67. SPARROW – Mary Hopkin (composed Gallagher & Lyle)

I’ve been up to say hello to the lapwings, again.  There’s a breeding ground –fairly rare for Wales, I’ve been told – just a couple of miles north from here.  I’m very fond of them, and I have to try and enjoy them while they’re around, because after all it’s only for a few short months.  I love their erratic flappy, upside down sideways (presumably courtship showings off?) flights, and their little quirky curls as they strut in profile.  When I get near them, though, they rise up in warning, in distraction, and then fly up really high above me.  As high as larks?

I’ve no idea of course; I’m not a real ornithologist; so I don’t know how much ornithological truth there is in the chorus of Gallagher and Lyle’s beautiful song: ‘the sparrow sings, the sparrow flies/ With mighty wings he reaches/ As high as any other bird..’ but I can’t say I’m worried about the scientific veracity of this.  I came across the song (and thank you, peewits, for bringing it to mind this morning!) as the B side of a much fluffier, more instantly accessible –and ultimately more forgettable –single by Mary Hopkin.  I think it was called ‘Goodbye’, and having flipped it to its flip side, I’m not sure I ever flipped it back again, because this song ‘Sparrow’ was to my teenage self an intriguingly elliptical song with a gorgeous melody and an equally gorgeous romantic ‘feel’.  And ‘feel’ was all, maybe, because back in 1969 (I’m guessing) I was no lyrical analyst –otherwise I might have been concerned about how flummoxing the total lyric is.

But the way it works, perhaps, is this –we ‘pick up’ on this phrase, and on that phrase (much like, now I think of it, sparrows in the garden today picking at the wispy tops of last year’s crop of –totally incongruous in this garden –tall rushes, and flying off hopefully to help give a nest a bit of a downier lining?)…  I suspect the smell of freedom and independence was stirred by bits of the lyric – ‘I had to find it out my way/ They couldn’t stop me leaving…’; something romantic about the spare selection of muted imagery ..’a wealth of silence will descend upon the town/ in colours of the evening..’ and open ended ambiguity of the song’s conclusion ‘In the blue and hazy drift of after two, a saxophone is moaning./ I rise and step into the cool night air…’  There’s a whiff of detachment and wistfulness about the observations of the first verse too, observing a village held by its own routines (?) ‘ On Sunday morning everyone will leave the house, dressed for the Sunday service, /and through the streets I used to know, they go…’

But most of all that chorus speaks to something primal within us-the longing for (or the awareness of the unexpected possibility of) the apparently ‘small’ and insignificant to achieve inordinately beyond all expectations.  We are talking Jack and the beanstalk, maybe, David and Goliath, Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mushrooms’, the little engine who could (‘ I think I can, I think I can…’) and perhaps even what we hear from Micah every advent – ‘out of you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small…  Out of you will come…’ Well, you know who comes.   And the biblical overtones here do not go unnoticed  ‘…he shall inherit all the earth’ (like the meek, of course).

I’ve heard the composers singing it – they are/were(?) much undervalued and under-appreciated songsmiths, and their version of their own song is more than serviceable…but having heard Mary Hopkin’s interpretation…  Well, it’s just drop dead beautiful, isn’t it?  (And here’s a thought: having arrived at our aural doorsteps via Opportunity Knocks, how well would Ms Hopkin have fared in the X factor or Britain’s got talent? Just musing, idly.] And that extraordinary sweet voice: isn’t she a bit like ‘Eleanor [who] sings in the choir/ [and] it’s like a lark in summer’?  The ‘production’ here might be seen as a bit overblown – the bells, the woodwind, the saxophone at the end, the ethereal ‘chorus’. Ah but I must confess I rather like it.



