English Rose/Old England

As a child, one of the things around the house was a wooden jigsaw of the counties of England: I remembered it recently when I saw such an item mentioned in the novel England, England (Julian Barnes). The names of the counties, like Rutland or Suffolk, were as remote and exotic as the names of the cities - Copenhagen, Budapest - on the dial of the old radio that also lay about. As I remember it, the jigsaw was brightly coloured and there were no towns or cities marked, giving the impression of a rural, colourful, miniature world. By such trivialities are impressions of a word- ‘England’ - formed.

.A previous column, Goodbye England (Covered with Snow), looked at one of the perennial images of ‘England’: a snow-covered English countryside and folk memories of a more ancient rural past of old England. The comments in the last column gave many other images that might appear in song. Yet in the early years of British pop the idea of songs about England barely occurred – the perspective was largely an American one. In fact the novelist Colin MacInnes wrote a book called English, Half English (a phrase later taken up by a Billy Bragg song) in which he spoke of bi-lingual singers like Tommy Steele “speaking American at the recording session, and English in the pub round the corner afterwards." ‘England’ in musical terms was largely confined to two genres. There was English folk music, like jazz largely in its own world: it wasn’t until Fairport Convention and their 1969 album Liege and Lief that folk started moving into the pop/rock mainstream. There was also comedy/light entertainment, a world in which ‘English’ meant pompous gents in bowler hats or comic Andy Capp figures in overalls and probably on strike – as in the Bernard Cribbin songs, Right Said Fred (note the recurring references to 'a cup of tea'!) and Hole in the Ground, both UK hits in 1962; or Lonnie Donegan’s My Old Man’s A Dustman.

Otherwise, English pop remained largely westward looking, across the Atlantic to the USA. As mentioned before, the Kinks were a rarity in 60’s pop in their English perspective and especially in showcasing traditional English work-class culture in songs like Autumn Almanac (‘I like my football on a Saturday, roast beef on Sunday is all right. I go to Blackpool for my holidays, sit in the autumn sunlight’), not to caricature it but to lament a way of life disappearing. They were followed by others - the Jam, Blur, the Smiths, Pulp – and the notion of ‘Englishness’ became more of a fit subject to tackle in songs. However, they tended to be from a home grown perspective for, as Laura has commented in a previous column, there are very few examples coming the other way across the Atlantic, of American songs picking up on English mythology : no equivalent of Ian Hunter’s infatuation with American mythology, for example.

Songs about England or being ‘English’ by and large avoided the obvious stereotypes of Beefeaters, bowler hats and red phone boxes. However, there was a delicate balance to maintain and it was easy to end up either sounding nationalistic and overly patriotic or maudlin and sentimental. Kate Bush, for example, went a bit over the top with Oh England, My Lionheart, her 1979 portrait of a romanticised old England seen through the eyes of a Battle of Britain pilot: “Oh! England, my Lionheart! Dropped from my black Spitfire to my funeral barge. Give me one kiss in apple-blossom. Give me one wish, and I'd be wassailing in the orchard, my English rose, or with my shepherd, who'll bring me home.”

There were, however, several more prosaic takes on England that struck a chord with their audiences - like Ian Dury’s England’s Glory, rattling through a long and eclectic list of cultural references that you could spend hours dissecting:  “Nice bit of kipper and Jack the Ripper and Upton Park. Gracie, Cilla, Maxy Miller, Petula Clark .Winkles, Woodbines, Walnut Whips, Vera Lynn and Stafford Cripps, Lady Chatterley, Muffin the Mule. Winston Churchill, Robin Hood, Beatrix Potter, Baden-Powell, Beecham's powders, Yorkshire pud “ (Rhyming walnut whips and Stafford Cripps is genius!).There was also a strange song, England, My England, by Alan Price from 1978. He had had success in 1974 with the Jarrow Song, an unusual hit -about class struggle - in the era of Glam Rock: a slice of English history with a tribute to the Jarrow march of unemployed workers of 1936 and which hit the UK charts at the time of the first Miners strike. Four years later, however, England, My England seemed a conservative view of England with lyrics that sounded like a Daily Mail moan about the state of the country: irony or disillusionment, I am not sure which.
The two songs here represent two of the genres about England that have reoccurred over the years. The first is English Rose by the Jam, a Paul Weller ballad from their 1978 album All Mod Cons and seemingly as out of step with its contemporary peers as Autumn Almanac had been in 1967. Many songs about England have taken a Rupert Brooks , ‘Is there honey still for tea?” romantic/nostalgic type of approach and some can end up wrapped up in mysticism or unthinking nationalism. Some, however, have come from a strand of English socialism that is radical and patriotic at the same time, best represented now by Billy Bragg but with echoes in Paul Weller and Ray Davies and back through Orwell, the Chartists and William Cobbett. It is a thought also perhaps found in Ralph McTell’s England: “And the echo from the green hills runs through the city streets. And the wind that blows through England, Well it breathes its life in you and me.”

