The middle parts of places can sometimes in fiction take on a rather exotic quality –Journey to The Centre of the Earth or Middle Earth, for example. Yet in reality, the middle of countries often end up less celebrated – musically included - than other parts. Take the mid-west of the USA. Not for them the West Coast or East Coast sounds or Southern Soul. Instead , Bill Bryson summed up the general image with the first sentence of his Lost Continent book, "I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to”. Or there was Tom Hanks as the music manager in That Thing You Do, giving a warning to a complaining artist: “Jimmy, you'd rather be back on that state fair tour? They're playing in North Dakota this week.”
The same applies to England. The Midlands – too far north to be south but too far south to be north. Life in A Northern Town brings up a set of stock images, real or stereotyped - salvation army bands, Eccles cakes, Theakstons' Old Peculiar and cobbled streets. Life in a Midlands Town, though, is rather more undefined and somehow the identity isn’t as clear. In fact, for many people, the Midlands means Birmingham and the Black Country - the West Midlands - forgetting the East Midlands and Nottingham, which have always seemingly had less notice. Unlike Brum Beat or the ( admittedly short-lived) Solihull Sound there was never really a Nottingham Sound and musically it has never ranked with Birmingham or Coventry, home of 2-Tone.The number of commercially successful artists from Nottingham hasn’t been huge. 60’s blues band Ten Years After; actress Su Pollard, who had a 1986 hit Starting Together; and Paper Lace, who had an inexplicable hat-trick of hits, including a Number One, in 1974.(Given their name, one might have expected them to dress up as 19th Century lace-makers - but instead they opted for American Civil War uniforms for their Billy Don’t Be A Hero hit.)
Maybe, though, this ambiguity suits Nottingham because it seems a good example of a town with not one identity but several- a Tale of Many Cities. For the tourist, it is the past – real and fictional – that dominates: the Lace Market, the Castle, Sherwood Forest and all the paraphernalia associated with Robin Hood. You can drink at the Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem pub at the foot of the Castle where the Sheriff of Nottingham lived, buy a Robin Hood outfit in the gift shop nearby and have a meal at the Friar Tuck Flaming Grill. (Not venison and mead, disappointingly, but gammon, egg and chips). Musically, however, in this historical Nottingham you are left with Bryan Adams and Dick James (both Robin Hood again) and possibly Nottamun Town by Bert Jansch or Fairport Convention.
If you live there ,it is the present that matters more and your view of that will partly be shaped by where in the many parts that make up the city you live. The song here, Trouble Town by Jake Bugg from 2012, is a bleak one, part teenage angst, part reflection of Clifton, a large housing estate south of the city. ”Stuck in speed-bump city and the only thing that’s pretty is the thought of getting out”. It’s a lyrical theme frequently found across the urban landscape. Again, though, things don’t fit a neat pattern and past and present shift about as they do in Nottingham itself, for the style of music of 18-year old Jake Bugg has more resonance with five decades ago, with early Dylan or Donovan, than anything contemporary. The accompanying video of another of his songs, Love Me The Way You Do, has him traipsing down a railroad track, guitar slung across his back as if he was off to jump a freight train.
Link to Love Me The Way You Do
Link to Love Me The Way You Do
Jake Bugg has quoted Don Mclean as his first influence but his songs like Someone Told Me or Saffron also have echoes of others from a past musical era. Donovan certainly but also David McWilliams, for example ,with songs like Poverty Street, or Bob Lind - best known for the rather overblown Elusive Butterfly (pipped to the post in the UK charts in 1966 by Val Doonican, complete with rocking chair and cardigan, just as the Bachelors outsold Simon and Garfunkel with Sounds of Silence) but he also recorded many other tracks mixing folk, country and pop. Lind’s biggest impact in the UK, in fact, was in stimulating a brief flurry of homegrown covers of his songs by artists such as Keith Relf of the Yardbirds and Adam Faith, whose final chart entry was Lind’s Cheryl’s Going Home. This was Stage 3 of Faith’s eclectic musical career, Stage 1 being the pop idol phase from the late 50’s and Stage 2 being when he commandeered the Roulettes as his backing group and jumped aboard a passing beat group bandwagon for a few more hits. Stage 4 was his commercially unsuccessful 1974 album and single, I Survived, another of those songs that should have been a hit but wasn’t. The clip below is worth viewing for Faith’s air of nonchalant cool, even glancing at his watch at 1.12. (Faith died in 2003 and his reported last words are worthy of inclusion in a List of Famous Last Words - along with ’Bugger Bognor’ and ‘Die, my dear doctor?. That’s the last thing I shall do.’ - echoing as they did a collective national thought at the time: “Channel 5 is all shit, isn’t it. Christ, the crap they put on there. It’s a waste of space”).
It has been a recurrent theme in this blog that places can have multiple identities depending on who it is that views them and Nottingham seems a particularly good example of this. I visited the city just before Christmas and much of what I saw was the stuff of picture postcards: the castle and the views across the town, the stalls on the Lace Market, church bells ringing out over cobbled streets. I was a visitor and these were not, of course, the same experiences as those that inspired this song. That will always be the case, particularly with a city that has grown up as the collective sum of very different parts. Perhaps what Nottingham lacks musically is its own St Etienne, able to create its own town and sense of place where retro and modern combine and the past isn't a museum piece but part of the living world. As with the song here, voices from the past can be heard in the most contemporary of settings.