65. BORDER SONG – Elton John

I think one often returns from time-out breaks with a sort of heightened awareness –and perhaps particularly so when they involve some cultural contrast, and in my experience this is especially true when the breaks have had some spiritual focus –and ones antennae towards matters of spiritual reference becomes acutely sensitive – perhaps amusingly so…

At least, such was the case in the spring of 1970 when I returned home from an Easter jaunt with the church youth group, who had been taken by our pastor Rev. Albert Turner (recently deceased – God bless him) to camp in the Bois De Boulogne and see the sights of Paris (following, now I come to think of it, a short Christian youth conference somewhere in Belgium, the first opportunity incidentally to practice my excruciatingly clumsy bits of O level French).  Show us the sights he did, and looking back it seems slightly unorthodox that for one of our evening visits he took us  -all young adolescent boys, if I remember rightly –to stroll along Pigalle’s avenue of strip joints and girlie shows. ‘Something of the world’s attractions’ he said, implying that anyone blithely following a perceived call to a Christian lifestyle might as well know what they were up against!  Ironically other visits and evening walks –less sticky and embarrassing –were equally alluring: the beauty of the Champs Elysees, the Left Bank, the art…

We must have returned home midweek, because I have a feeling that I was still fresh and raw from the headiness of foreign travel and from the intoxicating camaraderie of young people together, and the rarefied atmosphere of constant ‘Christian fellowship’ and refreshment, when we came to sit down and watch our regular ‘Top Of The Pops’ date, as a family, that Thursday evening.

I had probably only been away about 10 days at the most, but I suddenly felt that everything had changed – a song called ‘Spirit In The Sky’ by Norman Greenbaum had rocketed to the top of the charts –and this obviously a song about God!   Other singles too (I forget which) seemed less about teen romance and more about less earthbound concerns. …Spiritual awareness was everywhere!  And now, look –this young fresh faced pianist-singer Elton John was also singing a song of unequivocal gospel tones and content!  Had a revival taken place in my absence?  It was spring, after all, and an opportunity for awakenings in more than one way!

Okay, very funny now, that I should think of Elton’s song as evidence of a sweep of Christian fervour, or something akin.  What on earth was I basing it on? ‘Holy Moses’, no doubt (though today Taupin’s ‘Holy Moses’ seems little more than a substitute for a more frustrated expletive!) and possibly the impassioned call for tolerance in the last verse, which in its clunky literalism sounds more like The Office’s David Brent than anything else! (‘tell the man over there/what’s his colour?/I don’t care/he’s my brother/let us live in peace…’).  I subsequently learnt that young Reg added this verse himself, while Bernie Taupin’s lyrics in the rest of the song remain much more ambiguous and enigmatic –and somehow more enduring because of it.  Take the ‘bridge’ for instance –‘I’m going back to the border where my affairs/my affairs ain’t abused/I can’t take any more bad water/it’s poison from my head down to my shoes.’..  And borders are of course essentially dangerous, risky, uncertain, ambiguous tightropes between neighbouring or opposing states.  Perhaps that’s why they appeal to poet-singers –think of Richard Thompson’s ‘when I get to the border’ and Joni Mitchell’s wonderful ‘Borderline’ etc.

So yes, it was pretty silly wasn’t it, to see the song as potent with spirituality.  But the funny thing is, for me the feel of the song is still gospelish, and although my Elton-history is a relatively short one, I gladly come back to this one (it’s on the jukebox) and experience from it a familiar frisson.





57. THE LIVING YEARS – Mike and the Mechanics


I’ve tried a few times to write this one, over the last several months, but never feel I’ve quite got it right.  Ironically, I’ve ended up with ‘crumpled bits of paper/filled with imperfect thoughts…’, but it’s a new year so let’s give it another bash.

Looking at the release date of Mike and the Mechanics’ classic single ‘The Living Years’-end of 1988-I must have been aware of this song before the occasion of our exodus from Blighty (end of 1989) but, as far as my memories are concerned, this song doesn’t acquire conscious recognition until the middle of 1990.  For reasons which will become obvious.

You might think that saying goodbye to our parents at the turning of that particular year and decade, travelling as we were to somewhere that seemed a world away (and to them, even further; in these days the whole trans-continental thing seems a much less significant thing – a mere jaunt you can be back from by evening!) would have been profoundly emotional.  In some ways it was and in some ways it wasn’t.  Possibly I had steeled myself against the emotional traumas of partings, but for the most part we were all stoical. Given my father’s relatively advanced age, I must have been aware, somewhere in the back of my mind, that this might have been our last earthly hug/handshake, or whatever we did, but of course there was no way that I could have confronted that consciously.

