Seaside Shuffle

An early column looked at the British seaside town through the rather glum prism of Morrissey and Every Day Is Like Sunday. It was a very particular perspective, one partly borne from the angst of growing up and seeing the resort round you become smaller and more tatty: empty boarding houses, derelict funfairs, the faded grandeur of Edwardian hotels. That is, of course, a partial view of the British seaside. The other side of the coin is the signature tune of ‘I do like to be beside the seaside’ , which has been the backdrop for a sunnier and jollier view for generations of holiday makers heading for a week of being characters inside a Donald Mcgill postcard.

Some resorts tried to stay a cut above the more traditional image of the British seaside. Torbay, for example, described itself as the English Riviera – a feasible analogy, with the blue sea, palm trees and marina. Less feasibly, however, Morecambe saw itself as ‘the Naples of the North’ – I haven’t been to Naples but I suspect it has never had a World of Crinkley Bottom theme park. Brighton, too, has always been rather different, a place where the sea is a backdrop to the town rather than the main attraction. It has always been near enough London for a day out by the sea - or the ‘dirty weekend’ of old for Mr and Mrs Smith - but also had the Regency Royal Pavilion, the winding alleys and little squares of The Lanes, the London to Brighton vintage car run and a growing reputation for a bohemian and cosmopolitan atmosphere. Martha Tilston’s Brighton Song summed up its more recent appeal –“ I'm gonna watch from my living room the cavalcade and the basses boom... nothing can stop us, we're bubbling, nothing can stop us, we're effervescing. This is the feeling”.

The song here then –Seaside Shuffle from 1972, about driving down from London for a day out on Brighton beach – seems a bit cheap and cheerful for Brighton now, more reminiscent of donkey rides, whelk stalls and variety shows at the end of the pier: even the sailors hornpipe section sounds as if it should be danced wearing a kiss-me-quick hat. It was a one-off hit for the group, Terry Dactyl and the Dinosaurs, in reality a blues band called Brett Marvin and the Thunderbolts, who had supported Clapton’s Derek and the Dominoes on tour. (One of its members, and the song’s author - Jona Lewie - subsequently went on to solo success, including the perennial Christmas offering, Stop the Cavalry).

The song itself would seem to owe something to the influence of Ray Dorset and Mungo Jerry, with echoes of In the Summertime, with the jug band feel, kazoo and stop-start technique halfway through, and of Maggie off their 1970 debut album. Songs like these, and ones such as The Pushbike Song by the Mixtures, were an odd sub-genre of music in the early 70’s: not rock or underground but not bubble-gum either. You could see these artists as the UK equivalent of groups such as Spanky and Our Gang or Harpers Bizarre a few years later. You could also see them as part of a strand in British pop that went back through some of the Small Faces’ work, Joe Brown and Lonnie Donegan to skiffle and beyond to the music hall. (For a surreal experience, the clip below shows the Bee Gees singing Donegan’s My Old Man’s a Dustman – not a combination one might think of googling).The tradition was continued by the BBC throughout the 70’s with their Seaside Special shows, where a bemused Three Degrees might find themselves appearing alongside a chimpanzee act, Rod Hull and Emu or Kenneth Mckellar singing of the Scottish Highlands in a kilt.

In a way, the cheap and cheerful sound is perfectly suited to the British seaside, if not Brighton itself . Once the preserve of the wealthy seeking to improve their health, the seaside became the holiday choice of Britain’s working class, whether Londoners decamping to Brighton or Margate or whole mill towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire going off to Blackpool or Morecambe in Wakes Week, where their next door neighbour in the terraced street at home would take the same holiday boarding house. Those glory days may have been well on the wane by the time of this song but the echoes were  there with the man selling ice-cream and the walk along the pier – where you still might see Alan Price or Dusty Springfield at the end of the pier show. "It’s a warm day, the sun is shining”/”Everything is silent and grey” –same place, different eyes.



As with any capital city, a visitor goes to Dublin with a mental list of what they expect or want to see. Probably the Guinness Store House; the Book of Kells; the Ha’penny Bridge over the River Liffey; Dublin castle; the Temple Bar; perhaps O’Connell Street with the General Post Office that was the HQ of the 1916 rebellion. They will probably also bring, again as with other capitals, notions drawn from a history of books, films, plays and songs about the place.

