The wisdom of pop songs – Sing a song of Britain

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

 

Songs about British towns

In spite of having an international reputation for arrogance, the British are a very self-effacing lot. We routinely make fun of our own limitations: the food is no good, the weather is awful, the football teams haven’t won a major tournament since England had Sir Walter Raleigh in goal.

Perhaps the only thing we will claim in our favour is that when it comes to pop music we wrote the book. From the Beatles to Ed Sheeran and Adele, we are the champions.

And yet even in that there is one perceived weakness: our place names don’t work in songs. While Americans love to sing about their home town, be it New York or Baton Rouge, the British can’t do it with the same aplomb.

But I beg to differ. And here, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I present documentary, recorded evidence.

Starting at the biggest, the capital has been celebrated in song many times. From ELO’s Last Train to London to Blur’s London Loves, from the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset to Ian Dury’s Billericay Dickie and Plaistow Patricia, not forgetting Morrissey’s Dagenham Dave, our metropolitan placenames are scattered through our music like double decker buses in a blizzard.

It is tempting to think of Joni Mitchell’s Chelsea Morning as being written during an early trip to civilization, but unfortunately there is an area of that name in New York, and she lived there at the time. Similarly, any reference to the Chelsea Hotel  means the famous one in New York, where, among other things, Arthur C Clarke wrote 2001: A space odyssey, Sid Vicious stabbed his girlfriend Nancy Spungeon to death and Leonard Cohen reputedly received oral favours from Janis Joplin. How do we know that? Because he wrote about it in a song called Chelsea Hotel.

But it’s not just London. South coast, anyone? The Beatles’ Ballad of John and Yoko starts with “Standing on the docks at Southampton.”

The New Vaudeville Band’s Winchester Cathedral might not be rock’s finest hour, but it was a typically witty celebration of Britishness.

Liverpool? Home of the Beatles, and they celebrated places within it, such as Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields.

Then there’s Kimberley Rew’s brilliant contribution to The Bangles’  repertoire, Going Down to Liverpool.

Gerry and the Pacemakers, Liverpool lads that they were, sang about the local river in Ferry Cross the Mersey.

Blackburn? John Lennon in A Day in the Life: four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire.

And Blackburn’s big neighbor, Manchester, home of the Hollies, Stone Roses and the Smiths: the latter acknowledged the dark side of the city  in Morrissey’s song about the Moors Murders, Dig a Shallow Grave. “Oh Manchester, so much to answer for…”

Up to Scotland, and in addition to such patriotic fervor as The Proclaimers’ Sunshine on Leith, no less a force than Abba gave it a mention in Supertrouper, their song about the loneliness of touring.

I was sick and tired of everything
When I called you last night from Glasgow

Paul McCartney had happier memories of the city in Helen Wheels.

Glasgow town never brought me down
When I was heading out on the road

As for Newcastle, where the population is as regionally self-aware as any in the country, although the town itself doesn’t seem to lend itself to lyrical status, proud Geordie Jimmy Nail sang about the Tyne in Big River, while Lindisfarne had used the city and even its accent to their advantage in Fog On The Tyne.

Also in that part of the world, The Shadows had a song in the early 60s called Stars Fell on Stockton, which probably sounds more glamorous to those who have never been there than to a Teessider.

Paul McCartney ticks off another couple of towns in Old Siam Sir

She waited round in Walthamstow
Skated round in Scarborough

And talking of the Yorkshire coastal resort, Simon and Garfunkel did a tremendous job on the old folk song Scarborough Fair.

Yorkshire singer-songwriter Michael Chapman’s postcards of Scarborough wasn’t just a song but an album title.

The most famous northern resort of them all has been referred to several times, from Jethro Tull’s Going up the ‘Pool to Graham Nash’s mention of his birth and early childhood in Military Madness:

In an upstairs room in Blackpool
By the side of the Northern Sea
The army had my father
And my mother was having me

Back down south, Athlete sang fondly about Dungeness, a town more famous for its power station than anything else, while Blur’s Damon Albarn sang about throwing yourself off a national landmark in Clover Over Dover. And in Tracy Jacks he had the hero getting on “the first train to Walton”, which could be several places but is probably Walton-on-the-Naze, Essex.

