Champs Elysees

Everybody probably has a notion somewhere inside of their head of some special  place they have a yearning to see, sometimes realistic, sometimes not. That place could be a country or city as yet unvisited but high up on a mental list of places to see. It could be somewhere that has always exerted a pull on the imagination  from a description in a poem or story, like a mermaid singing a siren song:  like Petra, rose red city half as old as time, or the Golden Road to Samarkand. Or it could just be somewhere much nearer to home. Charlene had been to Nice and the Isle of Greece (pedantically this should surely be ‘an Isle of Greece’ or ‘the Isles of Greece’ ) but had never been to me.

These are all personal and individual  but there are some places that seem to carry a more universal appeal,  where most  people feel they must surely go one day. One of these is Paris. Think of those songs that are not so much about having been to Paris but about  an idealized  dream of being there, especially in spring. Like Pavlov’s dog, the lyrical associations triggered by Paris seem predictable: Paris-spring-romance. Like April in Paris, for example,  or Andy Williams’  Under Paris Skies :” Love becomes king the moment it's spring under Paris skies, Lonely hearts meet somewhere on the street of desire”. Or, really going into romantic over-drive, Maurice Chevalier’s, You will Find Your Love in Paris: “You will find your love in Paris when you walk along the Seine. When you fall in love in Paris it’s a river of champagne”. In fact, the allure of Paris seems  so  general and automatic that German group Basta made a point by recording Ich Will Nicht Nach Paris (“Paris is no Paradise, I don’t want to go to Paris”).

These are all about  Paris in general, as an idea. When it comes to specific areas, songs about Paris, like London, are selective in where they choose. There  aren’t, for example, many about La Defense, with its concrete and high rises .Much more evocative sounding is 'Boulevard de la Madeleine',  the long boulevard running past the Madeleine and Opera Metro stops and  title of a 1966 Moody Blues track  with the original line-up that  included the wonderfully named Clint  Warwick : much more mean and moody than his real name of Albert Eccles. (Like Reg Presley of the Troggs, aka Reginald Ball, a change of name can do wonders for the image). The song passed by largely unnoticed, though there was a later cover version by Dutch group Pussycat. Undeterred, the Moodies changed musical direction and headed off to a new horizon where they spied a Threshold of a Dream shimmerering, though losing Clint Warwick on the way.

Alternatively, there are other quarters of the city that seem equally attractive  for a musical evocation. The Left Bank, of course, heralded by Paul McCartney and Wings in CafĂ© on the Left Bank and by Winifred Atwell following up her 1956  Poor People of Paris hit with Left Bank, this time featuring an accordion as accompaniment   instead of a musical saw. The Seine is  a favoured scene musically. Dean Martin did the usual ‘lovers by the lovely River Seine’ stuff with The River Seine. The Style Council went for a  more sophisticated image  with Down in the Seine, chucking in some verses in French a la Beatles and Michelle to show they were  more cosmopolitan than an outfit  like - well, say, the Jam. Sheffield band the Crookes went for a more Orwellian Down and Out in Paris and London approach with the Smiths-like By the Seine, which manages to get both ‘proletariat’ and ‘scullion’ in the lyrics, neither of which are often heard in a pop song oddly enough.

The song here from 2010, Champs Elysee -  by Danish duo Hush (Dorthe Gerlach and  Michael Hartmann)  -  is about the Champs Elysee, naturally,  and the Seine. But it’s more about not going somewhere ,a  bittersweet track of regret of  never getting to the place of your dreams: its poignancy is heightened by the little details like getting a dog-sitter in place. In fact, it turns the 'lovers walking by the Seine' theme on its head. It has echoes of The Ballad of Lucy Jordan, in which not getting to  Paris also figures as a theme. Though that song  is probably best known through the Marianne Faithful version, the original was by Dr Hook, who had come to fame with another Shel Silverstein song, Sylvia’s Mother. (This last  track made me realise how much the rapid changes in technology have made some relatively recent  songs sound comically antiquated to modern ears. To someone brought up on mobiles, Skype and Facebook the notion of an operator constantly asking for 40 cents more for the next 3 minutes  [Sylvia’s Mother] or having to say “Oh, please, operator, If he doesn't have another dime ,reverse the charge to me, but put him on the line” [Brenda Holloway’s Operator] must sound as remote as  penning a letter with a quill pen, sending it off with a boy from the  village on horseback and waiting 2 weeks for a reply).

Champs Elysees means Elysian Fields -heaven on earth. Reality doesn’t always match up, of course, and a visit to Paris isn’t always the height of glamorous sophistication. I once accompanied a French tutor taking a group of her adult students to Paris. The tutor decided to go off to see the Mona Lisa and wasn’t back when the coach was due to depart to catch the ferry home. The coach driver asked where she was. ‘”She’s gone to the Louvre”. Whether it was my attempt at a French accent or his hearing but there followed a surreal conversation from which I eventually realised he thought I had said “She’s gone to the loo.” Coach driver: ”Well, has she gone far?” Me :”It’s at the end of the Champs Elysee. She took a taxi I think”. Coach driver: “Why has she  gone all the way there? Is she going to be long?” Me: “I looked in earlier and the queues were pretty long then. I decided not to bother.” etc.

