Coles Corner

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


Wonderful Land/Stars Fell On Stockton

The column this week is intended as a kind of tribute to a recent contributor to the comments on this blog, ex-Shadow Jet Harris, who died on 18 March

To date, all the columns have been about songs and their associations with places but it is not only words, of course, that carry meaning and leave memories. Often, in fact, it is the melody itself that can act as a Proustian trigger for recollection, so that a snippet of music can waft you back to sitting on the beach as a child or on a boat on the Seine. The association for the listener can be totally different from what was intended because it depends on the circumstance in which it was heard. Eye-Level, the theme from Van der Valk, for example, - mentioned in the column on Holland Song - reminds me not of Amsterdam but Morecambe. That is because I was staying in rented accommodation there that had a strange coin-operated TV set which would show, when you put your money in, whatever channel had been programmed by the owner. I came across an episode of Van de Valk when I put in my 50p, or whatever it was: hence the memory of Morecambe sea front rather than the canals of Amsterdam when I hear the tune. Likewise, it is difficult to hear The Blue Danube without thinking of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, rather than the Danube itself.

Instrumentals can, of course, be very evocative of place - in the instruments used, in the mood, in the very rhythms, so that hearing Salsa and thinking of Cuba is inevitable. St Etienne are effective in conjuring up a dreamy London landscape in some of their instrumental pieces ; or listen to some of the atmospheric tracks by St Etienne-influenced duo, Keep Shelly in Athens, and the mood is of a Greek beach sunset or, in the case of their Fokionos Negri Street track, sitting in a sun-drenched Athens street cafe.

They can also be misleading. Take the 1956 UK Number One hit, Poor People of Paris, by Trinidad-born pianist Winifred Atwell, one of the first black artists to get into the UK charts. This is actually an instrumental version of an Edith Piaf song, La Goulante de Pauvre Jean (The Ballad of Poor John), about a French hustler/gigolo. The story goes that the English music publisher mis-heard the title over the phone as ‘pauvre gens’ and called the tune Poor People of Paris, the ‘of Paris’ bit presumably added to signify it was French. In truth, this was probably needed as the boogie-woogie style of Winifred Atwell conjured up a knees-up in a pub rather than the boulevards of Paris. (Both versions are below to indicate the transformation in the tune that took place to accommodate cultural expectations. The rather eerie sound that comes in halfway through the Winifred Atwell version is a musical saw courtesy of record producer Joe Meek, the Telstar man, a decade before the Beach Boys used a theremin to get a similar sound in Good Vibrations - and a lot cheaper).

This little episode gives a very mixed message about Britain then. On the one hand Winifred Atwell had a string of hits in the UK at a time when she was barred from appearing on the American Ed Sullivan Show in case her colour upset viewers. On the other, it seems to bear out the column on European Lover, that the British at that time liked something vaguely ‘continental’ as long as it was put in a familiar package. Edith Piaf would be much too French: better to have a ragtime style that had been current for the previous 20 years or so and give it a title about Paris. Having listened to that, why would you actually need to go to Paris? It also says something about the fondness for sing-along piano tunes at that time, possibly an attempt to recreate the communal solidarity of the Blitz years and already tinged with nostalgia. When Winifred Atwell’s star waned, her place was taken by another pianist Russ Conway, who also had a string of hits in the late 50’s in a similar style - he also had an unusual characteristic for a pianist in that he had cut off part of a finger in a bread slicer accident and later in his career nearly severed a thumb in a car door. As late as 1965 German pianist Horst Jankowski had a UK hit with the jaunty Walk in the Black Forest.

The most successful British group for producing instrumental hits-and the biggest UK group of the pre-Beatles era- were The Shadows. Though staying virtually unknown in America they were for many years huge across much of Europe. In his 1969 history of pop, WopBopaLooBop LopBamBoom, Nik Cohn said of the Shadows: “ Even now, if you’re traipsing around the backwaters of Morocco and you stumble across a local group, they’ll sound exactly like the Shadows, flat guitars and jigalong melodies and little leg kicks and all. In Spain or Italy or Yugoslavia they’re regarded as the pop giants of all time. Elvis Schmelvis, Beatles Schmeatles. Viva los Shads! “. Their success was helped by two things, I think. Britain got its first guitar hero with Hank Marvin, who gave his name to a new verb of ‘hanking’: teenage boys vanishing to their rooms with a tennis racquet to pretend being an axe-man in front of the mirror. They were also given in the early years an image edge by bassist Jet Harris, whose quiffed dyed blond hair and reluctance to play the show-biz game gave an air of cool reminiscent of the Fonz in Happy Days.

