To Blackpool from London with love

I wanted to comment on my recent trip to Blackpool and say a few things which couldn’t be said in my Take Three Songs… on Blackpool post.  These comments also touch on the musical legacy of the 60s.

Blackpool Brexit

I headed for Blackpool with my partner just days after the schism of the Brexit vote.  There was much talk of divided Britain, with the vote split at least three ways: young/old, urban/rural, educated/less  educated.  Crucially for me, whilst London overwhelmingly voted to remain, English coastal areas tended to vote leave.

I live in the London borough of Lewisham where the vote was 70:30 in favour of remain.  Blackpool voted exactly the opposite: 70:30 leave.  So what would it feel like to spend a week in ‘another country’?

The air was poisonous post referendum.  There were reports of a spike in race and religious hate crime.  As a gay couple and with my partner being Vietnamese, I even wondered if we would be made to feel welcome in Brexit Britain.  What nonsense.  Everyone, without exception, could not have been friendlier.

Still, we must have looked like a couple of real Londoners.  Within half an hour of getting off the train, there we were on the North Pier, throwing darts to win an oversized teddy we didn’t even want.  We needn’t have worried.  The rules kept changing so that it remained always just beyond our reach and we realised we’d been fleeced by the charming, fast-talking stallholder.   That’s when we knew we had arrived in Blackpool.

Going the golden mile  

It has to be said Blackpool has seen better days; the southern stretch along the seafront is in really rather a sorry state, hotels struggling to survive nestle amongst boarded up B&Bs.  The pier felt a little on the desolate side, many of the rides were silent, their minders, glum (mind you, the weather was more like early April than July).

Blackpool grew up as a mecca for holiday makes across the north back in the days when mills and factories uniformly shut for two weeks.  Blackpool wasn’t the holiday resort of choice, it was simply the place to go.  Gradually that tradition became eroded – by cheap foreign holidays, by the closure of most of those mills and factories, by more choice and greater individualism.

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Now there are too many hotels, B&Bs and guest houses and not enough tourists.  That’s unlikely to change anytime soon.  Nobody seemed to want to talk about the boarded-up southern stretch, as if it was an embarrassment to the town, an affront to its battered pride.

I don’t know what future, if any, is planned for Blackpool.  Regeneration?   It’s hard to imagine the luxury apartments currently springing up across London here.  I’m only glad that the dystopia masterminded by Tony Blair’s government – swathes of Las Vegas mega casinos towering along the front – never came to pass.  I don’t want to romanticise Blackpool (though I could) as there is real deprivation to be found and we saw some of it.  Blair’s casinos would have provided jobs but their corporatism would have seemed at odds with the quirky, rough diamond feel of the place.

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Blackpool long gone

A friend has very fond memories of Blackpool in the very late 60s and early 70s – long cycle rides from Middlesbrough to scour myriad newsagents in search of rare comics, ice creams along the prom, the sound of the sea in one ear and Radio 1 in the other.  A taste of freedom in Blackpool’s very own swinging 60s – seaside tradition meets Carry On meets pop.

The newsagents are no more, taking their saucy postcards with them, the latter killed off, I suspect, more by Facebook selfies than political correctness.

What of the 60s legacy?  I found it in the adventurous curveball squares of this building:

And the music?

Blackpool rock

Well I heard more 60s music during our week in Blackpool than over six months in on-trend London.  Sweet’s Co-co blasted unashamedly out of Shenanigans, a garishly green prom-side Irish bar; the next night it was Blockbuster and in another bar the night after that, a lesser known hit by The Love Affair with joyfully inebriated punters spilling out onto the street.

Browsing the rock in a gift shop, we heard Gilbert O’ Sullivan and – Paper Lace! – from a radio, possibly but you just don’t hear these songs in public in London or Brighton.  They have long since vanished off the hip radar, banished to – where?   The coastal fringes of the airways?  It was as if the soundtrack to Blackpool was a Blackpool with love bylinenarrow band-width Gold radio-station, definitely one which broadcasts on medium or long wave only.

Is this catering for simple seaside nostalgia or is Blackpool ‘stuck in the past’?  Are Paper Lace and Gilbert O’Sullivan the musical equivalent of a steak sandwich (only £2.99) and a can of Pepsi?  Get Down and get with it.

It occurred to me that 60s pop has a kind of polarised dual ownership.  On the one hand, there are the hip, knowing style curators, the nerdishly cultish, retrochic crowd and on the other hand, the long-term residents of a semi-forgotten hinterland of ex-chart pop, punters who grew up with it and have never grown out of it.  Or is it just because they’ve never moved away from Blackpool?