 Hush are good at creating a mood of wistfulness and regret:as here or their For All The Right Reasons, which has the kind of plaintive yearning heard in much of the Sundays' work .It suits the type of place here, places I imagine rather than remember.


Wild West End

The West End of London  is a flexible term. It can mean that shopping area round Oxford Street and Regent Street, the focus of the Everything But The Girl Oxford Street song in which teenage Tracy Thorne, growing up in Hatfield, dreams of escape to the West End. It can mean more specifically  the theatre district round Leicester Square and Shaftesbury Avenue, the equivalent of On Broadway. Or it could be a more general term , the posh opposite of the East End. Oddly, though, whilst individual parts within the West End have been the topic of songs – Soho, of course, or Trafalgar Square – there haven’t been that many about the West End as such. The best known is the first Pet Shop Boys hit, West End Girls, though that is about universal  class and urban divisions as much as about a geographical place. Somehow, the West End has often seemed more suited either to musicals or to songs from a long bygone era than to  pop songs: A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square or Lets All Go Down the Strand (have a banana)

The song here –Wild West End from Dire Straits debut album in 1978 – shines a totally different light on it, however. Like Squeeze and the Police, Dire Straits came at the tail end of British punk, too musically sophisticated for punk and too lyrically sophisticated for mainstream rock. However, their later mega success, especially with the 30 million seller Brothers In Arms album, left them rather unfairly with a very 80’s image: coffee table CDs, Princess Diana approval  and merchant bankers donning a Mark Knopfler headband to be a guitar hero in front of the mirror, much like a previous generation had copied Hank Marvin of the Shadows

It’s quite a multi-layered song. The lazy summer mood and the sound of Mark Knopfler’s National guitar gives a feel of strolling down the main street of a small North Carolina town and the whole song mythologises the ordinary  in the manner of Bruce Springsteen. Listening again to the early Dire Straits sound I was also reminded of another track I couldn’t place at first, then remembered  -  Dion’s Written On the Subway Walls from his Yo Frankie album. However my memory of this was incorrect. I had mentally placed it as around 1976 and assumed that Dire Straits were making a rather obscure nod  in his direction. The album actually dates from 1989 so the influence  was the other way round – and, in fact, I noticed that Terry Williams, the second Dire Straits drummer, played on it. So the to and fro of music across the years is even more tangled – a singer who made his name in the first era of American rock n roll and doo-wop shows the influences of a post-punk British group which itself drew on a variety of music past, including early rock. There is another tangential link between the songs. The 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' segment on the Dion track is sung by Paul Simon. One of his memorable lyrical images is the opening of Graceland: ’The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar’, the lead instrument on Wild West End (Another British exponent of that guitar was Tom McGuinness of Manfred Mann, who played it with effect on hits like Pretty Flamingo and Just Like A Woman).

Wild West End is an interesting song in other ways. With its story set round Shaftesbury Avenue and China Town it is a little historical snapshot of a patch of  London past:  Angelucci’s, the coffee merchants, is no longer in Soho’s Frith Street by Ronnie Scotts  but moved to East Finchley. The mythologizing also casts a  romantic glow on the rather mundane. In many musical  accounts, a conductress on the Number 19 bus (which goes from Finsbury Circus to Battersea via Holborn and Piccadilly Circus) would be a comic figure a la On The Buses: here she is a honey with pink toe nails and an easy smile. Chinatown too takes on  a rather more exotic and mysterious air than the one you might get from going to Mr Wu’s, the cheapest Chinese buffet in town.(All you can eat for £4)

Mark Knopfler apparently wrote the song after watching a girl cross Shaftesbury Avenue –by such trivial moments can the inspiration for a song come. I may well have been such a catalyst myself. I once had a conversation with Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac. It was in Reading and went something like this:

Christine McVie (leaning out of a van window):’Excuse me, could you tell us how to get to the university’  Me: ‘Yes. Keep going straight on to the next set of traffic lights, turn right, go for about a mile and you’ll see it on your left’    Christine McVie: ‘Oh, thanks very much.  Me: ‘Don’t mention it’.

I expect that when Christine McVie later sat down and wrote You Make Loving Fun and Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow for Fleetwood Mac, this incident probably popped into her mind as a creative prompt.

Earlier columns have seen different versions of London created through the medium of song. With Cath Carroll it seemed a rather shadowy, dark and haunting place, its secrets just beyond the corner of your eyes. With St Etienne it’s a sunlit watercolour of a place. With Dire Straits, songs like Wild West End or Sultans of Swing somehow manage to  transplant London to a mythical America whilst remaining distinctly English, with  the small-scale and ordinary given a romantic hue. Like the St Etienne London, it’s a parallel universe sort of place  - sometimes as real as the one in front of your eyes.