82. AMERICA – Simon & Garfunkel

Driving to Bath recently, we allowed the iPod to run us through all the Simon and Garfunkel tracks it contained – and it suddenly became something of a sentimental journey, because listening to Simon and Garfunkel seems very much an activity which is rooted in the past.  We sang along, snatches of ‘Homeward Bound’ and ‘For Emily..’ and even ‘Cecilia..’ But when this one came on, my heart did a little jump and began to melt (two quite contradictory metaphors of course, but there you go.) Just hearing those harmonised hums that begin the song takes you to a younger you, doesn’t it?

…  Before we launch into ‘Let us be lovers/ we’ll marry our fortunes together’ let’s acknowledge this is a young person’s song, the irony of the opening line perhaps being that romantic youngsters have only their poverty and idealism to share, their only ‘real estate’ in their bags.  Never truer. This is a sort of studenty song, backpacking across the country with that youthful sense of quest and curiosity to discover the real nature of what they’ve taken for granted, to discover the concepts and the reality behind the geographical materialism – ‘we’ve all come to look for America..’

And for me this is a sixth form song.  I saw and heard John Rogers Prosser singing and playing it in school one day and I felt straight away the kind of yearning beauty that the song possessed.  And at around the same time one of my best friends, Barrie, (where are you now, Dr./Professor of Soil Science?) was becoming a huge Paul Simon fan.  Barrie learnt to play the guitar way before I did; he was our sort of local (ie.  Church youth group ) guitar player, and hitting adolescence he began to learn to play his way through all the early Paul Simon songs up until ‘Bookends’, and he played them well. ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ came out towards the end of this period of shared (because he got me interested too) enthusiasm…oh, maybe not, I also recall Barrie enthusing over songs from Paul Simon’s ‘first’ (post S&G) solo albums, and learning to play things like ‘Duncan’ and ‘American Tune’.  But in my mind, the ‘Bookends’ songbook both ‘capped’ the sense of Simon’s extraordinary talent…  and somehow ended our peculiar fascination with those great early songs of his. (Barrie moved seamlessly into a Leonard Cohen obsession, by the way, as a yin/yang thing with my JoniMitchellism..)

To me ‘Bookends’ seemed to have a rare almost mystical beauty, despite the quirky things like ‘At The Zoo’ and ‘Punky’s Dilemma’, and ‘America’ was the song that most encapsulated that spirit, or that most appealed to the unformed teenage senses of angst and incipient wanderlust.  More about that in a moment maybe.  There was also something delightfully refreshing about the lyric and the construction too – the conversational tone, the sense of the ordinary (‘so we bought a pack of cigarettes/and Mrs. Wagner pies..’), the credible touches of youngsters conspiratorially observing and inventing back stories for the people around them (‘..  I said be careful, his bow tie is really a camera…’).  I knew nothing then about Greyhound buses, and could only imagine these exciting journeys across the states – though I got a taste of it a few years later, and Simon’s charm-touched song to youthful fun, quest, longing…  came back to mind then.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t articulate it to myself when I first heard this song, but now I’m aware of at least two elements of appeal held in delicate balance – that sense of search for the wider ideals, for the particular discovery of what is so big that it can only be unknowable, but must still be known… ‘To look for America’ reminds me of that fabulous passage at the end of ‘The Great Gatsby’: “For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” And at the same time for me perhaps as well the sense of a spiritual thirst and emptiness that will not easily be satisfied by lesser goals.  This weariness and longing is also there in this song: ‘Kathy, I’m lost, I said…/ I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why..’  Faltering but fairly fervent little Jesus-believer that I was back then, these dual longings within us seemed very close to the heart of what it was all about.


OK, what you have to remember is that this blog was never intended as a chart of ‘my favourite songs’ –although it might act like that at times- but rather as a kind of guilty inventory of ditties that have featured in the autobiographical snapshots that make up the fairly messy songline of my life.  And they don’t come much guiltier than this one.

I think I have mentioned already that as a postwar ‘you’ve never had it so good’ working class kid I was surprisingly spoiled with regular gifts of singles to play on the new record player (in my memory very few Saturdays seemed to pass when my indulgent parents would not buy me a ‘45’ of my choice from their shopping trip –on the bus of course –to Bargoed or Blackwood).  Still, there were some records that were more special than others: I believe that for my ninth birthday I received as my main present this disc – ‘Speedy Gonzalez’ By Pat Boone.  While we’re at it, to add to the shame, let’s also remember and confess that for my previous birthday (8th) my main gift had been ‘Transistor Radio’ by Benny Hill.