A song might occasionally traverse from the old fashioned place to the hip new one (when the curators allow it) in the form of a rediscovered gem ripe for reappraisal or, more likely, a guilty pleasure to be enjoyed ironically until forgotten again.  But by and large, drawbridges are raised between the smart, metropolitan hip, collectable 60s and the far flung estuaries of pop’s yesteryears.   Nobody in Blackpool was enjoying Blockbuster ironically.  They were partying like it was 1973.

And perhaps that’s the point.  We really are two Britains culturally as well as politically.  Only until 24th June, we never really knew it.

Back in the London bubble…

I felt the divide most acutely not whilst in Blackpool itself, not even watching the twirling foxtrotters in the timelessly enchanting

surroundings of Blackpool’s rococo Tower ballroom, but upon re-entering the fabled London bubble.

“I haven’t seen you for a while, you been away?”
“Oh yes, we’ve spent a week in Blackpool”.
Silence.
Change the subject.
Some mistake surely: he couldn’t really have said Blackpool –could he?!!

I was met with this stunned silence on at least two occasions.
“Why on earth would you want to go there?!” was written all over their faces.  I might as well have said we had had spent a week in a multi-storey car park in Basingstoke.  I also suspect a sense that I had offered myself up to enemy territory, the land of the dreaded Brexiteers.  These incredulous reactions were from liberal, left leaning remainers to a tee.

“Where are you going?” I would proffer in return.
“Sicily”, “Stockholm”, “Seville” came the replies, sights set on Euro glamour and continental chic, backs turned against the trippers and UKippers, the barnacled underbelly of pierside unfashionability.  

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I found these insights rather sad and perhaps symptomatic of the neglect our traditional seaside resorts feel glowers out at them from an indifferent capital.

Blackpool illuminations

Whatever might it take to mend these rifts in the years ahead?   Maybe more than HS2, 3 and even 4, more even than Tate Blackpool.

Perhaps when regeneration comes, in whatever form regeneration takes, the 60s musical allegiances might find themselves redrawn too, into a legacy which is more shared, more representative, more democratic.

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Take Three Songs… on Blackpool

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Take Three Songs… on Blackpool

Keyboards extraordinare

I recently returned from a thoroughly enjoyable though characteristically wet week in Blackpool so I thought I’d Take Three Songs about the northern seaside town.


She Sold Blackpool Rock 

Performed by Honeybus
Written & lead vocal by Ray Cane
Produced by Ivor Raymonde
Deram A-Side, May 1969


Pier Rock colour boost

Ivor Raymonde’s string quartet is too overly refined to evoke Blackpool but that scarcely matters, the precise seaside setting is incidental though Blackpool sounds and feels right in a way that Brighton or Bangor would not.

Ray Cane was a Londoner; whether he ever visited Blackpool I have no idea.  She Sold Blackpool Rock is less about the place, more about a bitter-sweet memory of a summer seaside girl who ‘sold Blackpool rock in a funny hat’.

I loved this song on first listening and love it still, so much so I’d hesitate if asked to name I Can’t Let Maggie Go or She Sold Blackpool Rock as my favourite Honeybus single which surprises me.  Maggie is imbued Blackpool Rock bylinewith Pete Dello’s finely spun, almost scholastic Englishness whereas Ray Cane’s Blackpool Rock, though baroque pop by any other name, sits squarely centre stage just crying out to be a huge hit.  And yet somehow it wasn’t.

Sweet memory

How that simple melody effortlessly finds its way into your head…   The string quartet (sweetness of the memory flooding back?) contrasts perfectly with Colin Hare’s jangly guitar, Pete Kircher’s tasty drums and some very late 60s tambourine.  Jim Kelly supplies occasional, understated countryish licks, the chorus breakout harmonies are, of course, loveliness incarnate and we get the hoped for ‘aah!’ leadoff.

Yet despite such impeccable late 60s pop credentials, it is Cane’s thoughtful, subtle touches as a songwriter which really make the song special.

Goes right through

The letters in the rock have different meanings as the story progresses. They are the secret between him and the girl which begins as a playful encounter (his opening chat-up line, perhaps) then becoming fleeting intimacy ‘(the games we played’) and, years later, a rediscovered memory (‘I remember her, How could I forget?’).

And he cleverly uses that tell tale lyric

Then she told me that she knew,
How they make the letters go right through

to form a conceit running through the entire song both musically and lyrically; the lines make up the vocal counterpoint underpinning the build to the second chorus, (‘Then she told me that she knew…’)IMG_2243 and then they return as the wistful afterthought drifting beneath the leadoff (‘…how they make the letters go right through.’)