Perhaps something of the excitement of the impending transition, and the flurry of preparations, kept me from the whole emotional import of this awareness. (Until the very first night away, in a small damp apartment in Sevilla, where we had gone for six weeks language training.  There I spent  sleepless hours suddenly confronted with a waking dread of having made a horrific error – ‘what have I done?  Taken my children away from their grandparents!  Left behind my own aged parent!…’ I think of it now as one peculiar dark night of the soul, a kind of Gethsemane type temptation to despair, and when Seville’s winter sun dawned the next morning those feelings evaporated and amazingly , never returned.)

If I hadn’t cried at leaving, I made up for it watching ‘Field of Dreams’ as part of the in-flight entertainment from Madrid to Rio de Janeiro, a film which, of course, is all about sort of recovering a relationship with a father who is in reality ‘beyond reach’.  I wept buckets, but there again, I’m a bit like that with films and so on.  Anyway, cutting the story short a little bit, my dad did indeed pass away some 5 months later (fairly peacefully, apparently, in his living room armchair, having recently had a pleasant reunion which had enabled him to catch up on some of his own family); we were not only far away and phoneless, but also in that particular week when he had died, we had been enjoying a rare little break on the Brazil/Paraguay border at Foz de Iguazu, glorying in the magnificent waterfalls, and so  were even more incommunicado than usual; his funeral went ahead without us but many friends ‘stood in’ for us, out of love.

So, I ‘heard’ the song for the first time, the next time it reached my ears. At least that part of the song which seemed particularly pertinent: ‘I wasn’t there that morning/when my father passed away/I didn’t get to tell him/all the things I had to say…’ And I’ve come to recognise that that sense of regret –for unspoken conversations, unvoiced expressions of affection and appreciation- are not uncommon, perhaps even universal, since we never do quite say enough of these things in ‘the living years’.  (When my mother passed away, some 14 years later, I wrote a song which included a similar reflection:  ‘…  about how much we loved you, but forgot to say..’).  And since we had two small girls with us, the next bit of that verse of Rutherford and Robertson’s song did not seem too fanciful either – ‘I thought I caught his spirit/later that same year/I’m sure I heard his echo/in my baby’s tears…’ And of course, the refrain brought a lump to my throat for quite a while after this – ‘I just wish I could have told him in the living years..’

Apart from those key emotions, though, the song is not necessarily a perfect fit for my relationship with my father.  I wasn’t particularly aware (verse 1) of being ‘ a prisoner to all my father held so dear’ and ‘a hostage to all his hopes and fears’, though increasingly I think my siblings and I recognize his quiet legacy – Inevitably I do wish we’d talked more about his Union years and his Labour party responsibilities, his ideals and beliefs; and for my part about the Gospel as I perceived and believed…. the implied tensions and conflicts in the song didn’t really exist between us, but we could have taken more opportunities to find common ground or creative contrasts. Which is perhaps part of what this song is about.

Paul Carrack’s voice is amazing, and he ‘carries’ the song with powerful conviction. As a song, it’s more than a facile verse-chorus structure, and I think survives the test of time. I learnt to play the song (though not properly, as I realized when hearing someone performing it in Open Mic recently!)and taught it to the class of 17 year olds I was teaching that year. They loved the anthemic quality of it, belting into the chorus about ‘listen[ing] as well as you hear..’ . I hope in some part of our brains we all got the message, and eventually I learnt to sing it and love it with more of a dry eye..

48. CARE OF CELL 44 – The Zombies

I really can’t remember how we managed before 1967 (we did, obviously) but I do know that the advent of Radio One meant that ‘unwilling schoolboys’ like myself could leave the house for the bus stop at least with some sort of catchy tune on their tongues.  Tony Blackburn it was, filched by the BBC from Radio Caroline, who injected an unfamiliar breeziness into the general pre-school sluggishness, new zippy jingles and all.  His tastes were pretty anodyne, weren’t they, and – shameful to say?  -suited me just fine, from his initial picks of the Move (‘Flowers In The Rain’) and the Bee Gees (‘Massachusetts’) to his later swooning over The Carpenters (how he loved ‘Rainy Days and Mondays’).  But, as far as I was concerned, he invariably sent me out, satchel on shoulder (?) into generally wet and grey Jubilee Road with a chirpy song on my lips.

