Rainbow Valley

A previous column (Voyage to Atlantis) mentioned some songs about places  that exist only in fantasy, like The Land of Grey and Pink or the Land of Ooo-Bla-Dee. Generally, the listener doesn’t expect to actually come across such a place in reality, though I suppose someone coming out of, say, Images Night Club in Hemel Hempstead on a Saturday night might think they were in Lipps Inc’s Funky Town. There are, however, some places that exist only in the mind in song but which the listener can sometimes  translate into reality.

The song in this column is such an example, Rainbow Valley by the Love Affair from 1968. There are, no doubt, real places somewhere called Rainbow Valley but this song was about an Over the Rainbow sort of place, first released by American soul singer Robert Knight. It was the follow up record to the Love Affair’s Number One, Everlasting Love and, like that hit, the track consisted of session players – driven by the drumming of Clem Cattini and the thundering bass lines of Russ Stableford – with the distinctive vocals of Love Affair’s Steve Ellis, a singer in the Steve Marriot mould. This wasn’t an unusual practice but  for some reason the Love Affair were given a particularly hard time by the press over not playing on their records and their career suffered. After a few more smaller  hits Ellis, their main asset, left and that was that – though a version of the Love Affair may well be playing in your area next week. The song itself, with its rainbows and cotton candy sky, could have been a bit of schmaltzy pop fluff but somehow is a rather touching yearning for a personal  Shangri-La over  the next horizon. (There was also a later reggae version by the Heptones). The video accompanying the song at the end of the column, however, is one of those that makes you wonder what on earth was happening in the director’s mind. Even if you assume a kind of wacky surrealism a la Monkees was the aim, it makes no sense whatsoever.

However, the track did have another feature that distinguishes a small number of songs -  when the uncredited backing vocals move from being an unnoticed background to being  an integral part of the overall effect, in this case the ‘meet me where the rainbow ends’ bit (which I have seen attributed to both members of the Sue and Sunny backing duo and to Carol Brett). An earlier example was the 1961 Number One Joe Meek produced hit, Johnny Remember Me for actor/singer John Leyton, with ghostly background vocals from a session singer (Lissa Gray) adding to the atmospheric effect. John Leyton might now be best recognised for his part in the Great Escape film that appears on TV with monotonous regularity but he had an interesting little run of hits in the early 60’s, mainly written by a rather quirky songwriter Geoff Goddard who shared Joe Meek’s interest in séances and spiritualism ,adding an eerie quality to many of his songs (Another Goddard-penned hit for John Leyton, the grammatically correct Son This Is She, had the narrator's dead dad giving advice from The Beyond on his choice of partner. "A voice from above said, 'Son, this is she.'" ). Johnny Remember Me, too, has some pleasing links with previous columns:

1)It was recorded at Joe Meek’s studios on Holloway Road, mentioned in the Holloway Road column
2) One of the musicians on the track was Chas Hodges of Chas 'n Dave, who has drifted in and out of columns in this meander down  the by-ways of British pop history
3) About the same time as I had my memorable conversation with Christine McVie as Fleetwood Mac tried to find their way to Reading University (Wild West End column), Geoff Goddard was working in the University coffee bar and catering department. It is perhaps not too fanciful to imagine he might have served Fleetwood Mac tea and a plate of chips when they got to their destination. Indeed the twists and turns of time.

Another example was the winceable 1975 Paul Anka hit, You’re Having My Baby, in which the nameless female singer (actually Odia Coates) assures him that, yes indeed, she is having his baby. Still, it did win  him two awards: the ‘Keep Her In Her Place’ award and the ‘Male Chauvinist Pig of the Year’ award. Or there is this  1966 Billy Stewart version of Ol’ Man River, a perfect example of lead and background vocals merging into a whole greater than the parts. In the then uncredited backing were not only soul outfit the Dells but also, providing a backdrop, the soaring and  incomparable voice of a young Minnie Riperton.