And finally, my own beautiful little lump in the English Channel, Guernsey, might not be an obvious contender here, but check out Steely Dan’s Showbiz Kids (first line after the intro):

After closing time
At the Guernsey Fair
I detect the El Supremo
In the room at the top of the stair

Probably a Stateside Guernsey, but still… Jersey is constantly being name checked when what people really mean is New Jersey, old stomping ground of, among others, Bruce Springsteen.

The list must go on and one, but you get my point, I’m sure. Engerland swings like a pendulum do, as an American once observed.

 

 

 

 

 

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The wisdom of pop songs – Leaving home

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
clash
The eternal question, as addressed in 1981 by The Clash

Leaving home is a source of inspiration for songwriters, perhaps because it is something we all do eventually. It’s those teenage years when we feel trapped, hemmed in by our family and a home town that seems too claustrophobic to contain us and our unique, misunderstood, restless souls.

Bettering yourself is what it’s all about, and The Animals put it as well as anyone in 1964 with We Gotta Get Out Of This Place. This is often taken to mean leaving their native Newcastle-upon-Tyne in what at the time was a grimy coal mining area, the north-east of England. In fact they didn’t write it; it was penned by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, New York-based songwriters who were also responsible for On Broadway, Blame it on the Bossa Nova and Saturday Night at the Movies, among many others. So they were possibly not determined to get out of anywhere in particular, but they recognized the feeling and put it into song.

Paul McCartney saw the scenario from a girl’s point of view with the tearful She’s Leaving Home, as covered by everybody from Bryan Ferry to Carrie Underwood. Just a few years later, having gone solo, McCartney released Another Day, in which the move has been made and reality has hit home, the city turning out to be full of men only interested in one thing, and only for one night, at that.

simon
You can’t start a revolution from your bedroom in your parents’ house

New York has always been a popular destination for those hoping to make it in the entertainment world, and has been celebrated in music several times, from Frank Sinatra’s assertion that “if I can make it there I’ll make it anywhere” to Empire State of Mind, often attributed to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys but originally by two almost unheard-of Brooklyn girls who were feeling homesick while abroad. In that respect it’s not a leaving home song but a pining for home one.

Turning up in the big city doesn’t always end up well, as Stevie Wonder’s Living For The City demonstrates, the innocent hopeful from out of town gazing in awe at the “skyscrapers and everything” at the start of the song. But within four minutes he’s been banged up for five years.

An oddity among the Big Apple songs is Odyssey’s Native New Yorker, a sad tale of a local girl who may not be thinking of leaving but wishes she was at least treated better. “No one opens the door for a native New Yorker,” she laments.

Then there’s Bacharach and David’s Do You Know The Way to San Jose, where another starry-eyed would-be star joins the legions waiting on tables or “parking cars and pumping gas”.

Johnny Cash and June Carter played it for laughs with Jackson, a country romp by Billy Edd Wheeler and Jerry Leiber that was also a hit for Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, with the men stating their intention to go to the fleshpots of a town called Jackson and give the women there the benefit of their frustrated masculinity. The women, on the other hand, predict that “they’ll lead you round the town like a scalded hound with your tail tucked between your legs”.

jackson
They’ll laugh at him in Jackson, won’t they, Nancy?

Bruce Springsteen’s contributes to the genre with a vivid tale in which the singer tells his girlfriend Sandy, whom he has been two-timing with a waitress, that he’s getting out of what is presumably a New Jersey seaside town of funfairs and small minds. What he is really doing, though, even as he urges her to leave town too, is trying to get her to make love with him one more time before he goes.

Harry Nilsson’s version of the Fred Neil theme tune for Midnight Cowboy, Everybody’s Talking, speaks of “going where the weather suits my clothes” to get away from people stopping and staring at him. Wherever you are, kids, it’s the same story. They don’t think you’re a genius, they just think you’re weird. And all because they know your Mum and Dad.

carrie u
When Carrie Underwood needed a great song for American Idol she went for The Beatles’ She’s Leaving Home

The Smiths’ London, a breathless and typically uncomfortable piece of Morrissey fiction, sees our hero on a train from (probably) Manchester to the capital, with doubt and trepidation already creeping in. “And do you think you made the right decision this time?”

Maybe. Maybe not, but you’ll never know until you try.

 

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