And I have such a distinct memory of one such morning, in 1968, with this one, ‘Care Of Cell 44’ by a group called The Zombies.  We called them ‘groups’ in those days, not bands…  And I think I liked most of  these ‘groups’, with of course the Beatles unquestionably at the pinnacle of the group hierarchy – and this group I think I liked for the distinctive sound.  Looking back, I can only think that part of the appeal was the rather otherworldly haunting quality of Colin Blunstone’s voice.  [Later on in the 1970s,  I think he briefly became a fashionable voice once again when championed by whispering Bob Harris …and that first solo album of his, with its exquisite cover of Tim Hardin’s ‘Misty Roses’ is still a classic of sorts. Briefly cool..then blandly mainstream again…]

OK, so there was that voice, but the single was bigger than a voice –the sound was a very rich, full one – not exactly Phil Spector ‘wall of sound’ but a sort of semi-psychedelic British approximation with perhaps some multi tracked voices?  And what else sent me out into the street singing it on the way to the bus stop?  Well, I don’t think it’s too fanciful to conjecture that there was something about the content, too.  This was a song about pending freedom (addressing someone about to be released from prison!).  This unwilling schoolboy, seeing perhaps just a few years left in the educational ‘prison walls’, was possibly heartened by some degree of identification – “counting the days until they set you free again…”; “feel so good/you’re coming home soon…”

And of course, it’s a morning song, to some extent – at least, it begins with the words ‘Morning to you, I hope you’re feeling better, baby…’ and I am and always have been an absolute sucker for morning songs – not just the hymns and psalms and Christian songs that encourage praise to spring up in the morning, but – just think of all those Joni morning songs (Chelsea Morning et al) and check out – when I finally upload it –my essay on Georgie Fame’s ‘Peaceful’.  I remember when our music teacher in school (I was eleven or twelve; I dropped music shortly afterwards) introduced us to Grieg’s ‘Morning’ from Pier Gynt.  For months, it played in my head to accompany many a beautiful morning scene afterwards.  I was a terrible romantic.

Hey, I saw a poster for ‘The Zombies’ appearing later this year at the club here in Bath, this week.  Could it be that some of the old group have got together (with a couple of ‘fillers’?) re-forming to do a nostalgic tour?  Hmmm, I think I’m not big on nostalgic tours.  *

For now, let’s leave us with this dippy 15 year old school kid, facilely given an artificial spring in his step by Radio One’s jaunty, jingly Mr. Blackburn and his feelgood playlist, belting out ..‘feel so good you’re coming home soon.. /walking the way we use to walk/and it could be so nice..!’ And probably, ignoring all thoughts of the geometry homework he had failed to finish on the previous night…

[*stop press since writing the above: tonight in Aberdare, I saw another poster advertising the Zombies’ tour – Aberdare had been added to the itinerary.  I asked the reception staff if they could somehow check up on the band’s line up.  In the interval, they informed me that, indeed, both the notable Colin Blunstone and the notable Rod Argent were members of this touring band!  I said that, despite this encouraging information, looking at the publicity poster, it might be appropriate to cross out the word ‘The’ from ‘The Zombies’.  Though that’s a little unkind of me.]

47. UNDER PRESSURE by Queen & David Bowie

First, the story of the juke-box. In the relatively brief period after Susan and I decided we liked each other enough to be married to each other, and before we actually did marry, weekends meant at least one round-trip to Shropshire – usually to take Sue back to her place (near the school where she was employed on her first teaching post) on a Sunday night. On this particular weekend, quite shortly after our commitment, I was bringing her back from Shropshire – half-term, perhaps – and taking an odd route, deciding near Ross-on-Wye to veer off towards Gloucester by B roads. We stopped for some refreshment at an old pub, where I noticed – just before we left – that they were selling off their big old Rock-ola jukebox! Perhaps Sue recognized the gleam in my eye, perhaps I was insistent, I can’t remember, but one thing was clear, in those dewy-eyed days of love, Sue was crazily willing to forgo any hopes of an engagement ring to allow the purchase of the huge record-machine. The magic of the evening was sealed by our witnessing – by chance – the passing of the Severn Bore from a bridge in Gloucester where a crowd had gathered.