The tracks here are the ‘A’ and ‘B’ sides of the last record he did with the group in 1962 before departing for a solo career and both are nominally about places. Stars Fell on Stockton is a throw-away ‘B’ side, with whistling a la Hampstead Way, though this bit does rather sound if the Seven Dwarves had wandered into the studio on their way to see Snow White. It was apparently written by the group after Jet Harris crashed his car after a performance at the Stockton Globe Theatre and was fined for driving without ‘L’ plates but gives no impression of Stockton, a northern town not to be confused with Stockport. The ‘A’ side ,Wonderful Land ,had the distinction of remaining at Number One longer than any other single in the 60’s, including the Beatles hits.

It is very much a tune of its era, suggesting less the wonderful land of Oz and more the Britain of the period between the ending of post-WW2 austerity and the explosion of Swinging London and the ‘sixties’ proper. A time of black and white TV with 2 channels (only one if you didn’t want to buy a licence) and summer holidays on the beach or, if really exotic, a caravan park in Wales or Somerset, whilst the local funfair blasts out Apache and FBI. However, also at a time when the charts were full of anodyne American ‘Bobby’s’-Darin, Rydell, Vinton, Vee – it is a reminder of a strand of distinctly British pop that flourished before the Beatles: and a brief period when a bass player from Willesden was one of the coolest faces on the musical block.


Streets Of Your Town

It is probably natural, if not logical, to think that the further away you go from home, the stranger and more unfamiliar the places will seem. Hence the Latin phrase, Hic Sunt Dracones (Here be Dragons) written across the east coast of Asia on the Lenox Globe, one of the oldest surviving world globes. By this reckoning Australia, 10,000 miles away, should seem one of the most unfamiliar to British eyes. In many ways, of course, having developed in isolation from the rest of the world, it is a totally different sort of place, with its odd animals found nowhere else. Yet in others, because of the way it was colonised and because of the cultural familiarity of programmes like Neighbours, it often doesn’t seem like the other side of the world, where everything should really be a foreign country. In terms of notions about Australia, the UK has also had the phenomenon of Rolf Harris, a reassuring uncle from overseas figure who has been part of the British landscape now for as long as the Queen (his first British TV appearance was in 1953, the Coronation year).

Through music and films and TV, Britain has had a mixed picture of Australia. Much of it has been of the matey, Crocodile Dundee type of genre, with songs like A Pub With No Beer and the adverts for Castlemaine xxxx Lager. This has been alongside a notion of the outback and a vast and strange landscape that seems about to reclaim its own, seen in children’s TV shows or films like Smiley or Skippy or, at the other end of the spectrum, films like Walkabout and Rabbit-Proof Fence. (Rolf Harris touched on both strands early in his singing career with Tie My Kangaroo Down, Sport and Sun Arise). There has, however, been little from songs about particular cities - Sydney, Melbourne, Perth – to help paint a picture of them in the mind.

When I went to Australia – a short (4 day) trip to Brisbane, via the flight to Singapore that Magna Carta sung so evocatively of in their Airport Song – I had few clear expectations. The experience was an odd one. The initial thought, emerging in searing sunshine 2 days after setting off on a dreary September evening in England, was that I really was on the other side of the world, rather like Alice falling down a very deep rabbit hole. A question that used to be asked at school even came into my head for a fleeting moment.: ‘Why don’t people in Australia walk upside down?’. This feeling, however, didn’t last longer than the ride into Brisbane. Perhaps because it had developed as a series of ‘villages’, I found it difficult to get a sense of the place. There were some pleasant semi-tropical botanic gardens, a lot of glass towers and shopping malls where you might get charged ’10 bucks’ American-style for something, a Chinese quarter, a sense of motorways and endless suburbs. An hour’s drive or so north were views over countryside that could have been England. A short train ride to the south was the Gold Coast, a mixture of Blackpool and Tenerife’s Las Playas de Americas: hot sun, brilliantly blue sea lined by skyscraper hotels, garish neon lights, casinos, the sense of dollar signs floating in the air. Viva Las Vegas might have been a suitable soundtrack.

