Mediterranean Moon

Mediterranean is one of those  words that has the power to create a whole line of images from the few letters of the name. Blue sky, blue/green sea, the sound of crickets in the hot sun, olives and tavernas. I suspect my early picture of  it was shaped by two things in particular -   a book about ancient  Greece and Rome that was about the house as a child, with a photo of Mount Olympus that  I somehow found compelling; and the first Jason and the Argonauts film that I saw at a young age. It wasn’t just the animated monsters, courtesy of Ray Harryhausen, that I found memorable, it was also the cinematic backdrop of blue sea and white  temple pillars and olive groves that stayed in my mind. Years later, I visited the temple at Delphi, at the foot of Mount Parnassus and then got a bus down to the sea. ‘Yes, this is really  the Mediterranean’, I thought.

Yet the word has a host of other connotations, as the songs associated with it suggest. For decades in the tourist industry, ‘Mediterranean’ has often meant  the package holiday of Spain and Greece, with songs such as Y Viva Espana or  We’re Going to Ibiza (in the Mediterranean Sea) by the Vengaboys, a UK Number One in 1999, providing a musical accompaniment. This last was a rewrite of a fairly dire Number One from 1975, Barbados by Typically Tropical, in which a cod Caribbean accent informed the listener they were flying Coconut Airways. A creative lyricist then later changed “Whooah, I’m going to  Barbados” to “Whooah, we’re going to Ibiza” and annoyed people all over again. Actually, both the worlds above  co-exist alongside each other. On a holiday resort like Kos, you don’t have to travel far from the bars and English breakfasts in Kos Town to find the white washed villages and shepherds’ huts on wooded hills in the interior. A track like the evocative and shimmery  In Love With Dusk by  Keep Shelly in Athens is a kind of bridge between the two.

The song here though, Mediterranean Moon by the Rays from 1960, is different from these in that it comes from a musical genre –doo wop – that a) is probably not remembered much at all and b) certainly wouldn’t be associated with the Mediterranean, originating as it did from the street corners and subway entrances of urban America in the 1950’s.  In many ways, it turned out to be a cul-de - sac of a genre, though its influence stayed on in more commercially successful groups such as Dion and the Belmonts and the Four Seasons. However, few of its acts had wider standing. The Rays themselves, like many doo-wop groups, had little commercial success other than a one-off hit.( In a comprehensive history of UK pop, they might merit a minor footnote in that Hermans Hermits had a hit with a revival of their Silhouettes song). There were numerous others whose names have largely been forgotten. There were, for example, the Superbs, a Los Angeles group who married doo-wop and soul in a distinctive sound characterised  by the clear soprano  voice of Eleanor Green soaring over the vocal harmonies of the other group members. Despite  standing out from many  chart  acts of the time (the record below is from 1964) they passed by without the recognition they deserved.

Doo-wop generally, in fact, had little impact on the UK at the time, a few songs -  like the Marcels'  Blue Moon - aside. In fact, just as in the USA where songs by early, black, rock and roll acts like Fats Domino and Little Richard were taken into the mainstream by white singers like Pat Boone, so in the UK doo-wop tended to go through a home-grown transformer  to make it more commercially palatable.  Take the song The Book of Love, originally a USA hit for doo-wop outfit the Monotones. In the UK, it was  a hit for the Mudlarks, a kind of pre-Springfields pop/skiffle group from Luton,  voted the most popular British vocal act of 1958.In the clips of the 2 versions below, you can see/hear how the song became modified by the Mudlarks (backed by the Ken Jones Jive group) into a tune the vicar at the local youth club could tap his feet to as he handed round the lemonade and ping-pong balls to those crazy kids. It was another 20 years before British doo-wop became credible  through revival groups like Rocky Sharpe and the Replays and  Darts, whose first hit in 1977 was a cover of the Rays' Daddy Cool.

Mediterranean Moon was  a bit of infectious nonsense co-written by Bob Crewe, who went onto bigger success writing for the Four Seasons. The geography is a bit hazy, with a senorita on the Isle of Capri in an Arabian night, but you get the picture.  It is also an example of a musical ear worm, one of those songs hovering between catchy and annoying that burrow into the brain from repetition .The writer Lawrence Durrell said, “The Mediterranean is an absurdly small sea; the length and greatness of its history makes us dream it is larger than it is”. Here, even a simple  ditty –albeit one  using a repetitive double dactylic metre to get its point across – can conjure up the image of the moon across the Mediterranean, so strong has that dream been.


North Wales

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.