There are those, however, who would see all the above as sentimental tosh and whose view of England is a much more jaundiced one. The Sex Pistols. Or Lady Sovereign’s My England from 2006 –“ Cricket, bowls, croquet, nah PS2 all the way, in an English council apartment. We don't all wear bowler hats and hire servants, More like 24 hour surveillance and dog shit on pavements.” And the song here, Old England by the Waterboys, from 1985 (with a very 80’s saxophone): a bleak , depressing and rather over-wrought snapshot of England.

“ Evening has fallen, the swans are singing. The last of Sundays bells is ringing. The wind in the trees is sighing.” A welcome home or a death gasp – whatever you want to see, I guess.
Link to English Rose
Link to Old England


Breakfast in Spitalfields

The image of the cathedral town (last column) is one of the enduring set of images that make up the notion of ‘England’ for many tourists, with the obvious physical presence of history and heritage stretching back centuries and the sense of a place that is in something of a time warp Part of that is the opportunity to experience a particular part of that image: the institution of English afternoon tea, at places like Bettys in York or Sally Lunns in Bath, where you can choose between a Queen Victoria’s Tea or a Jane Austen Cream Tea.

At first glance all this seems not a likely topic for pop songs, not really very rock and roll at all. If you are going to sing about refreshments, surely it should be something like Sham 69’s Hurry Up Harry: "Come on, come on, hurry up Harry, come on. Come on, come on, hurry up Harry, come on. We’re going down the pub..” Then you recall the penchant of rock’s aristocracy for following in the footsteps of the nineteenth century aristocracy, with the mansions and stately homes in Surrey and Oxfordshire - Bill Wyman actually became Lord of the Manor at Gedding Hall in Suffolk. With this in mind, it is then less surprising to find songs that seem to celebrate the tea-and-scones ritual that Queen Victoria and Jane Austen apparently enjoyed. Paul McCartney’s English Tea from 2005, for example; or Tin Tin’s 1970 early Bee Gees- sounding track Toast and Marmalade for Tea ;or the brief ode to afternoon tea that Sam Brown sneaked in between tracks on her 1988 Stop album

These and others remind the listener that songs about places to eat are part of pop music’s landscape and help shape perceptions of a place. Some already mentioned in previous columns are very evocative of a particular time and place. Mario’s Cafe, for example, of Kentish Town in the early 90’s; or Watford Gap, with its plate of grease and load of crap (this is a historical comment, of course, not a reference to the fine menus currently on offer), opening a window on the groups of the 60’s and 70’s trundling in their Transits up and down the M1.Or the seafront cafe in Every Day is Like Sunday, bringing the aroma of an out of season seaside resort with its greased tea.

There have been others over the years, with many using the backdrop of a cafe or restaurant to foreground a little story. Some of these followed a mini-Brief Encounter scenario set over a cup of tea or coffee - .like the Kinks with Afternoon Tea (again!) in an unidentified cafe, presumably North London:, “At night I lie awake and dream of Donna ,I think about that small cafe .That's where we used to meet each day and then we used to sit a while and drink our afternoon tea”. More recently (2007), Landon Pigg has described a similar romantic encounter in Falling In Love at a Coffee Shop. Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner , a vignette in another New York coffee shop, was like a musical mini-film in its descriptive story.

Others have opted for such a setting to create a mood rather than tell a story and the song here from 2011, Breakfast in Spitalfields by Spanish born singer Juan Zelda, is one such of these. Spitalfields has come up before, in Cath Carroll’s reference to Hawksmoor’s lost underground in London, Queen of My Heart, her song about ‘mythical London, deserted 2am London’. In this song, however, it seems light and summery and rather mellow, not dark and secret. The duality of the area, perhaps. Old churches and plague pits by the towering glass-fronted office blocks, the wealth of the City banks a stone’s throw from overcrowded housing and poverty.

In watching the accompanying video I was reminded of an old TV advert from the 80’s for the Halifax , in which a loft-living yuppie in somewhere like Spitalfields , looking like he needs a smack on the nose, goes out on Sunday morning to draw out some cash to the sounds of Lionel Richie ( and presumably pays for his paper with a £10 note).
The narrator in this song distances himself from that side of Spitalfields, from ‘the men in suits who polish their boots’ and, judging by the video, he goes for a proletarian/rock and roll breakfast :in fact the sort of plateful that Roy Harper would have got at the Blue Boar in 1973.(If he had gone a bit further on to St John’s Bread and Wine restaurant by Spitalfields Market he could have had poached fruit, yoghurt and toasted brioche as well as an Old Spot bacon sandwich for his breakfast, instead of sausage and egg)

Hawksmoor’s lost underground still lurks there the same though, behind the summer sounds . As Cath Carroll commented earlier, “the past has never left us. It lives in the same space that we do”. It is all there still - plague rhymes and afternoon tea alike.



