One of the things apparent in the last column on Dorset is that it seems easier to write evocative songs about American states than English counties, for the grandiose statement and self-mythology seem to fit more easily with the former. The same also applies when one looks slightly further afield across the border to Wales. Wales and England have often had an uneasy relationship and Wales has played an ambiguous role in pop music. There have been plenty of successful musical artists from Wales, of course, from the earliest days of pop: the first UK Number one from a Welsh singer came in 1959 with Shirley Bassey ( Going back to the last column again and my traumatic experience with Dusty Springfield, I once also spied Tom Jones - on Bournemouth seafront. He did oblige with an autograph). However, as a place Wales has not figured that much in pop songs, (Taking A Trip Up To) Abergavenny and As I Went By and a few others aside. There was a time in the 70’s when rural Wales became a haven of sorts for communes seeking a bit of Eden and this spilled out into some of the music of the time. Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge was named after a hill on the Herefordshire/Welsh border and in 1974 Manfred Mann’s Earth Band gave away a square foot of land near Builth Wells to those who bought their Good Earth album.
For many people from England, however, their direct experience of Wales came not from a yurt in Tipi Valley but from a camping or caravan site on a family holiday, most likely in North Wales. An experience captured by the Wombats in Caravan in Wales: “We're going on holiday, So why have you got an array of board games under your arm? What’s the point in going somewhere else if you're only going to do exactly what you would be doing at home?” I recently read the book The Tent, The Bucket and Me by Emma Kennedy, and her description of a disastrous childhood holiday in Wales as the wind and rain howled through their caravan before it was blown right off the cliff gave me a touch of déjà vu. Some years ago I had a family holiday in a caravan in Abersoch , the party including our own 9-month old daughter and my sister’s toddler ,who was being potty trained.(She was also going through a phobia about clowns. By one of those unlikely but inevitable co-incidences, what did we all see out of the car window as we drove through one of the small towns en route to Abersoch? A clown walking down the street.) The week there also co-incided with the storms and Force 10 winds that decimated the Fastnet yachting race that year –and made getting to the brick toilet block across the caravan site near impossible. We made up a little parody of the Fiddler’s Dram hit, Day Trip to Bangor (Didn’t We Have a Lovely Time). The full Wildean wit of our new lyrics escape me now but it was called 'Week in Abersoch (Didn’t We Have A Terrible Time)'.
It is fitting then that the song here, North Wales, is itself a parody –of Alicia Keys’ Empire State of Mind Part 2 (I don’t know who the singer is here, presumably one of the great unsung session singers). Song parody is as old as pop music itself, with Stan Freburg and Peter Sellers having some success with parodies of artists like Elvis Presley and Lonnie Donegan in the 1950’s. The most effective ones, however, came from within the same genre instead of someone from outside pointing a finger. The Barron Knights had a run of commercial success in the 60’s and late 70’s with parodies of current hits, though perhaps their biggest impact was a different one: the story goes that Bill Wyman started on his road to joining the Rolling Stones by taking up electric bass after seeing the Barron Knights at Aylesbury Town Hall. The most prolific musical parodist is probably Weird Al Jankovic who has released dozens of parodies from Eat It in 1984 to Perform This Way in 2011. The Heebeegeebies did something similar in the UK in the early 80’s, including this pastiche of the Bee Gees in their disco era.
North Wales is rather different as it doesn’t rely on humorous lyrics to achieve its effect. In fact, the song itself could be taken perfectly seriously, rather in the way that some of those of John Shuttleworth (aka Graham Fellows) could be if removed from the character and context. It could almost be used by the Welsh Tourist Board, though they might need to think about the “people are nicer than they are in France” lines. What turns it into a parody are three things.
Firstly, it capitalises on the fact that it is near impossible to glamourise, still less mythologise, places in Britain –especially provincial ones - in song without it starting to sound funny. Stockport Council, for example, must have known that Frankie Vaughan singing Stockport - “The people seem to be so friendly, the houses seem to say Come In”- wasn’t really going to rival Tony Bennett and I left My Heart in San Francisco. It faces the same uphill struggle as the new tourist attraction being touted in Bournemouth a few years ago: a tour of the Wessex Water sewage works. Secondly, the fact that it is supposedly sung by Alicia Keys adds a surreal edge to the lyrics, particularly the image of her having scampi for tea en route to Anglesey .I was reminded of the report of Whitney Houston having to get the car ferry from Holyhead to Dublin for a concert when volcanic ash shut down air space in 2010.
Thirdly ,however, the combination of the above have another reverse effect, in that it also deflates the mythologizing of the original song, where New York as fantasy and for real are merged into one. “One hand in the air for the big city, street lights, big dreams, all looking pretty. No place in the world that can compare, put your lighters in the air, everybody say yeah” on one hand. “Wave your hands in the air and say Bore Da” on the other. I suspect it is not just the difference between North Wales and New York but the different cultural contexts from which the songs come that creates this contrast. British songs about places, when not humorous, tend to the melancholic rather than the heroic, the ordinary rather than the myth. You might not feel you are where dreams are made of in Abersoch or Llandudno Junction but there really are picture postcard scenes – and you can have scampi for tea if you fancy it.