Oh, discerning reader, you might already have made the connection: both of these were ‘novelty singles’ as I think we might now term them.  What tickled and entertained the nine year old me about ‘Speedy Gonzales’ I can only now guess at.  Certainly I had no notion of the cartoon character on which it is based (I am presuming that now –am I right?); and the whole mild racism of the Mexican stereotype meant nothing to me then of course..  So maybe I was amused by the funny squeaky voices in the same way as I might have been amused by Pinky and Perky and Twizzle on early 60s TV?  Did the very unintelligibility of the foreignness seem a bit of tickly fun? ‘Hey Roseeta, come queek –down at the canteeena, they giving green stamps with tequeeela!’ And I presumably chuckled at all this with absolutely no knowledge of what it meant – Green (shield) stamps I knew about, yes, but ‘ tek-eela’ (fly-killer?), no idea –and probably ‘canteena’ likewise.

I could go easy on myself and say, well, I was very young after all…  But still my susceptibility to this sort of thing seems mildly depressing to me now.  In fact I can picture a whole stream of novelty singles stretching from Tommy Steele’s ‘Little White Bull’ (I even wrote to Children’s Favourites to get this played on the radio…) through ‘Ello my Darlings’ (Charlie Drake) and Bernard Cribbins’ songs ‘Right Said Fred’ etc.  Even something like James Darren’s ‘Conscience’ (‘Ah-ah-ah this is your conscience speaking..’) another 45 which was one of the proudest in my collection….through to the Barron Knights and their parodies of pop bands in the mid sixties.  And if all of that is depressing, this next thought is even more so: that all pop music is a kind of novelty single –a kind of lowest common denominator fun, cynically mass produced from a commercially driven industry eager to exploit the short attention spans, the need for quick titillation, for undemanding hooks, refrains and gimmicks for the new disposable-income generation in the postwar decades.  All of it –the parade (the literal parade – the ‘hit’ parade) of three-minute singles, churned out by (at the classier end of things!) the Brill Building –Klein and Goffin, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weill et al; at the cruddier end, some cynical entrepreneur with capital to hire a studio, some backing singers, cliché-stringing pen, and the means of production. Pete Waterman and the ilk that preceded, and follow in that wake.

Speaking of which, let me take a minor detour for a moment to talk about another Pat Boone record we had bought –the very first in fact – ‘Sugar Moon’, and bought as a larger 78-rpm single in that thicker, harder, more brittle plastic that was used then.  I think I had pointed out to my parents for purchase (‘I’ll have that one’) almost randomly –maybe I liked the sound of the title, who knows, maybe even the assonantal rhyme of ‘Moon’ and ‘Boone’?  I found it on youtube the other day and listened.  The song could have been constructed by Tin Pan Alley computers (had such things existed then) with its predictable, bland, melodic construction, its ragbag of romantic clichés, its verse-bridge-verse format, its syrupy ooh-ing sessions singers behind Mr. Boone, its plinky hammered piano chords in 6/8 (?) dullness, and ubiquitous sixties bits of sax attempting to flesh it out to a fatter sound.  Selling it well, aren’t I?  Its saving grace is its modest brevity –today equally inane pieces of muzak are dragged out to twice the length.  But I played it; and must have liked it? …

Woe is me.  If you want to pile on the agony, you could even say that a distinctly ‘novelty’ single – ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ was even my way in to appreciating Joni Mitchell.  Yikes.

Where does this leave us once the gloom of this realization has settled?  Always good to face up to reality.  The wonder of it is that despite it all –the crassness, the formulaic commercialism, the cynical exploitation of low appetites and lazy listening, somehow, somehow and sometimes, something of value squeaks through.  Sometimes the form can transcend the silliness of novelty and touch the spirit like art can do; or can harness some kind of common humanity in a narrative or a symbol, as the best of folk tale and folk song can do.

Or, presumably, I wouldn’t be bothering to write these things… would I?



Here is a lightweight piece of pop that makes me smile.  In some ways, it’s just the perfect pop single, airy nothings in a romantic vein with a sweet neat hook of melodic progression and –clincher-a gorgeous, chugging, shuffling percussive beat driving the whole thing.

I heard it first on the radio in January 1989 –I know this because I was staying in a guesthouse in Bournemouth, where I had gone for an intensive TEFL course –increasing our work options to include teaching abroad.  It was a strange and unusual four weeks (five weeks?  Six weeks?) With little spare time as such; though, in my single bed somehow I still managed to read ‘Swallows And Amazons’ (never read it before) and Doris Lessing’s ‘The Fifth Child’.  Did I have a little transistor radio?  I imagine there must have been one, because I remember lying in bed one morning and hearing the song.

