that no longer exists becomes a tune for a whole era: provincial England, late 50’s/early 60’s.
Link to song