Let's Get Out Of This Country

As seen in previous columns, songs about places can paint a broad picture by bringing the focus down to a particular building. In Coles Corner, Richard Hawley used a long-gone department store in Sheffield to create a nostalgic mood for a bygone time and place. St Etienne’s Mario’s Cafe was equally evocative of an era : “Button up your sheepskin caraway, rainy cafe, Kentish Town, Tuesday...and Eubank wins the fight and did you see the KLF last night?” Nick Cave’s Grief Came Riding put Battersea Bridge at the centre of a study of introspective gloom.

The scope of music is such that the most unlikely places for a pop song can strike a chord. The public library, for example, may in folk memory - if not current reality - be a place where stern-looking librarians go ‘SSSHH’ but it has figured in several songs, like Young Adult Friction ( The Pains of Being Pure at Heart) or Librarian (My Morning Jacket).Even the public toilet has been musically covered: 60’s popsters Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich did an EP entitled The Loos of England, firmly in the Carry On tradition.

Then there is the cathedral, an image of history, holiness, scale and height and a certain timelessness: musically associated with choral and organ music. Yet cathedrals across the world have been the backdrop for a number of songs, often ones in tune with the traditional solemnity of such places. Joan Osborne sang of the cathedrals of New York and Rome in Cathedrals. Death Cab for Cutie chose the architecture of St Peter’s Cathedral for a ‘why are we here’ lyric in St Peter’s Cathedral . Graham Nash, ex of the Hollies, wrote up a religious experience/acid trip on a visit to Winchester Cathedral in Cathedral, on the 1977 CSN album.

Winchester Cathedral, of course was also the subject and title of a more famous song from 1966, by songwriter Geoff Stephens and recorded initially by the New Vaudeville Band, (see column on Finchley Central), with later versions by Frank Sinatra and Petula Clark. The song has gone so much into the public memory that it is difficult now to say 'Winchester Cathedral' without putting the stress on the second syllable of Winchester, as in the song, instead of the first.

 Geoff Stephens could presumably have used Salisbury Cathedral, 25 miles away, in his lyric instead: it scans the same. But he didn’t and the chance of pop immortality slipped away from Salisbury, leaving it to make do with being the home town of the aforementioned Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich. ( Drummer Mick, in fact, went back to Salisbury after leaving the group to become a driving instructor and Yellow Pages still show a Mick Wilson School of Driving in Salisbury. Maybe it is too fanciful to imagine him encouraging his learner drivers by saying ‘You make it move’ or ‘Hold tight’.)

Winchester, however, remains largely in my memory not because of the cathedral but because of a childhood disappointment that ranks alongside discovering there was little at Westward Ho! to justify the ! (as described in the column Taking a Trip Up to Abergavenny); or being taken at the age of 4 or 5 to an event at which the Sheriff of Poole was to appear. Instead, however, of a tall, heroic figure with a Stetson, silver badge and holster and a laconic ‘This town ain’t big enough for the both of us’ falling from his lips, there was an elderly and rather portly alderman in a waistcoat and suit. En route to Winchester, I had been told that I would see the Round Table at which King Arthur and his knights had gathered . I imagined a huge, imposing thing, possibly with a knight or two still sat at it quaffing mead from goblets .What I saw was a tabletop hanging on a wall that in my mind’s eye has now shrunk to the size of a dart board. If I had then known the Peggy Lee song, Is That All There Is, it would probably have come to mind.

Yet Winchester, Salisbury, Norwich, St Albans and the other UK cities boasting a cathedral do share a certain atmosphere, something captured by the song here from 2006, Lets Get Out of This Country by Scottish indie band, Camera Obscura. In a bittersweet and wistful song about escape, Tracyanne Campbell and the group imagine taking off from the everyday grind to a new life:  "We'll pick berries and recline, Let's hit the road, dear friend of mine .Wave goodbye to our thankless jobs, We'll drive for miles, maybe never turn off. We'll find a cathedral city, you can be handsome, I'll be pretty”. What were they looking for? Escape to a quieter, slower, more romantic way of life perhaps. They could expect to find an area of quiet streets and second-hand bookshops in the shadow of the cathedral, time-warp cafes serving cream teas and lemonade, a walled garden or two where the sound of bells and evensong drift across at dusk. But for some reason –perhaps it is the tourists, or the blend of old and modern – cathedral cities also attract the quirky and out of the ordinary: buskers and street performers, healers and astrologers, vegetarian restaurants.

There is a steam train called the Cathedral Express that aims to take passengers ‘travelling back in time...getting away from it all for the day..to an era long gone”. That is a nostalgic view that the adverts for Cathedral City cheese have milked for all its worth. But it is also not hard to imagine you are in parts of France or Germany as you wander round the streets and markets of some English cathedral towns. A reminder of a shared past and a brief lesson that history and nostalgia aren’t the same thing.