No epiphanies or anything.  I knew it wasn’t  great art –but that beat, that sound, those hooks got to me and I hummed and sang fragments of it for the rest of the day.  And even now if I ever hear it by chance (a relatively rare thing) the same thing happens. Cha-chung der-der-der-der-da, cha-chung der-der-der-der-da etc ‘I feel like a kid with a teenage crush…’

I could project backwards and suggest that it had caught my attention because there was perhaps some distinct lyrical significance for me   especially the opening lines ‘ I talked to my baby on the telephone long distance..’ i.e. there was a splendid wife back in our home in Factory Road, who had let me do this, despite the fact that she was caring for a two month old baby, as well as another child of eighteen months.  Hopefully I did realise that this was an extraordinary woman whom I should ‘never let slip away’ ?  Shamefully, though I was grateful and missing her – don’t get me wrong – my realization of this was probably at a less than  conscious level.  The fact that, 28 years later, she hasn’t ‘slipped away’ is more to do with her resilience and godly faithfulness than my ‘letting’ or ‘not letting’.  But –for the record –I’m very grateful. ‘She’s good for me.. and I know it [has made!] me happy.. to never let her slip away..’

[Ha – for the record – yeh, for this one too]

41. TWELVE THIRTY – The Mamas and the Papas



In my time, I’ve probably picked up more than one ‘Best of’ Mamas and Papas collections, but I think I’ve finally got the message: in any of their compilations, there are going to be 5 or 6 ‘stand out’ tracks…and the rest are fillers. Now I’m taking a cold objective look, I think it’s probably true to say: that was indeed a true reflection of their career. John Phillips wrote a few absolute classics – and around them, to pad out an album, or a concert performance, or a TV appearance, they threw in some rehashed standards, some slowed-down rock songs, and some mediocre lyric/melody combinations hoping that Cass Elliot’s voice, and the prevailing appetite for commercialized faux-bohemia would sustain them.

But let’s affirm; the classics were classics. ‘California Dreamin’ is toweringly important  in its place in popular musical history: it has the feel of something with the substance of folk song, part of a national consciousness, which had been waiting to be discovered. ‘Creeque Alley’ is as clever and witty a song as anything that came out of the sixties : both mischievously self-referential in its narrative of the ambitions of their clique, and at the same time indicative of a more general cultural mood, I think.

And the mood is characterised by the focus shift from (in American geographical terms) East to West Coast, from the more tired, industrious, wisecracking, survivalist cynicism of east Coast’s mentality to the (as perceived) perpetual sunniness, free-spirited, tolerant/relaxed/libertarian lifestyle of the West Coast. ‘California Dreamin’ indeed – because the west coast becomes a kind of dream, an ideal to which the yearning spirit aspired…

Or so it seemed. ‘Twelve Thirty’ was another of this handful of Phillips classics. Perhaps, like many great writers, he really only had one theme, and perhaps that theme was this move from East to west, and what it symbolizes. This single is the only Mamas and Papas single which I remember buying, and it’s still my favourite. I’m imagining I was 15 (?) perhaps, when the single was released. My hazier memory imagines that all of their songs were released in the ‘summer of love’, ’67, and that can’t possibly be true, of course, but I think this single was actually released that summer. My understanding of the American popular-cultural east to west shift must have been sketchy at best…but in some small way I think I got it – and caught the ‘allure’ of freedom and newness that drew all those ‘young girls’ to ‘the canyon’ (Laurel Canyon? The several leafy canyons north of Los Angeles? Did I know that then?)

If this was Phillips’s great theme, where in ‘Dreamin’ he’d pictured the Eastern mentality from which they were escaping as cold, sterile – ‘the preacher likes the cold…’-, that cold church perhaps a symbol of the frigid institutional life which the new generation yearned to leave behind, in ‘Twelve Thirty’ we get the same images of the East’s stagnation – this time through the clock with its hands stuck on twelve thirty. NYC is declared as ‘dark and dirty’ – while the world of the west coast is pictured as a place of new openness, sudden connectedness, discovery – ‘At first so strange to feel so friendly/To say good morning and really mean it/ To feel these changes happening in me…’

I’ve not been to the West Coast of the States, so perhaps I ought to shut up now and bow to more informed experience. Still, here’s what I can’t help feeling: I cannot believe that any place can sustain this weight of idealism; when it carries the symbolism of such allure it becomes like C S Lewis’s idea of ‘northerness’ that drew him on towards…something beyond place, in his spiritually formative years. Perhaps I knew at 14 or 15, as I still believe now, that only a spiritual kingdom can satisfy the profound depth of those kinds of longings – for perpetual sunniness of heart, friendliness, creativity, community. Which is to say that in popular song, at least, the ‘Californian’ ideal of the sixties seems for me a ‘type’ of the Kingdom of God.

Have I strayed from my focus? Let me not forget the song’s delicious melody, the group’s unsurpassed harmonic sound…it’s a great single. Let’s put it back on the home jukebox.