Why Rainbow Valley features in a blog on real places  is because of a recent trip to the Forest of Dean and the Wye Valley, on the Gloucestershire/Herefordshire borders.  There have been songs actually about this area. Spirogyra, a progressive folk outfit  from the early 70’s did a song The Forest of Dean:” In The Valley of Wye ,looking up at Symond’s Yat, we first noticed the sky , wondering, in the Valley of Wye” .There was also  another prog folk group from the same era, Decameron, whose main man, Johnny Coppin, went on to record  a number of songs about the area, including this track This Night The Stars, a poem by Forest of Dean poet Leonard Clark put to music.

Yet neither of these came to mind on the trip .It had been raining and the view from the top of Symonds Yat was initially shrouded in thick mist. Then for a brief time it cleared and the view that was  spread out below like a tapestry appeared piece by piece like a  photo developing in a darkroom. The rainbow that appeared as the mist dispersed wasn’t captured in the picture above but as it arked over the Wye Valley, with the river cutting its way through the woods and patchwork of fields, a song from years ago came to mind; Rainbow Valley. And for those few moments, before the mist crept back and shrouded the view once again, it seemed a perfect fit.



A constant theme in this blog has been that places spark particular associations. Sometimes these can be so specific that everyone automatically makes the mental link. Can you think of Pisa without the Leaning Tower? (Here’s a tip that no-one has ever thought of.  When taking a photo of the Leaning Tower get a friend to stand in the perspective with their arm out so it looks as though they are holding the Tower up). Or Cheddar without the Gorge? They become defined by the association. As They  Might Be Giants put it:  “New York has tall buildings, New Jersey has its malls. Pisa has a leaning tower. Will it ever fall?” (Where Do They Put Balloons?) 

The same can apply on a wider scale to whole countries that have become inextricably linked in the mind and through songs  with a specific period of their history, usually to do with a war or conflict of some sort. Wars have  been a perennial topic in pop songs from the earliest days –one of record producer Joe Meek’s (see Holloway Road column)  first big successes was Lay Down Your Arms by Anne Shelton in 1956. In fact, the following wars and conflicts, amongst others, have been referenced in song:

Iraq Invasion: (Operation Iraqi Liberation -  David Rovics)
Yugoslav Wars ( Bosnia - The Cranberries)
Falklands War (Shipbuilding-Elvis Costello)
Vietnam War (See below)
Korean War (I Bombed Korea- Cake)
Spanish Civil War (Spanish Bombs-The Clash)
World War 1 ( Hanging In The Wire- P J Harvey)
Boer War (Two Little Boys - Rolf Harris)
Spanish-American  war (Galveston - Glen Campbell)
American Civil war (Billy Don’t be a Hero - Paper Lace)
American Indian wars (Soldier Blue - Buffy St Marie)
Crimean War (5 4 3 2 1 –Manfred Mann)
Napoleonic Wars (Waterloo - Abba)
Anglo-American War of 1812-15 (Battle of New Orleans - Johnny Horton)
English Civil War (Young Ned of the Hill-The Pogues)
Trojan War ( 5 4 3 2 1 - Manfred Mann)

In fact here is 54321: 2 wars,erudite lyrics, polo neck sweaters, glasses and  a beard, all in less than 2 minutes: intellectuals or what? (The follow-up, Hubble Bubble Toil and Trouble, threw in a bit of Shakespeare)

I have omitted a glaring instance :World War 2.  There have been pop  songs about it – Enola Gay by OMD for example - but they are surprisingly few. After all, the first wave of  British groups, the Beatles, Stones et al, were born during World War 2 and the second wave spent their formative years watching war films on TV and at the cinema and reading comics where Germans said things like “Donner und Blitzen, the Englisher is a schweinhund”. Yet few chose to look a few years back for musical inspiration ( true to retrospective  form the Kinks were an exception with Mr Churchill Says).  Maybe World War 2 was just too near and too big to sing about. Or maybe the War became mixed up with those figures of authority – parents, teachers, town hall officials, park keepers, policemen – that emerging pop music rebelled against. A stereotypical figure then was the Dad with pipe and slippers and steam coming from his ears watching a group like the Pretty Things on TV and saying, ‘I fought in the war for that lot’. Followed by ‘What they need is a bath, a haircut and music lessons’. The War seemed to the musical generation emerging  then a remote event.( I was initially startled when I recently read that some British tanks in World War 2 had pictures of Petula Clark on them as a mascot. How could that possibly be without a time warp? Then I realised that by the time of Downtown in 1964   Petula Clark had already had several careers: as the British Shirley Temple as a child film/radio actress   - hence the mascot photos –and success as  a singer in the UK and France, her first hit coming a decade before Downtown. Her Little Blue Man track was also ahead of its time ,a decade or so before pyschedelia.)

