Take Three Songs … on Suburbia

The first in what I hope will become an occasional series bringing together songs sharing a common theme, starting with… suburbia.


(Something About) Suburbia

Vocal by Tim Andrews
Written by Rod Thomas
Parlophone B-Side, April 1968
Available: Something About Suburbia: The Sixties Sounds of Tim Andrews RPM 2013


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A bright and breezy standout on 1980s’ vinyl compilation Sixties Lost and Found, (Something About) Suburbia is a jaunty music hall-style escapade complete with banjo, brass, tambourine, teasing hi-hat and Tim Andrews’ unabashed vocal – all of which is just as much fun as it sounds.

Tim Andrews was born and bred in Battersea.  He played The Artful Dodger in Oliver for several years and there’s an endearing cheekiness to many of his vocals, Suburbia, in particular.  Cy Payne supplies a joyfully strutting accompaniment.

Suburbia was originally the flip to Your Tea is Strong but was better liked than the A-side so DJs wisely played it in preference.  It wasn’t a hit but surely deserved to be.

A few years ago, I was fortunate to exchange emails with Suburbia’s writer Rod Thomas.  Rod confirms that although the song had a huge amount of air play “they couldn’t get any TV because they’d used up their contacts on Tim’s previous record which also had not lived up to expectations”.

Unusually for the ‘60s, here the suburbs are regarded as a treasured place of familiar comforts and even care-free abandon, always there for you when the big city lets you down.  Rod Thomas:  “When the song was about to be released (however), the record company got cold feet. They thought the idea of going home to suburbia was ‘uncool’ and that kids would rather have been leaving it for the bright lights of the city”.

Rod wrote the song as a young man working in a steel works in Cardiff while living some eight miles away in a quiet village –  my suburbia.  Ironically almost at the time of writing it, 1968, it began to change and is now almost a suburb of Cardiff”.

Suburbia has a habit of cropping up in some unexpected places.  1968 children’s serial The Tyrant King (Thames Television’s soundtrack-rich kaleidoscopic tour of swinging London) features an ice-skating scene in which Suburbia plays across the loudspeakers.   It brought a smile to my face hearing that.

DJ Mike Read picked up on Suburbia on his late ‘80s Radio 1 show along with other Sixties Lost and Found gems like David McWilliams’s ‘The Days of Pearly Spencer’.   The song’s themes probably chimed with Read’s fondness for the poetry of John Betjeman.  His intention was to write a musical based around these but I don’t know if one ever emerged.

(Something About) Suburbia lends its name to last year’s Tim Andrews compilation (I’ll be reviewing this next week).  The Tyrant King is available on DVD and in glorious colour too.  Well worth seeking out.

With many thanks to Rod Thomas.

The Occasional Songwriters Official Website of Rod Thomas and Jeremy Thomas
Tim Andrews CD review


The Town I Live In
Vocal by Jackie Lee
Written by Geoff Stephens
Columbia A-side November 1966
Available on Am I Dreaming? Dream Babes Vol  1, RPM 1999


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Harlow New Town, 1960

For a long time, hearing Malvina Reynolds’ 1967-recorded folk-protest staple Little Boxes made me think of Milton Keynes.  I blame a mid ‘70s ‘Nationwide’ report which has lodged in my mind ever since.  A safari-suited Bob Wellings is crouching amidst the regulation gardens of alleged ‘ticky-tacky houses’ like a sort of suburban David Attenborough or a more benevolent Jeremy Beadle.   ‘Little Boxes’ was the unflattering soundtrack.

It was a predictable choice but then ‘Nationwide’ was a quintessentially suburban programme, a one nation conservatism palliative for a distressed decade before much of what remained of ‘60s utopianism was swept away.  Unlike the tower blocks, the ticky-tacky boxes mostly weren’t swept away.  But they did begin to grow English vernacular porches and Victorian conservatories.

I prefer to think of them in their pristine ‘60s heyday, as they are in The Town I Live In.  I don’t know if Milton Keynes has twenty seven churches or ‘avenues lined with silver birches.’  This slice of social satire could just as well be about any number of new towns with ‘lots of houses spick and span, lots of little people too’.  Jackie Lee’s large lunged cri de coeur positively echoes across the municipal flagstones.

There’s a brisk, flicked-back stylishness to the song even from the word go – that elegant woodwind and tom-tom pattern in the introduction, for example.   Later, bass piano, resounding percussion and tubular bells (twenty-seven of them?) add to the air of classiness.

