Waverley Steps

A previous column, North Wales, mentioned the ambiguous relationship Wales and England have had in pop music. The same could be said of Scotland. As with the British Labour Party, Scotland has played a significant role in British pop from Lonnie Donegan through Marmalade, to the Rezillos, to K T Tunstall. However, songs with a Scottish theme in the early days of pop  floated a caricature of bonny Scotland. Like the 1958 Number One Hoots Mon, by Lord Rockingham’s X1, a group of session players. Later covered by Bad Manners, this was an instrumental  with a few vocal interjections that distil Scotland down, like a Readers Digest Condensed Classic, to these well-known Scottish conversation pieces: ‘Och aye’, ‘Hoots mon there’s a moose loose aboot the hoose’ and ‘It’s a braw, bricht moonlicht nicht’.   (To make a rather obscure but satisfying link with another column: Lord Rockingham X1’s bandleader Harry Robinson later did the string arrangement on Nick Drake’s River Man. Hoots Mon  also featured what must be one of the first examples on a pop hit of the Hammond organ, played by Cherry Wainer.) Or like Andy Stewart singing Donald Where’s Your Troosers, a UK hit twice, in 1961 and 1989. Or Jackie Dennis, touted as the UK’s Ricky Nelson, who scored a 1958 Top Ten  hit , La Dee Dah, at the age of 15, six years before another Scot, Lulu, achieved the same feat. As with the Dubliners mentioned in a previous column as looking just like Dubliners should, Jackie Dennis looked just as a Scots lad should.

This obviously changed, though in the first beat boom in the wake of the Beatles one of the few Scottish groups to be successful in England -the Poets - dressed up like Robert Burns. However, there became something apparent  that has cropped up before: that songs about Scotland - as with Wales, or America or Australia -  can get away with a sense of nationalist pride and patriotism that songs about England cannot, or at least in the context of pop and rock music. Take the two in the links below. The first is Runrig’s rollicking version of Loch Lomond that turns into an audience sing-along,  a version of which was a UK hit in 2007. (Bill Haley and the Comets did a version called, inevitably,  Rock Lomond in 1957). It is difficult to imagine such an emotion-charged  crowd pleaser about, say Lake Windermere or Chesil Beach. 

The second is  a version of  Robert Burns’ Ae Fond Kiss by Eddi Reader of Fairground Attraction and Perfect fame. Again, I am not sure an English poet could translate into such a musical idiom  in quite the same way. A comparison might be Cleo Laine singing Shakespeare’s  Shall I Compare Thee but this remains in the genre of jazz and also lacks the nationalist resonance of Burns’ work. The differences perhaps here lie in England’s past as the coloniser of these other countries. There wasn’t here  the loss of a country or independence ` to mourn. What had been lost, instead, were the voices of ordinary people  over the centuries as the ruling culture took hold. Hence whilst the unofficial national anthem of Scotland is Flower of Scotland or Scotland the Brave and of Wales is Land of My Fathers, in England it is God Save the Queen -an institution, not a country. Yet Pop and rock has not been the best medium to find those voices.

The capital city,Edinburgh, has been one of those places that seemed familiar before ever going there from dint of images over the years, though oddly few of these came from songs about the city itself. There perhaps isn’t  a really well-known one, though The Proclaimers did Sunshine on Leith, the portside settlement a bus ride to the North; and The Fall did Edinburgh Man, a very un-Fall like ode to Edinburgh (It’s got a tune and everything).  Instead the mental  picture of Edinburgh came from other sources.  From seeing Edinburgh Castle on TV in the New Year celebrations or on the tins of Scottish Shortbread that would get given as gifts at Christmas; the pictures on the sticks of Edinburgh rock.; or Edinburgh in countless films from Greyfriars Bobby to Journey to the Centre of the Earth to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to Trainspotting (You couldn’t run down Princes Street like that now, it’s all dug up with an ill-fated tram project. You would fall over). In these expectations it didn’t disappoint. The  Castle looked just as it had been in my mind’s eye. Walking down Heriot Row where Robert Louis Stephenson lived and  had watched as a child the lamplighter working his way down the street, or going through the  big old-fashioned department store of Jenners,  you got a sense of the  genteel Edinburgh, of the town of Jean Brodie. Yet it also seemed a very European city - walking down Thistle Street with its cobbled road, lamplights, cars haphazardly parked and small cafes you could be in Paris.

The song here, Waverley Steps from 2006 by Roddy Woomble of Idlewild (harmonies by Kate Rusby), captures some of this mixture of the place. Waverley Steps are the steps coming down from Edinburgh’s main station but the precise  lyrics aren’t the most important part.  (I’m not actually sure what Kate Rusby is singing in the chorus. One theory is ‘You wont be molested’ but that can’t be right). It is the mood and tone that resonates more with my experience of Edinburgh. There is something a bit undefinable about the place, something just round the corner, just at the edge of the eye, and ,as with the photo above of a figure vanishing into early morning steam, something slightly mysterious - even when the light won't fade away.