 The best known songs are probably traditional ones. The tune of Molly Malone, for example, has become part of a general consciousness and sometimes the first thing people think of when they hear the word ‘Dublin’. The lines starting ‘ She wheels her wheel barrow ...’ have become not only a ubiquitous chant at football matches, with a team name replacing the cockles and mussels bit, but have also been heard at  political demonstrations (‘ She wheels her wheel barrow through the streets broad and narrow, crying...smash the bourgeoisie’). It was one of a whole genre of songs that helped to imbue a very traditional view of the place, continued in a score of bar-room ballads and rollicking sing-a-long choruses. In 1967 folk group the Dubliners hit the UK charts with two traditional songs, Black Velvet Band and Seven Drunken Nights, (though they were only allowed to sing about five of them on TV and radio). They also, very satisfyingly, looked just like what many people imagined Dubliners would look like.

This notion of an older Dublin continued to exist like the underlay of a photograph alongside the rise of newer images, whether that of a cosmopolitan and cultured European city with the euro and an early no-smoking ban or awareness of the emaciated heroin addicts in central Dublin or the large housing estates. This notion saw cobbled streets and elegant Georgian houses, fiddlers in traditional pubs and earnest drunken discussions about Joyce and Yeats over Guinness. Some songs continued to reflect this Dublin. Loreena McKennitt’s Dickens’ Dublin (The Palace) brought back to life a city from 150 years before:” I'll huddle in this doorway here till someone comes along. If the lamp lighter comes real soon ,maybe I'll go home with him.” The 19th Century Rocky Road to Dublin, recorded by the Dubliners in the early 60’s – “Cut a stout black thorn to banish ghosts and goblins; bought a pair of brogues rattling o'er the bogs and fright'ning all the dogs on the rocky road to Dublin” - , has been covered by scores of artists, including the Pogues and the Rolling Stones.

The song that I associate most with Dublin, however, is not the Dubliners singing about Dublin nor the others mentioned. It is not actually a song about Dublin as such but one originally recorded in Dublin by a Dublin born artist who I first saw there and so, I think, counts as a personal link between listener and place. The song is Mmm by Laura Izibor, and this live version comes from a 2007 performance at the city’s Crawdaddy Club in Harcourt Street. To my mind she rates as one of the finest and most interesting soul singers of recent years – best heard solo at keyboards or piano, I feel - and some of her songs like I Dont Want You Back and Don’t Stay show a style that has echoes of artists like Carole King and Roberta Flack.

She is not, of course, the first black Dubliner in music - Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy and Samantha Mumba came before – but she follows her own path in a changing country, though with her Irish accent sometimes causing surprise overseas. In an interview in 2009 she reported a typical response in America: ‘They've got black people in Ireland? Y'all live there and shit?'. She has done later versions of this song but the audience participation gives an added dimension to this one. Plenty of songs have been recorded live and many are also done with an eye on rabble rousing anthems that would get a live audience joining in: Queen were masters at that. What is less common is a recorded song where the audience are already an integral part. One of the few was by Chuck Berry, who had his sole Number One hit in 1972 - not, surprisingly, with Johnny B Goode or Roll Over Beethoven but with My Ding A Ling, recorded live with a student audience supplying the chorus. (Given the era , the students in the clip below seem to be remarkably fresh faced and clean cut!)

Cities have their own sounds. Maybe it would be traffic and sirens in New York; church bells in parts of Paris or Rome; the distant sound of the carousel in the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. Probably it should be the sound of a fiddle or accordion in Dublin – but I will settle for ‘mmm’.


Life In A Northern Town

The difference between the north and south of England has long been a theme in literature and art and films: as, for example, North and South, the paintings of Lowry, the film Billy Elliot. Inevitably, pop music came to follow the same path. At its start, pop music was largely a southern/London medium. The Beatles weren’t the first pop artists from the north, or even from Liverpool – the first successful pop artist from Liverpool was possibly Lita Roza in the early 50’s, (best remembered for How Much Is That Doggie In the Window),followed by Frankie Vaughan and Billy Fury. However, the Beatles and the other Liverpool groups that came in their wake shifted - if only for a while - the focus of British pop music from London to the north. After Merseybeat there was a short spate of other towns and cities discovering their own special sound - the ‘Manchester Sound’, with the Hollies, Mindbenders and Herman’s Hermits; the ‘Newcastle Sound’ with the Animals ;the ‘Blackburn Sound ‘ with the Four Pennies. ( This particular bandwagon started grinding to a halt further south with the ‘Solihull Sound’, a sound based on the Applejacks and a tinny organ that sounded like – ding dong, the Avon Lady had come to call).