27. RUNAWAY – Del Shannon & LITTLE DEVIL – Neil Sedaka

Del Shannon sedldps

It makes sense, in my mind, to write about these two together.  They mark, really, the beginning of a more independent pop-addiction which began from about the age of nine or ten: these were sounds that I liked, regardless of the records which Judy had (precious few of them –‘Walk Right Back’ by the Everly Brothers; ‘Wooden Heart’ by Elvis…) or the records we were borrowing from Susan’s friend Enid (‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ by the Platters; ‘Poetry In Motion’ by Johnny Tillotson…) or the records I was played in Cynthia Jeffries’s front room (thereby hangs a tale…  more of this in a future blog).  And these two were artists whose output I ‘pursued’, as far as a ten year old can, for…  as long as youthful obsessions last.

With both of them it was all about the sound.  I had probably heard Sedaka’s ‘One Way Ticket’ and the flip of this double A side ‘O Carol’, in my Cynthia Jeffries sessions; but I remember hearing ‘Little Devil’ for the first time on the radio of a bus taking us… where?  Was it the Saturday lunchtime bus that took Allan and I from New Tredegar to Ninian Park to watch Cardiff City play?  It’s possible.  The words seemed nonsense – in fact I thought it was ‘Hey diddle diddle’, I think  (‘Hey diddle diddle I’m gonna make an angel out of you..’?) –but the jaunty repetition of this, backed by the screechy doo-wop girls gave it a lively bubblegum effervescence which hooked me.  And perhaps most of all, I liked his surprisingly sissyish singing voice – aware, I think, even then, that my own voice had less-than-standard valleys-machismo to its timbres! Incidentally, when we bought the single, the B side ‘I must be dreaming’ proved even better, and an infinitely more enduring listen.

Del Shannon’s iconic chart topper was also a matter of unusual sound –the nasal drumming of the ‘Run-run-run-run runaway’ and probably too the famously leaping falsetto which became his sort of trademark.  (His producers presumably tried to capitalise on this and market it as a kind of alpine yodel in ‘the Swiss Maid’ –which I also loved!) Though the sound was richer and fuller than those two elements: consistent plinky piano going down the chords, farty horn sounds punctuating and underscoring everything, Del’s voice hoarse, urgent and driving even when he wasn’t wailing up there somewhere. And that funny ‘stylophone-type’ musical instrumental break? Del Shannon became so much of an obsession, in fact, that I actually joined his fan club –still the only official fan club I have ever joined –which provided me with – what?  -annual newsletters, perhaps, about his possible plans to come to the United Kingdom, and –if I sent in my autograph book, the fan club organisers would ensure that he’d sign it for me.  He did.  They also suggested that I play my part: I could bombard radio stations with requests for them to play his latest single.  I seem to recall on that occasion that it was ‘Two Kinds Of Teardrops’


My family humoured me.  Here’s a ferinstance: when my sister Judy went on her first holiday abroad, to Italy, her present to me on her return was a record of Neil Sedaka’s ‘Happy Birthday Sweet 16’ with a picture cover, and the title also in Italian.  The first ever LP disc I had – for Christmas 1962 or 1963 I imagine –my main gift that year from my parents, was ‘Runaway’ by Del Shannon – featuring the famous hit and, if truth be told, a dozen more mediocre songs.  Still, I was thrilled, more about owning it than listening to it.  Hmmmm…


My infatuation with Neil died away earlier than my infatuation with Del, though not until I had amassed a collection of singles by both.  ‘Breaking Up Is Hard To Do’ got more plays on the record-player than most, but I remember also getting very excited about coming across some of Neil’s early singles like ‘Run Samson Run’ in a local junk shop.  I was still buying Del Shannon singles into the late sixties  I think –when was it that he covered ‘Handy Man’?  By then, though, we were all moving on –the kinship of an effeminate lisp or the thrill of nasal falsetto didn’t do it for me like they once did; and sorry, especially, to Del/Charles: I was obviously never enough of a fan to stick with him through a  perhaps more interesting later career and the darker years to his untimely death.  Neil, your increasingly cheesy career did fine without my patronage. Still, here is a nod of gratitude to both.

[A funny memory just occurs:  at least once a week, when I taught in Paraguay, I would take a guitar into the classroom and teach a song – in English, of course –to my pupils.  While most of these were Jesus songs, and some of them were my own songs, I occasionally threw in something else.  My ‘quinto curso’ class learnt ‘From A Distance’, ‘The Living Years’, but one they really loved singing was ‘Runaway’. Ifmagine, then, twenty odd Latino-inflexioned accents launching enthusiastically into “as I walk along I wonder/what went wrong with our love/A love that was so strong….’ and getting more than excited on the ‘Why why why why why she went away…’ Ha. Nice memory. Thanks again Del]