And just listen to that sign off:   “There’s several hundred brand new houses and lots of brand new primary schools etc etc etc etc la la la la la…”   Just where was Geoff Stephens living in 1966?

Funny thing about the silver birches is that they’ve become a symbol of urban cool – Tate Modern is a case in point.  I doubt the debt has ever been acknowledged though.


Semi-Detached Suburban Mr James

Performed by Manfred Mann
Written by Geoff Stephens and John Carter
Fontana A-side, October 1966
Available on any self-respecting d’Abo-era ‘Manfred Mann Greatest Hits’


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It’s that Geoff Stephens again!   Despite its sing-along breeziness this Manfred Mann hit is actually quite a cutting song when you pick apart the lyrics.

Written by Geoff and John Carter (during his brief socially relevant period – White Collar Worker, Time and Motion Man), Semi-Detached Suburban Mr James sees a spurned lover taking a swipe at his ex-girlfriend’s choice of bride-to-be by condemning the suburban life the couple will lead, with its rituals of ‘buttering the toast,’ ‘taking doggie for a walk’ and ‘hanging clothes upon the line.’  I wonder what kind of life she might have led with him, though?

It feels as if there is a bit of history between these three characters.   The song might be sung by a Terry (Likely Lads)-like chap  – a little sour, dismissive of upward social mobility – ‘so you’ve finally made the grade’.  The bride-groom would be aspirational Bob.  It doesn’t work in the context of the series but I hope you get my drift.

This wonderfully engaging song boasts a great melody (what else would you expect from John Carter?), tasty mellotron, those Manfred harmonies and some lovely touches like the sudden name change to ‘Mr Most’ to rhyme with ‘toast’, a potentially disastrous move which is so well placed within the song as to inject just the right grain of humour.  I also like the slightly grinding slow-down and then faster lead-off to repeated mocking chants of ‘Semi-detached Suburban Mr…’

Probably their best single.

Mighty Garvey by Manfred Mann
Stranger on the Shore and sleepy suburbia


More Take Three Songs

Take Three Songs… Lynsey de Paul – No Honestly!
Take Three Songs… or early 60s instrumentals
Take Three Songs… by Cilla Black
Take Three Songs… by David Bowie
Take Three Songs… on Blackpool

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Turning Tide

No. 36 in Top 50 Bee Gees’ Songs 1966-72

By Barry & Robin Gibb
Lead Vocal: Barry
Album: Cucumber Castle 1970


“And who are we to touch the wind?”

Perhaps the loveliest track on Cucumber Castle, Turning Tide was written in 1968.  It’s interesting to imagine the song given an Idea-era treatment.  Equally, given its sea imagery and more restrained mood than much of Cucumber Castle, ‘Turning Tide’ might have felt more at home still on Trafalgar.

‘Turning Tide’ is a quietly self-questioning song about the continuation of love and its fragility.  The song’s coda is particularly well done.  Barry sings with sensitivity.

For some reason, I love the sound of the bass guitar before those fading piano chords.

I’m surprised there appear to be very few cover versions.  P.P. Arnold’s is the only one I can come across and that remains unreleased.

No 35 It’s Just the Way
No 37 Hudson Fallen Wind

Tony Hatch: a life in song

Royal Festival Hall, London, Saturday 5th July 2014

Tony Hatch in conversation with Michael Grade and special guests: Petula Clark, Rumer, Marti Webb, Joe McElderry, Rhydian, Sophie Evans and John Owen-Jones

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A few weeks ago, I heard Tony Hatch interviewed on Radio 4’s Midweek.   This sent me scurrying off to book a ticket for this one-off event.  I didn’t regret doing so.

The evening opened to an orchestral medley of some of Tony’s best loved songs.  Even the joker in the pack, ‘Neighbours’, came out well given the same slightly swinging treatment as the ‘60s songs surrounding it.  The selection was topped and tailed by the song which defines Tony Hatch more than any other, Downtown.  Then a red-socked Michael Grade, our genial host, introduced the man himself.

