Trouble Town

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

 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.


Euston Station

Waterloo has cropped up several times before as the backdrop in various songs. However, the station I have probably come to know best is Euston. Unlike Waterloo, which provided my entry point to London, it has been the exit for heading North or a transition point for coming into the city. It was actually the first mainline terminus station in a capital city but  it has never quite seemed in the same league as Waterloo. Eurostar never stopped there ,it has never had - to my knowledge -  a cinema or hairdressers  and, of course, it lacks a really famous song.

 They do exist, however, and  two of them either present a neat contrast between romanticism and cynicism or reflect the passage of time between the songs and the changing nature of  the station . There was Euston Station, a mournful Irish lament by Davie Arthur and the Fureys, who painted a picture that seems unfamiliar to my experience of  the place – “And the tambourine lady, and the saxophone man play a sad song of somewhere to go if you can…. So it's to Euston station, to the newsboy's harsh cries, Gypsy girls selling flowers have a glint in their eyes”. There was also A Night in Euston Station by Hungry Dog Brand, with a dubious invitation:   “loonies  drunks, tramps and whores…..come spend a night in Euston Station with strangers approaching to tell you things you didn’t want to know and then ask for change”. Just a normal Friday night then.

There was also the song here, also called Euston Station, by Barbara Ruskin from 1967.British female singers in the 60’s were in rather the same position as the doo-wop groups referenced in the last column. There seemed no obvious reasons why some were successful and others weren’t and every so often you come across a track and wonder why on earth it was never a hit. A few artists who were virtually unnoticed at the time did achieve success in later decades, notably Kiki Dee and Elkie Brooks. (In the mid-60’s, years before breaking through with Vinegar Joe , Elkie Brooks was sometimes described as “the sister of the drummer with Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas”.) There were many others, however, whose names and works remain bewilderingly unknown. Sharon Tandy, for example, whose soul style got her a  recording at Stax Studios backed by Booker T and the MGs but little success in the UK, though her version of the Lorraine Ellison classic Stay With Me is one of the best covers. Or Barry St John, who recorded a string of tracks only  later snapped up by Northern Soul fans: she also did a rather creepy version of  Come Away Melinda.

Or Tammy St John (no relation) who recorded the lost gem below, Dark Shadows and Empty Hallways , in 1965  at the age of 14 years. I find this a rather unsettling song, as it seems out of time in a weird way. It starts off sounding like St Etienne and then becomes as if it were a Bacharach-David hit you  had  never heard before. It is like someone creative in devising retro songs travelled from the present back in a time machine to deposit the track in 1965, only 1965 had already happened somehow so no-one noticed it at the time .In the real 1965, a much less memorable Bacharach-tinged song, Where Are You Now, by Jackie Trent, was actually at  Number One. (20 years or so later, Jackie Trent became part of the nation's musical psyche when she wrote the theme tune for Neighbours)

Barbara Ruskin  falls into this group of little-known 60’s women  singers, though her work was more towards the poppier end of music than those mentioned, reminiscent of Jackie DeShannon.As a woman singer-songwriter she was also a relative rarity in the pop market at that time– artists such as Jackie DeShannon herself or Barbara Acklin notwithstanding. The difficulties artists like her faced seemed obvious with her first release, when her own stronger composition, I Can't Believe in Miracles ,was  relegated to the ‘b’ side in favour of a rather pointless cover of the Billy Fury hit, Halfway to Paradise.  Perhaps for the same reasons, another woman singer-songwriter of that time, Bobbie Gentry ,faced persistent rumours that she didn’t write her most famous song, Ode to Billy Joe, herself. (I once lived in a rented house in Reading where one of the other itinerant tenants would corner anyone he could and claim that he had actually written American Pie and that Don Mclean had swindled him out of his royalties. He disappeared one day leaving 2 months unpaid rent).

Euston Station appears to have been inspired by her travelling regularly on the Number 73, the bus that runs from the West End past Euston Station to Stoke Newington and Walthamstow .That makes it a most musically-celebrated bus route as there is at least one serious song about it: Busdriver by Kitto. That is unusual as songs about British buses are generally as intrinsically comical as songs about English counties. Paul Simon could make a Greyhound bus trip from Pittsburgh to New York into an epic statement on America. Boarding a Number 73 at Euston and counting the cars as you are stuck at the Angel is never going to sound heroic no matter how hard you try.

The song came out at a time that seemed to be popular for station songs- Waterloo Sunset and Finchley Central  also  came out the same year, as did a track by the Move called Wave the Flag and Stop the Train. Lyrically though it had more in comparison with another song of 1967, Matthew and Son by Cat Stevens – “watch them run down to platform one and the eight thirty train to Matthew and Son”. The station as a symbol of the grey drabness of the 9 to 5 day   working for the Big Boss Man at a time when   Swinging London  was in full swing . Euston Station here is like one of those pictures of a signpost at a crossroads in a children’s story book. Platforms 1-7 This Way: monochrome life, grey suits, commuter train and the office . Platforms 8-11 That Way: Technicolour, Pegasus the flying horse, the giant albatross and Paradise People.

 It is inevitably a bit of a period piece with its  weighing machines and porters in blue – they sound as remote as a man walking in front of the train waving a red flag. However, porters in blue and detective inspectors sound more exciting than the ubiquitous  Burger King and Boots –or, indeed, strangers approaching to tell you things. Maybe there is a parallel universe somewhere where they still exist and where compilation albums of Hits of the Sixties feature Tammy St John and Barbara Ruskin whilst record collectors eagerly search Ebay for a rare track by the little-known  Cilla Black. And, really,  Euston Station is  not  always the same.