Some of these  examples above have left some countries marooned in a particular time period. The obvious example is Vietnam, which has a large number of songs about it but nearly all of which are about the Vietnam War and are  mostly   American , for obvious reasons. The only British ones  I  can think of are Eric Burdon and the New Animals’ Sky Pilot and  Paul Hardcastle’s 19, which was a hit years later in 1985. Yet it remains perhaps the most musically covered of all wars, partly as the peak years co-incided with pop music finding a political voice, though some -  like Springsteen’s Born in the USA – came well after the event. One of the most effective was Feel Like I’m Fixin' To Die Rag, first released by Country Joe and the Fish in 1967 and given later popularity through the acoustic version in the Woodstock film. Effective because of its sense of  the absurd, a singalong chorus that  anti-war demonstrators en route to Grosvenor Square and the American embassy could dance along to and lyrics that went deeper than its tune suggested. This aside however, Country Joe’s only brush with commercial success in the UK came  rather bizarrely in 1976 when the model Twiggy had a surprise hit with Here I Go Again, several years after the track had first appeared on a Country Joe album.

Another example is the former Yugoslavia, previously discussed in the column Lyla. Songs like Bosnia, or Dubrovnik is Burning, or Yugoslavia  leave  the region in the 1990’s just as Vietnam is left in the 1965-1975 decade. The song here from 2010 , however, Dubrovnik, by  Northampton group My First Tooth offers an escape of sorts, a song of poetic  imagery and hope: “Cannons calm from years of truce, after sad years of misuse, Dubrovnik poured into me, from castle to emerald sea”.  (The eery noise  at the beginning sounds like the musical saw again but I think it is singing). 

Dubrovnik is full of the past, of course. The recent past is there in the  new roof tiles replacing those smashed by shells, and in the photos of those killed in its siege. But it is the more distant past that fills the present, with the castle walls, bell-tower, alleyways and monasteries and a sense of entering a time machine as you pass through  the  city gates. And as you look out from the castle walls, there is the blue and emerald sea, timeless there for millennia.


Central Park

The park as a place to go has cropped up a few times before, in For What Is Chatteris and Trafalgar Square. Parks have been one of those places that have played an important part in  social and cultural life  but often pass unnoticed. They are just there, part of the scenery most of the time. Frankly, they are not that exciting most of the time - depending on your age and location, good for feeding the ducks/playing on swings/walking a dog/drinking cider and cans of Tennents/eating your lunch on a bench/writing graffiti on a bench/setting fire to a bench.

 Yet they have served as a useful backdrop for a fair number of songs, a useful place to set a little story of love or loss in 3 minutes. Curtis Mayfield’s Um Um Um Um Um, covered by Major Lance and Wayne Fontana, is a study of existentialist angst set on a park bench: “Walking through the park, it wasn't quite dark, there was a man sitting on a bench. Out of the crowd as his head lowly bowed he just moaned and he made no sense. He'd just go Um, um, um, um, um, um, um, um, um, um, um, um” .He might have had a can of Tennents too. In the Chi-lites' Have You Seen Her, the narrator is sat on a park bench watching the children play and asking passers-by if they have seen his lost love.  Billy Stewart’s Sitting in the Park has been mentioned before and remains one of those songs that seems virtually impossible to do a duff version of, though with particularly good covers by  Georgie Fame and Alton and Hortense Ellis. (Groovin' - surely set in a park - ’ is another song that appears to survive any interpretation intact, though the original by the Young Rascals remains the definitive one). Reggae outfit the Chantells took the same theme of being stood up in a park in Waiting In The Park. Parks don’t really seem a good bet for a successful date judging by the numbers of people sat there patiently waiting for their partner to turn up.