Tony chatted with Grade about his early aptitude for music, honing his skills as head chorister at London’s All Soul’s Langham Place.  He saw his future within classical or choral music but London’s Tin Pan Alley beckoned and Tony followed the almost mythical route from Denmark Street tea-boy to staff producer and then songwriter at Pye, pitching his first song with a young Gerry Dorsey.  Then followed the golden years which produced a wealth of hits for Petula Clark, not forgetting a whole smorgasbord of television themes and those now largely forgotten albums of orchestral pop.  He revealed that all his songs were commissions – he almost never writes according to whim, preferring the pressure of the ‘Tony, could you give us a song for…?’ phone call.

We were treated to a generous smattering of the Hatch back catalogue, almost all of it from the ‘60s, courtesy of an array of guests.   I particularly enjoyed Rumer’s  contributions, her Call Me highlighting the inherent jazz-cool of a song covered by luminaries like Sinatra and Sammy Davis Junior.  She also offered Where Are You Now?, a memorable early Hatch-Trent co-composition originally sung by Jackie Trent.  John Owen Jones tackled Tony’s first song success, Look For a Star (from Circus of Horrors –original vocal, Gary Mills) whilst Sophie Evans positively sparkled through I Know A Place (which Tony revealed was about The Cavern – of course the ‘cellarful of noise‘ being the giveaway).  Jo McElderry gave us Tony’s own favourite Joanna which pleased Jo’s fans in the audience no end.  I Love the Little Things, a Eurovision entry for Matt Monro, had a rare outing.  Tony speculated rhetorically about how the song might perform in the Eurofest today.  The big surprise for me was Messing About on the River which I never knew was a Tony Hatch song, sounding so little like one with its repetitive, low-key, folkie melody.  It just goes to show his versatility.  Tony accompanied himself at the piano, remembering every word of this ‘catalogue song’ inspired by Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows.

After the interval (a drink for Tony and Michael and a ginger and honey ice-cream for me) we were greeted with another medley, this time of television themes  – Emmerdale drew two bursts of applause to ‘Neighbours’’ one though I wish it had been the original ‘lonely’ Emmerdale Farm with its plaintive oboe, not the lush 21st century version.

Marti Webb showcased a perhaps lesser side of Tony, his forays into musical theatre in the ‘70s via The Card and Rock Nativity.

Sophie was back for one of my favourites, the exuberant Colour My World.  Tony recalled that Petula Clark, always on the lookout for something different, wanted a sitar introduction but the player needed to meditate first so his part had to be added to the recording later.  After Jo McElderry’s rousing I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love (‘my favourite dog food commercial’ quipped Tony) and Rumer lending warmth to Cranes Flying South (pleased to see this lesser known song represented) – came the moment, I suppose we had all been waiting for.

All evening ‘Downtown’ was the big unmentionable because everyone knew its performance by Petula Clark – in person – would form the highlight of the evening.  Petula had not been billed in early publicity for the event though I hoped ‘… and special guests to be confirmed’ reserved the right for her to appear.  No true appreciation of Tony Hatch could have been complete without her.  And appear she did, to a rapturous reception.  Petula performed The Rainbow, a new Hatch-Clark composition, and after the wondrous Don’t Sleep in the Subway it was  – ‘let’s get it over!’ – Downtown.

Tony wrote ‘Downtown’ when inspired by a visit to New York’s Time Square which, he explained, is technically uptown.  Nobody let this worry them too much and I doubt Tony has either over the fifty years since Downtown became a huge international hit.

We all revelled in the moment – a superb signature song by the original artist, a half century on and still sounding as freshly minted as the day Tony first played Petula the melody in her Paris apartment.   The slightly under capacity audience rose to their mainly 60-something feet and sang along.

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Running Order

Orchestral Medley: Downtown, I Know a Place, Don’t Sleep in the Subway, I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love, The Other Man’s Grass is Always Greener, Call Me, Joanna, Neighbours, Sugar and Spice, Downtown.

Look for a Star, Forget Him, I Love the Little Things, Where Are You Now? Messing About on the River, If You Ever Leave Me, Joanna, I Know a Place, Call Me.

Interval

Orchestral Medley: Man Alive, Sportsnight, Crossroads, Emmerdale, Hadleigh, Mr & Mrs, Neighbours.

Moving On (The Card), Opposite Your Smile (The Card), Make a New Tomorrow (Rock Nativity), Conversation in the Wind, Colour My World, I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love, Don’t Give Up, Cranes Flying South, The Rainbow, Don’t Sleep in the Subway, Downtown.

Jackie Trent: Where Are You Now? – the Pye Anthology