Magic bus

Pete Dello left Honeybus in the wake of Maggie’s big chart success.  He may have been a huge loss to the band but no more than here, Ray Cane shows he could step up to the breach as chief songwriter.  His gently yearning voice on Blackpool Rock is just right too.

This glance back to a treasured sunny seaside day from the standpoint of winter gathers extra poignancy by being Honeybus’ last single of the 60s making the splendid last minute Beatlesque slow fade like a long, slow sunset across the Irish Sea.
 


Up the ‘Pool

Performed by Jethro Tull
Written and produced by Ian Anderson
Life Is a Long Song EP, Chrysalis, September 1971
Available on Living in the Past, double album, June 1972


Blackpool view from pier

Despite being Scottish born (and a resident of Scotland still), Ian Anderson spent his teenage years in Blackpool.  His abiding affection for the place is obvious in this postcard portrait shot through with an endearing down-to-earthness hinting at the bawdy.  Anderson never stints on the warts and all, unpretentious, working-class nature of the place with its bingo, tea swigging, ‘old vests, braces dangling down’.

Go north

Presumably written during the period of Tull’s early successs, Up the ‘Pool describes a return trip for Anderson as he travels ‘from down the smoke below.’  By 1971, Jethro Tull had toured with Hendrix and Blackpool Up the Pool bylinehad Top of the Pops appearances under their belts but Anderson still longs to ‘taste me mum’s jam sarnies and to see our Aunty Flo’.  I’m guessing he travelled up on British Rail as Preston platform is name-checked on the cynical Cheap Day Return also from 1971.

Up the ‘Pool’s, swipe at politicians ‘who’ve come to take the air’ is more good humoured but I grimace every time I hear that awful ‘blame the mess on Edward Bear’ rhyme (does he mean Edward Heath?).

An early take (available on Aqualung 40th Anniversary box set) has piano and is crucially far less developed rhythmically and consequently less dramatic than the finished version.  Thank goodness this smoothness was roughed up by some lively, jolly, syncopated rhythms.  The guitar work, with occasional string inflections, is just right.

Singalong

An inherent singalong quality at last finds voice on the final verse with the band piping up.  I can’t quite make out some of the ragged ribaldry but who cares?

I like the way the obvious touch of an organ is introduced only briefly as background colour over the closing cries of ‘Oh Blackpool!’ A lesser band would surely have plastered it over the whole song.

If you’ve windows wound down driving up the M6 or are hanging around on eternally drafty Preston Station and need a singalong to get you in the mood for going up the ‘pool, this is it.
 


Blackpool

Written and performed by Roy Harper
Produced by Peter Richards
Available on Sophisticated Beggar, Strike, 1967


Blackpool mystique

My third song should rightfully be George Formby’s immortal, innuendo laden With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock, a seaside postcard set to ukulele: ‘With my little stick of Blackpool Rock, along the promenade I stroll.  It may be sticky but I never complain, it’s nice to have a nibble at it now and again.’  This, the ultimate Blackpool song bar none, was recorded as long ago as 1937 and is frightfully well known.

So I’ve opted for something poles apart from that and indeed from songs one and two.

As a child, Roy Harper lived in Blackpool’s respectable neighbour, St Anne’s on Sea, a place he described as ‘like a cemetery with bus stops’.  Blackpool would have been but a short bus ride away.

The remarkable thing about this piece is that it is about Blackpool at all.  Only the title tells us so.  For a name which carries so much baggage (see Up the’ Pool for the lowdown) there is none of that here.

No baggage

Blackpool may be synonymous with communal human pleasure yet Harper finds solace in the midst of quiet beauty.  In fact, I feel he’s a little outside the town alone (literally and metaphorically), watching.  The crowds have departed or perhaps it’s winter.  Laughter comes from the sea itself, coldly indifferent to humanity yet to Harper’s eyes, beautiful.

The five minute piece is all but an acoustic guitar instrumental until 4.14.  The briefest of lyrics (probably a poem set to music) simply say:

The rain falls like diamonds
Pinpricks the still waters
And spreadeagles its laughter
Across the green sheet of the sleeping sea.

Fingerflurrying

Harper’s fingers flurry across the strings lending the piece a loose, impressionistic feel like wind whipping across water.  It’s virtuoso without being showy.

I find it lovely to hear the purity and fragility of his early voice, qualities not associated with Roy Harper.  This comes from his debut album recorded in 1966.

Pier hut

To Blackpool from London with love
 


 
More Take Three Songs

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