A previous column (The Airport Song) looked at the early allure of airports as a gateway to the romantic and exotic, flying off to places new and unknown. It was noted at the time that though there were relatively few songs about airports themselves, there were plenty about flying. Pop music has always co-existed with air travel and there was a time when it was easy to merge the novelty, sophistication and excitement of flying with music: Come Fly With Me or Fly Me to the Moon. Often, of course, songs about flying were metaphors for something else, partly because the mundanities of an actual airplane flight itself would rarely make for an interesting song. Instead, they were about going away ( Leaving On a Jet Plane, One Day I’ll Fly Away); about wanting to go away (Early Morning Rain, Aeroplane),;about escaping poverty (Fly Like an Eagle); of, possibly, being high (Eight Miles High).
Beyond these the airplane itself has been one of the most mythologized forms of transport, taking on in some ways the romantic qualities of the train and the spirit of adventure. As Gordon Lightfoot pointed out in Early Morning Rain, ‘you can’t jump a jet plane like you can a freight train’ but that hasn’t stopped the airplane at times becoming its modern day musical equivalent. The song here, Transatlantic Westbound Jet by the Hollies, is one of those. The Hollies are one of the very few groups - perhaps the Stones and Searchers are the only others - who have survived from the first days of British beat without being confined as living artefacts in the time-warp of the nostalgia circuit. They had in Tony Hicks a tasteful and inventive guitarist, who also provided a forgotten but charming piece of British Psychedelia, circa 1967 – Pegasus - that was part of the flurry of songs about giant albatrosses, tin soldiers and the like referenced in the column on Taking A Trip Up to Abergavenny
They also had in Bobby Elliot one of the finest drummers to come out of British pop, adding – like Charlie Watts - a touch of jazz cool to his band’s sounds; and amongst their string of hits, songs like I’m Alive and I Can’t Let Go remain as timeless 3 - minute pop classics . Graham Nash, of course, left such pop fluff behind for weightier stuff with Crosby, Stills and Nash. Like...umm....Almost Cut My Hair (“It happened just the other day. It was getting kinda long, I could of said it was in my way. But I didn’t”).
Transatlantic Westbound Jet, originally on a 1973 album , isn’t one of their best songs, even with two versions: one with Mikael Rickfors, the Swedish singer who was group vocalist for a short period in the early 70’s and the second with Allan Clarke, who turns in a weaker vocal with a faux American accent. Yet though it is probably unrealistic to read too much into a minor album track, there is something in the song that sums up the ambivalent attitude of British pop to America –and to Britain - at a particular era. Ray Davies and the Kinks were something of an exception in their focus at that time on a very English perspective, the George Orwell view of England: of old maids cycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist. More typical was to look west and pick up the myths of America - which had become the myths of rock and pop. The cowboy-come-troubadour, here today and gone tomorrow: have guitar, will travel
This is what this song represents and in one way that is maybe odd for a British group, though not unusual. (One of the first British pop records proper, Rock Island Line, had Lonnie Donegan, born in Glasgow, making a valiant attempt to sound as if he was from a Southern state). The Hollies were a northern band, its members from the towns of East Lancashire – Burnley, Nelson, Clitheroe - mentioned in the Life in a Northern Town column: as was presumably the subject of their Jennifer Eccles hit. The song came out in the year that the BBC series Life On Mars, located in Manchester, was set, a year of a three-day week and work to rule by the Miners Union. A world far remote from that of the song.
Yet in another way it isn’t odd at all. Pop music isn’t necessarily about reality. In fact, it most easily inhabits the world of myths: that is what makes some pop records timeless. This track is one step removed from that, a British perspective on another country’s mythology. Maybe it was just the Hollies being wistful at the fame, fortune and perpetual sunshine that Graham Nash had flown off to. But it doesn’t really matter if the reality of a trip in a transatlantic westbound jet, heading off to JFK airport, fails to match the song’s imagery. If, for example, the transport taking you to JFK to catch an early morning Delta airline flight is stopped by police for jumping a red light and you nearly miss the trip back to Heathrow; or the turbulence makes you wonder why on earth you had spread your wings. You don’t always want to turn reality into a song.