The choice of song here, then, might seem odd: Streets of Your Town, a hauntingly beautiful song by The Go Betweens, from their 1988 album 16 Lovers Lane. The Go Betweens were a Brisbane group that were as far away from the stereotype of a band from Queensland as possible. They took their name from L.P Hartley’s novel; they did melodic, lyrical songs by founder members Robert Forster and Grant McLennan that had a Byrds jingle-jangly sound at times; they had a female drummer. Many of their songs referenced Queensland and Brisbane and Streets of Your Town is an evocative mood song reflecting Brisbane in the era of the notorious Bjelke-Petersen Queensland government: a sunny upbeat tune with dark lyrics.

It is also a particularly interesting song for two reasons. The first is that it is one of those songs that is misinterpreted by some to be the opposite of what was intended by the authors. Streets of Your Town has been described as ‘a favourite summer song’ and has been used as a jingle by Prime Television and by Brisbane paper, the Courier-Mail, in its ads: I don’t know if the lines about butcher’s knives and battered wives were included. The best known example of songs like this is perhaps Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA being taken up by Reagan’s 1984 election campaign as a patriotic anthem but there have been others. Leonard Cohen’s dark, bitter Hallelujah was taken by many as a Christmas offering a la Mistletoe and Wine when Alexandra Burke’s version was released as a Christmas single after winning the 2008 X Factor. Or there was the 1973 Strawbs’ hit, Part of the Union, taken up by the Trades Union Congress at the time and others since as a union solidarity sing-along, though it had been written as a satirical anti-union whinge by group members Richard Hudson and John Ford aggrieved at having to join a union when doing a holiday job as students.(They re-surfaced later in the 1970’s as part of one-hit wonders The Monks with Nice Legs, Shame About Her Face, which I don’t think was misinterpreted by anyone as an anthem of feminist solidarity). And David Cameron was either being deeply ironical or missing the point of the lyrics when he claimed The Jam’s Eton Rifles as one of his favourite songs. (As Paul Weller put it, "Which part of it doesn't he get? It wasn't intended as a f***ing jolly drinking song for the cadet corps.")

The second is that the imagery and mood offered through the song and two accompanying videos for Streets of Your Town is totally at odds with my brief experience of Brisbane. So much, in fact, that the place in the song still exists in a parallel universe somewhere and I think that, maybe one day, I will emerge into the sunshine as from a rabbit hole and find it.


European Lover

Britain and Europe have always had an uneasy relationship. There was a time when the British young man of means would undertake the Grand Tour of Europe as a rite of passage: from London to Dover and thence to Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Rome, Venice, Athens, Sicily, Vienna. It was meant to round out the education and develop the character, though was just as likely to mean gambling, drinking and dalliances. It has modern echoes, I suppose , not just in the word ‘tourist’ but in the stag weekends in Prague or Tallinn or the post - school exam trips, without parents, to Tenerife or Kos. A view of Europe as a strange mixture of ‘culture’ and hedonism

At the time pop music was starting to emerge, Europe was viewed by many British with a similar confusion: impossibly sophisticated - especially places like Paris and Rome- but also somewhere to regard with great suspicion. On one hand, songs like April in Paris or Arriverderci Roma cast the romantic appeal of an old colourful travel poster in a railway waiting room, especially to people whose experience of foreign travel, if any, might be a day trip to Calais or Ostend. Petula Clark had her first UK Number One in 1961 with her version of Sailor, a roll-call of seemingly faraway places in Europe as well as the other side of the world - Capri, Amsterdam, Honolulu, Siam. A couple of years later The Bachelors scored their own similar hit with an old Bing Crosby tune, Faraway Places(With Strange Sounding Names) - which included Spain and, yes again, Siam.