I tell the story here because of the discs it came with. When, by the support of longsuffering friends, it was transported and heaved into the ‘though lounge’ of my little terraced house, I could see that its carousel was stocked with a selection of early 80s songs with which I had little sense of connection. When the great re-stocking took place, the only ones I left on, if I remember rightly, were Hall and Oates ‘I can’t go for that’, Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney singing ‘The Girl is Mine’ and ‘Under Pressure’ by Queen and Bowie.  I liked this latter track well enough, but in the fervent enthusiasm for all things Bowie following his recent death, I wish I could say that I had liked it more…the truth is that although I gleefully sang along on the ‘under pressure’s, really I probably thought of it as an odd novelty collaboration and I had little patience to explore beyond its ‘um ba ba be’s  to see whether the lyric had any specific substance. Soon it had lost its place on the jukebox.

Now, it’s really not going to be cool to admit this, but what has single-handedly resurrected this song for me in recent years has been the US music/drama series ‘Smash’ (largely centred around the writing, directing, producing, performing and staging a Broadway hit musical on the life of Marilyn Monroe, and spin-off rival musicals) – see: I said it wasn’t going to be cool. In one particular episode (series 2, maybe?) ‘Under Pressure’ is given a ‘dramatized’ performance by the main cast as they converge on a theatre ready for, I think I recall, the Grammys to deliver verdicts on their rival productions. A shame that the subject matter is something that petty, but the emotional intensity is evident, and even after repeated viewing, I still feel it is a stirring dramatization that respects the energy of the song in a way that even (for me at least) elucidates and focuses it. (*and what a shame – the videoclip of this has been pulled from youtube; you don’t get the same sense of dramatic interpretation from the mere audio).

Thankfully it sends me back – as good interpretations generally do – to the of course superior original, and now, late in the day, it appears as quite a remarkable impressionistic sound/word collage of a song. This we get not just in the scat-singing ‘day-da-de-mm-hm’s, but it’s also in the distinctive non-fluency of some of the lines – ‘…Pressing down on you no man ask for’.. Still, conversely I also begin to see there is actually more of a lyrical progression than I’d realized all those years ago. Sure, the first half of the song bemoans the ‘pressure’ of..modern life? Urban living (‘people on streets’)? Societal conflicts (‘..that burns a building down/Splits a family in two..’)? and then Bowie gets to sing these great lines which make the ‘pressure’ seem more pervasive and existential – ‘It’s the terror of knowing/What this world is about/Watching some good friends screaming/Let me out!’. He repeats these same lines a little further on, and his voice has the right kind of strident urgency for it.

The turning-point of the song – echoed in melody and tempo – comes with the words ‘Turned away from it all like a blind man..’ and the implication is that one tempting response to the overwhelming pressures of life is to distance oneself,  to ‘sit on the fence’ of disengagement… and the first mention of ‘love’ is a pessimistic one  – ‘Keep coming up with love/But it’s so slashed and torn…’. The ‘Why…’ that follows takes the falsetto of the ‘blind man’ line to greater heights screeching up the octaves in high-octane madness. But this takes us to another stage – the challenge to reject disenchantment and ‘give love one more chance..’. And that would be great enough, if we stopped there. But no, there’s even a further challenge – and this is brilliant and profound, so I’ll quote it practically all. While first acknowledging our over-familiarity with the word ‘love’ (‘such an old-fashioned word’) we hear this: ‘And love dares you to care for/The people on the edge of the night/And dares you to change our way of/Caring about ourselves/This is our last dance…’ Within the context of the rock idiom, this is powerfully articulate and challenging.

The ‘Smash’ cast – Anjelica Huston, Jack Davenport et al – do in fairness give this section sufficient gravity, but at the same time trivialise it – the march into the theatre, the forming then breaking from their circle and the individual line-up on ‘This is ourselves’ is effective but by rooting it in their story it still feels like some petty showbiz angst -‘Ooooh such pressures we have, delivering Broadway shows for the critics and public..’. Whereas Queen and Bowie’s original is more powerfully generalised. The ‘last dance’ seems to imply that if we don’t make love work, what else is there? And the ‘this is ourselves’ is perhaps asking us to be accountable and individually responsible… yet still, no facile ending, we are left with the single word ‘pressure’.  Rock n roll classic. OK, back on the famous jukebox.

