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