Since the early days of pop,  songs have also appeared about specific parks as well as parks in general. The American ones sound brasher and more exciting than the English ones. Freddy Cannon sang of New Jersey’s Palisades Park in 1962, complete with fairground sounds and tinny organ that sound like the rides at Weymouth fair. Jim Webb immortalised the melting Macarthur Park in Los Angeles in his over wrought classic about a possibly metaphorical cake, first recorded by Richard Harris and covered scores of times since. Then there’s Bruce Springsteen’s Asbury Park with auroras and switchblade lovers. English parks tend to be more sedate.  Even the Small Faces’ very urban Itchycoo Park, supposedly based on Little Ilford Park in Newham,  mentioned the bridge of sighs and dreaming spires. Kathryn Williams sang of Newcastle’s Leazes Park with a gentle melancholy. The Zombies sang of Hertfordshire’s Beechwood Park in a forgotten piece of very  English psychedelia that paints a wistful remembrance of an English past:” Do you remember summer days, just after summer rain. When all the air was damp and warm in the green of country lanes.” (The song came from their 1968 album Odessey and Oracle. When the Zombies first hit the charts much was made of the group members having 50 'O' levels between them. Surely  St Albans Grammar School should have taught them the correct spelling of 'Odyssey'.)

London and New York both have famous parks, of course – Hyde Park and Central Park – but their musical treatment has also been rather different, perhaps reflecting the different way these places have been seen. Hyde Park, in fact, has not figured that much in song, odd perhaps given its significance for demonstrations and open air concerts over the years from Blind Faith and the Stones onwards: maybe its history and royal connections make it too unlikely a topic for pop songs. Its main musical focus, in fact, has been Speakers Corner, referenced amongst others  by Bob Dylan in TV Talking Song  and in the Bacharach-David song, London Life.  I once saw a wonderful example in Hyde Park, though, of the past and present merging. At an Anti-Nazi  League demonstration, amongst the ‘Pensioners/Skins/Ex-Servicemen Against the Nazis’ etc crowds and placards was a small group dressed up like Beau Brummel in Regency finery and powdered wigs under a banner headed ‘18th Century Fops Against the Nazis’. The point is that the setting of Hyde Park made one wonder for a moment if some strange time-warp had actually taken place.

New York’s Central Park provides a musical counterpoint in many ways. Mostly, Hyde Park in songs remains just that –a park. Central Park gets mythologised in a way mentioned before with American places when compared to English ones. Its reputation, of course, was once as a pretty scary place where unspeakable things happened after dark .In the 1970 comedy film The Out of Towners, the hapless couple from Ohio, played by Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis, are inevitably mugged in Central Park -shortly after they had been kidnapped. So you had the 1974 hit for Thunderthighs, Central Park Arrest: “Come out, I know that you're there, I have a gun, so you'd better beware”.  You also had Ian Hunter - all the way from Shropshire -  plastering on with a trowel  as usual the American Myth  in his 1981 track Central Park 'n West. “It's like a living hell ,New York's finest rounding up the bums. The firemen get no rest, and ambulances signal death, on Central Park 'n' West.”

Things can change, however, and walking round the lake or visiting Strawberry Fields now it is not hard to forget you are in the middle of New York -  though at the last visit a sudden snow storm had left part of the Park looking devastated. The song here from 2009, Central Park by British artist Mr Hudson, fits this new image. ( Mr Hudson is often compared to Sting but this track reminds me more  of Prefab Sprout.) Whereas the Ian Hunter type of song makes Central Park even more ‘American’ than it is, this story of heartbreak makes it sound rather European: it could almost be set in Paris, the Hudson Hotel aside, with Jules and Jim on their bicycles.

Parks in song often take on an extra dimension. They are not just places to pass away a work lunch-hour or a Sunday morning. They are the spark for more epic and noble thoughts than thinking about your pork pie  and crisps or what that dog is going to do. Instead, they are the setting for love and loss, hope and despair. And I guess Central Park is a grand enough landscape  for that.