Mostly, these were pop groups who happened to come from the north but there were a few place-specific songs from that era: Ferry Cross the Mersey, Penny Lane, Gonna Send You Back to Walker (the Animals’ reworking of an American r ‘n b song to reflect an area of Newcastle). However, the idea of a generic ‘The North’ suffered from stereotyping in a way that ‘The South’ seemed to escape. Take the UK Number One in April 1978, Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs, a LS Lowry tribute by Brian and Michael. The lyrics are Grim Up North and sentimental simultaneously and get in clogs, factory gates, northern folk , kids with nowt on their feet and old flat caps, with the artists appearing on Top of the Pops under simulated gas lamps and the dreaded St Winifred’s School Choir angelically singing ‘ally ally o’ in the background (  a possibly deliberate echo of the sequence in the film A Taste of Honey, also set in Salford, where children are heard singing the same refrain). In a clash of romanticism and reality, at the same time this nostalgia-heavy picture of a bygone Salford and Ancoats came out, local group the Buzzcocks were heading up Anti-Nazi League gigs in Manchester and around.

No-one does the whole ‘ northern past seen through rose-tinted glasses’ better than John Shuttleworth, the comic creation of actor/musician Graham Fellows, who first appeared as Jilted John and Gordon Is A Moron about the same time as the Brian and Michael hit. Songs like Shopkeepers in the North are Nice and Dandelion and Burdock work on two levels. They take stereotyped nostalgia to an absurdity – ‘Looking back on better times, when life was good and there was little crime, children played on their pogo sticks and on Saturdays went to the local flicks’ - and gently parody those who really do say ‘I’m talking now of old money’, rue the fact that boys no longer have useful hobbies and recount their day out at a tram museum with an air of slight pomposity. But they also work in their own right - partly because of the intricate little details - as a naive, sometimes poignant, view that ‘it’s nicer up north’.

In 1985 there was a hit by another one-hit wonder act, Dream Academy, also with an apparently generic ‘northern’ theme : Life in a Northern Town. It is a strange song, very oblique and perhaps not about the north at all. The original video accompanying the track was shot in Hebden Bridge, definitely a northern town: a former mill town in the Pennine hills of West Yorkshire and now a haven for artists, writers, New Age-ists, alternative practitioners, a literary treasure trove at the Book Case bookshop and a town once described by the British Airways in-flight magazine as the ‘4th funkiest town in the world’. The lyrics also start off as though placing the song in a northern setting, with the image of a Salvation Army Band and children drinking lemonade. However, by all accounts, Life In a Northern Town was written as a tribute to singer/songwriter Nick Drake, mainly associated with Warwickshire and Cambridge, so the exact meaning of the lyrics remains obscure.

The same reference point of a Salvation Army band had been heard in Blue Mink’s infectious 1971 hit, Banner Man, which was actually not about any place in particular but carried the echo of a Lancashire town. The song is heard in the opening sequence of the film East is East, another film set in Salford in the early 1970’s, and one commentator vividly recalled hearing it on holiday in Blackpool as a child:  “ After a time we came to a cafe. A typical Blackpool cafe which probably almost certainly utilised lard for frying the chips and other 70s pleasures as sausages, bacon and eggs etc and there we sat down while my dad had a cup of tea and I had a hot chocolate. In the corner was a juke box and after a bit of pestering my dad let me put 10p in for us to have two choices. I seem to think he chose them as he knew what I liked and he knew I loved The Banner Man by Blue Mink. The juke box was one where you could see the records (special ones with a much larger than usual hole in the middle) being picked up by an arm, swung over and dropped onto the turntable before the heavy duty juke box needle started on its journey from the outside to the centre and filling the cafe with a such a joyous and wonderful song’ (Tom Gregory, 500 songs).

Nostalgia about the north, I feel, can be more complex than some other places because the past is often more visible in the present. In an alleyway off Dalton Square in Lancaster there used to be a chemist shop that looked as if it hadn’t changed in a hundred years, with a window full of herbal medicines, little green bottles, ointments and surgical appliances that made your eyes water just to look at them. Opposite was a small sweet shop, run by a man who had been made redundant at the local factory and had used his money to fulfil his childhood dream. Once when I went in, in between serving bonfire toffee and Pontefract cakes he was reading the autobiography of Henry Hyndman, leader of England’s first socialist party, the Social Democratic Federation, and parliamentary candidate in nearby Burnley in the early twentieth Century. The sweet shop man was, I suppose, the modern day equivalent of the weavers and clerks who used to go to the Mechanics Institutes still standing in places like Burnley and Skipton to better themselves. (As a antidote to over-romanticism here, it is worth noting that alongside the Reading Rooms, Temperance Clubs, Esperanto classes and Clarion Cycling Clubs that existed in Burnley at the start of the Twentieth Century there was also a peculiar pastime called ‘smacking’ – hitting each other on the head till one fell down. Maybe it still goes on.).Life in a northern town: you can see it through a multiplicity of prisms but , yes, different from the south.