At the same time, things European seemed, to many British at that time, something to be rather wary of and often quite remote. Olive oil was found in small bottles in chemists, to put in your ears. Funny foreign dishes like coq au vin or beef bourguignon were towards the exotic end of the culinary spectrum and pronounced with a very exaggerated French accent to herald their arrival. The cook and food writer, Nigel Slater, described in his book Toast - set in the mid-1960’s – the dismay caused in his household when his father daringly tried out spaghetti bolognaise for the first time:

Aunt Fanny is looking down at her lap. ‘Do I have to have some?’ I think she is going to cry...We all sit there staring at our tumbling piles of pasta on our glass pyrex plates. ‘Oh Kathleen, I don’t think I can’ sobs Aunt Fanny, who then picks up a long sticky strand with her fingers and pops it into her mouth from which it hangs all the way down to her lap. ‘No, wait for the sauce, Fanny’ Mother sighs, and then quite out of character, ’Come on, Daddy, hurry up’. Dad spoons the sauce, a slurry of reddy-brown mince that smells foreign, over the knots and twirls of pasta. Suddenly it all seems so grown-up, so sophisticated

I can remember -many years after the time Toast was set-going into a bakery shop in Lancaster and hearing someone, (probably a tourist), asking to buy some croissants. ‘We don’t sell them’ was the reply from the girl serving. ‘ I can see them there’, said the customer, pointing at the window. ‘Oh, you mean curly-wurlies’ came the surprised answer.

Times changed, of course, and horizons widened, in music as in food and culture.. As seen in the column on Paris Bells, by the mid-sixties artists like Francoise Hardy were getting in the UK charts and The Beatles could come out with some lines of French in Michelle. A few more years on and ‘European’ could even seem old hat and more bland than sophisticated - Eurovision, Euro-pop, Europe banging out The Final Countdown. Exotic travel no longer meant Barcelona or Rome but Thailand (same place as Siam but doesn’t rhyme as well),or Goa or the Maldives.

A trip round the sites and sights of Europe, however, was still a popular travel option, though the whirlwind coach tour –as in the 1969 film If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium –seemed more an American than British experience. A musical voyage round Europe’s cities also surfaced from time to time. In Dusseldorf, Regina Spektor threw in Frankfurt, Paris, Berlin, Prague, Amsterdam, Montpellier, Barcelona, Brussels, Marseilles, Corsica, London as well as Dusseldorf. In Eurotrash Girl, Cracker had a similar list, with Athens, Zurich and Turin as new additions. And in the song here from 2007, European Lover, Sheffield indie band Little Man Tate manage Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Sicily and Crete – and, being from a northern perspective , London too. The itinerary described is not dissimilar to the Grand Tour of old, though Crete is perhaps in there more for the night clubs of Malia now rather than the Knossos Palace.

In this case, however, the song’s narrator doesn’t visit these places himself but instead throws their names with a mixture of wistfulness and bitterness at his former lover, away travelling and apparently getting married to someone else on the way. There is also something touchingly old-fashioned about it, as though the narrator was speaking from the 1950’s. In fact, the phrase ‘Gay Paree’ may be used ironically but it sounds like a London bank clerk in the 1890’s. ‘Going to Gay Paree, eh? It’s that Toulouse Lautrec and can-can girls over there’. (In the 1976 release Georgina Bailey by Noosha Fox , about a teenage girl’s crush on her uncle Jean Paul, ‘Gay Paree’ is used in a knowingly modern sense –and it is nice to see, in the video below, that they didn’t stereotype the French back then).

In some ways, with the breaking up of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia into their different parts Europe can seem more different than perhaps 40 years ago. When a travel guide on a country called Molvania came out in 2004, it wasn’t immediately obvious that it was a spoof: Slovenia, Slovakia, Moldova - why not Molvania? What probably stays true is that if one has been to any of the places in the song the memories of them - for Crete or Barcelona - will be that for that place. If one hasn’t – like Sicily – the name itself remains the adventure still.