Love and Death In Metroland

Suburbs and suburbia have come up before in these columns, with Hatfield (Oxford Street)  and From Willesden to Cricklewood, usually in songs as a place to escape from. England has a particular version of surburbia, less well-known as a subject for songs – Metro-land, that area of Outer London, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire that grew up round the Metropolitan Line coming out from   Baker Street – the gateway to Metroland -  up to Amersham and Uxbridge. It sounds better than ‘suburbia’, a hint of Paris, a hint of  the countryside. It is meant to, for the term was coined by a PR department in 1915 in the attempt to get families to move out of London and commute in for work.  There was even a song of the time,  My Little Metro-land Home, conjuring up a semi-rural idyll on its sheet music cover:

It was always a  bit of a con. In the1920’s and 1930’s Metro-land looked back to an Edwardian  age that never really existed – and sometimes a good deal further back. A publicity blurb for Chorleywood  station in 1919 claimed you would walk straight into the 15th century. ( On the up side you would just miss the Black Death. On the down side you would not be able to get a cup of coffee or plate of chips anywhere). In the 50’s it looked back to a 30’s that never really existed.  In the 1990’s it looked back to a 50’s that never really  existed. The notion was made up of a number of things: mock Tudor houses, nuclear families, neat lawns and lawn tennis ,teashops and afternoon tea, little railway halts with wooden platforms,   a sense that places like Pinner or Chorleywood were really rather different from mere suburbia. John Betjeman wrote a number of poems about Metro-land, including Middlesex: "Daily into Ruislip Gardens runs the red electric train. With a thousand Ta's and Pardons daintily alights Elaine".

It was never an obvious place to inspire pop songs, though some  artists did spend their formative years somewhere there. Elton  John, for example, grew up in Pinner in Harrow, an archetypal part of Metro-land with its mock-Tudor  ,annual  Pinner Fair dating back to the 1300’s and  Morris Dancers in ye olde High Street. I got a sense of what it must be like to grow up in such an environment when as a young child we had a couple of family holidays in a house-swapping exercise that was presumably a cost-saving measure, exchanging abodes with relatives who lived in Harrow. Even at that age I realised that we had got the poor side of the bargain: they got a week by the Dorset seaside in August, we got a week in the urban heat in Metro-land, too far out from the excitements of London's tourist sites to make them easily  accessible. Actually the highlight of one holiday was discovering an old treadle sewing machine in a bedroom and seeing how fast you could make the foot pedal go. It is no surprise that Elton John tended to the more flamboyant when he escaped such a setting. What characterised the notion of Metro-land as much as anything was respectability, the old fear of the lower middle class falling in to a social abyss.

However, it also meant a relative scarcity of songs about it. Even the Metropolitan Line, in fact, is less musically celebrated than others. The Northern Line is perhaps the best served here. There was Love on the Northern Line by  boy band Northern Line: “How was I to know what fate would bring to me, oh seeing you sitting there all  alone silently….. Tell me who would have thought I'd find love on the Northern Line “ (lyrics which raise doubts about whether Northern Line ever travelled on the Northern Line .Whenever  was anyone  able to sit down, never mind all alone?). There was also Robyn Hitchcock’s  52 Stations: “There's fifty-two stations on the Northern line, none of them is yours, one of them is mine”

For the Piccadilly Line there was a 1958 track by Jim Dale, Piccadilly  Line, a parody of Lonnie Donegan’s Rock Island Line. (Despite a long and varied career taking  in pop singer, songwriter (Georgie  Girl),stage actor (Barnum) and narrating the Harry Potter audio-books in the USA, Jim Dale is still best remembered in the UK for his roles as an accident-prone romantic lead  in the Carry On films, forever innocently giving the likes of Barbara Windsor one as she invited a double-entendre.) The Bakerloo Line had the Eddy Grant-penned All Change On The Bakerloo Line, recorded by ska group The Pyramids (aka Symarip) in 1968, making the Bakerloo Line sound as if a permanent party was going on down there. (The  Pyramids, whose most successful single was Skinhead Moonstomp, recall an odd moment in UK  pop history, when white working-class skinheads  - some of whom voiced support for Enoch Powell and later the National Front-  championed  Jamaican ska and rock- steady music : the commercial success of artists such as Desmond Dekker and the Pioneers was partly due to popularity amongst skinheads. Shared links of class and an anti-police/authority culture perhaps explained part of this.It would be wrong in any case  to assume an automatic link between skinhead culture and right wing politics. In the mid and late 70’s, the Anti-Nazi League movement  in London and Manchester and elsewhere had support from Skins Against the Nazis groups.)  Even the Hammersmith and City Line got a mention in Carter USM’s Lean On Me, I Won’t Fall over: “I'll read your letter as I pass away the time, stuck in a tunnel on the Hammersmith and City line”. The Metropolitan Line though? Nothing really.

However, the song here from 1988, Love and Death in Metroland by Always, from the album Thames Valley Leather Club And Other Stories, seems a fitting one. Always was basically Kevin Wright, a singer/songwriter with echoes of Lloyd Cole , perhaps Ray Davies :very English, a  melancholic undertone, veering towards the whimsy at times, and songs  with  literary allusions  that dissect English culture. A style that suits Metro-land. ”There’s no escaping from this place, you’ll disappear without a trace”. Well, of course you will. It was an advertising concept -  it doesn’t really exist.