14. MONOCHROME – The Sundays

Here’s a good example of what I’m trying to explore here: the way that our responses to songs, particularly over time, become a complex blend of – the trivial anecdotal details of how we first connected with the song; what we like/have liked about its sound; the other personal memories evoked by the content; how lines, phrases in the song continue to make us think, feel, smile, remember… That’s all here.

Where to start? The song. It’s not easy to recreate a child’s eye view but this one does it nicely with a few simple brushstrokes – ‘It’s 4 in the morning, July in 69/ Me and my sister, we crept down like shadows/they’re bringing the moon right down to our living room..’ all to a gently shuffling chordal accompaniment, an understated musical background, a simple, sustained melody. The song ‘gets it’ – the magic, the unreality, the strangeness and disorientation of this childhood experience. The vision of those ‘slow puppets, silver ground’ on this historic, unaccustomed middle-of-the-night TV viewing; a sense of the momentous (‘We hear a voice from above/And it’s history’). But what makes this subtler still is that it captures those other elements of a child’s response – that inevitable feeling of not-quite-understanding (‘…lost in space/but I don’t know where it is.’) linked, especially in the final lines, to the child’s excitement focused then on more modest, immediate things – like …staying up really late! :‘I half expect to hear them asking to come down/(Oh will they fly or will they fall) /to be excited by/A long late night.’) Understatedly accomplished lyric – beautiful.

But of course, it’s hard to listen to it totally divorced from one’s own memory of that night of the moon landing, that night of ‘monochrome vision – static and silence’. Me, I was 16, away from home, in a Summer School at Balliol College Oxford – intended, it appears, to give brightish boys (why only boys??) from deprived working-class areas a little taste of rarified Oxbridge atmosphere. So yes, there were about two dozen of us, I think, gathered around a small telly in one of the college common rooms – excited, but perhaps a little too teenage and ‘cool’, even then, to show it too explicitly. Still, the images of those ‘slow puppets, silver ground’ no doubt imprinted themselves viscerally so that even today the Sundays’ song still sets up little shivers of recognition.

I didn’t encounter The Sundays ‘the first time around’ whenever that was. I suspect I was too busy playing cassettes of ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ or listening to Taize on the Walkman , or maybe Mahler on my minidisc player.  But anyway, in 2008, over the August Bank Holiday weekend, I attended a ‘JoniFest’ (organized by the wonderful Lucy Cowie), knowing only that it would be a gathering of people interested in Joni Mitchell’s music, but –beyond that – not quite sure what to expect. What I couldn’t have anticipated included the following: 1. A warm, beautiful group of people. Despite that fact that most of them knew each other already, they were unconditionally welcoming, and embraced me affectionately with ties that continue today. 2. Extraordinary affirmation for my own songwriting, something I had not factored into expectations at all, armed as I was with just a few Joni-covers to sing. 3. That JM songs were appreciated, certainly, but in the most sensible, non-fanatical ways (if anything, slightly worryingly, arguably the most obsessive collector/enthusiast of her music there was..me). 4. That subsequently, and healthily, a whole range of other stuff was sung and shared, so that I ended up being introduced to music totally new and unfamiliar.

It was the lovely Patrick Leader from New York City, whose simple, almost apologetic performances introduced me to the most unfamiliar of things – first ‘Mirrorball’ from Everything but the Girl (who?); then a song called ‘I Feel’ from The Sundays (also, who?). I liked. I liked enough to explore further: a few weeks later in a charity shop in Mountain Ash, I came across the ‘Static and Silence’ CD  and my poor, pathetic little song-enthusiast heart did a familiar little leap.  The other two Sundays CDs (it’s not difficult to be a Sundays completist) were not difficult to track down.

What happened to them I don’t know, even though Google could tell me, no doubt. But I do know that Harriet Wheeler’s voice is something of a rare English treasure, deserving of wider recognition. All 3 Sundays CDs are little gems, worth holding on to. And this particular ‘4 in the morning, July in 69’ song, keeps notching up plays on my ipod.