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

Mighty Garvey, by Manfred Mann

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Despite some enjoyable songs and fresh performances Manfred Mann’s 1968 album still frustratingly fails to satisfy.

Side One
1. Happy Families – 2:18 (d’Abo)
2. No Better, No Worse – 3:02 (d’Abo)
3. Every Day Another Hair Turns Grey – 2:54 (Hugg)
4. Country Dancing – 2:53 (d’Abo)
5. It’s So Easy Falling – 3:20 (Hugg)
6. Happy Families – 2:09 (d’Abo)
7. Mighty Quinn – 2:52 (Dylan)

Side Two
1. Big Betty – 3:06 (Ledbetter)
2. The Vicar’s Daughter – 2:18 (d’Abo)
3. Each and Every Day – 2:47 (Hugg)
4. Cubist Town – 3:21 (McGuinness)
5. Ha! Ha! Said the Clown – 2:27 (Hazzard)
6. Harry the One-Man Band – 3:11 (Hugg)
7. Happy Families – 2:16 (d’Abo)


Mighty Garvey

Mighty Garvey feels as if the Manfreds aren’t sure how to fill two whole sides despite having produced the wonderful Up the Junction soundtrack the previous year.   So here we have an album containing two hit singles (one released over a year earlier), three pastiche variations of the same song (Happy Families – a joke which palls after first listen), an obligatory nod to their R&B years (Black Betty – admittedly a rousing Side 2 opener), the unnecessary Country Dancing and Harry the One Man Band which falls upon its own insubstantiality when the entire song collapses into schoolboy giggles.  Even Mighty Quinn – which probably had to be on the album – feels slightly gratuitous; by the end of Side 1 we’re left hungry for substantial new material but are being invited to dine-out on a monster hit.

Yet, across six tracks by d’Abo, Hugg and McGuiness, Mighty Garvey comes up with worthwhile goods even although some feel slightly under-developed.

Mike d’Abo’s No Better, No Worse has a kind of jazzy vibe and a carefree/careworn ’60s feel thanks to wispy harmonies, mellotron-accordion and a flute break which is over all too soon.  Mike d’Abo does endearing feyness very well and this song is a good example.  The drums sound particularly good here.  Only the vogueish sudden volume turn-up during the fade detracts but that’s easily overlooked.

Better still is the flute and harpsichord of Every Day Another Hair Turns Grey, Mike Hugg‘s take on one of those ’60s ‘lonely people’ portraits. Of course it doesn’t have the observational bite or the compassion of a Ray Davies composition but I always enjoy imagining Mike d’Abo dizzily over-acting the lyrics ‘Mighty Quinn’-style.

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It’s So Easy Falling has a lightness of touch, deftness of melody and a characteristic wistfulness.  Again, good sounding drums.

Over on Side Two, at last we have three consecutive tracks which are strong contenders and it feels as if Mighty Garvey might just step up to the mark towards the finish line, each track inspiring just a little more confidence.

The Vicar’s Daughter

I know some find The Vicar’s Daughter arch and twee but for me it’s an altogether delightful little vignette, economically well crafted and ideally suited to Mike d’Abo’s oh-so-English, boyish voice.  Harpsichord, sometimes with light band backing, evokes a bygone innocence, wrapping up the whole in a storybook-perfect bitter-sweetness.  Best of all, it’s McCartneyesque without sounding like Paul McCartney.

Even within such a short song, there are some pleasing points of detail across instrumental, vocal and lyrical departments.  Note the sustained mellotron, foregrounded for a few moments just before the final verse to prepare us for the song’s denouement.   Then we have Mike d’Abo’s enjoyable vocal mannerisms like his coloratura fanning-out of the contrasting words ‘kiss’ (‘I chased her round the church to steal a kiss’) and ‘world’ (‘perhaps now she’s a woman of the world’) which link the two lines together across different verses and underline the song’s innocence/experience, childhood/adulthood, past/present themes.   The cheeky rhyming of ‘daughter’ and ‘oughta’ is not merely endearing but a skilful piece of sleight-of-hand character painting.  An especially nice touch, and a unifying one, is the singer ‘getting near to wedding plans’ – it is his standing on the verge of adult commitment which prompts a backward glance to the innocent freedoms of childhood.

There is a definite art to neatly telling a story in song and The Vicar’s Daughter does it so well.

Each and Every Day
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I do like a song with an unusual solo instrument.  Each and Every Day boasts a parping trombone, an adventurous choice which works brilliantly.  Deploying an unromantic instrument emphasises that, what is ostensibly a love song of sorts, is seen entirely from the male perspective.  It’s as much about his pride, his pleasure when ‘walking down the street’ and his youthful ‘can’t-quite-believe-it’s true’ as it is about the girl.  The trombone seems to tell you this.

Simon Dupree and the Big Sound’s cover, (re-titled Daytime, Night Time) is perhaps more persuasive and driven but the enjoyable rhythmic inflections and irregularities of the Manfreds’ version are absent and hence so is much of the charm.  If the trombone is there it’s very much buried.  I’d definitely go for the Manfreds’ version of the two.  Each and Every Day, along with Mighty Quinn, is the most infectiously appealing song on Mighty Garvey and could surely have been a hit single.

Cubist Town 

Tom McGuinness’s sole contribution, Cubist Town is the first and only time I was impressed and intrigued enough to want to hear a Mighty Garvey track again straightaway after it has ended. What a great title for a song! 

Cubist Town drew me in from the first listen but it’s taken me years to deduce what it’s (maybe) all about because for all its apparent strangeness, I think ‘Cubist Town’ is about a very definite scenario:  a man, perhaps reluctantly, attends a summer village wedding where his childhood sweetheart is the bride.   The wedding is busy, uncomfortably so, and he feels like a stranger in its midst, longing to float free of all the bustle.  He wonders out amidst the post-nuptial festivities to contemplate life’s twists of fate, of what has been lost and perhaps gained.  The town at night-time becomes an object of contemplation.  He thinks back to his childhood and the ‘yellow house the colour of the corn’ where his love once lived (when I hear that line I can almost see the house rising from his imagination out of the blueness of the night).  He is visited by unidentified spectres and thoughts he can’t articulate.  He witnesses it all passing away despite himself so that the final chorus of ‘Good night, cubist town, goodnight!’ is almost triumphant.  ‘Cubist Town’ becomes the music which fills his mind and at last he can bid the place – and the past – farewell.  I don’t think the vocoder is just a fashionable accessory here.  It’s like an inner voice, a third vocal alternative to the untreated vocals and the full group choruses and adds to the song’s sense of displacement.

Given its past-into-present themes, Cubist Town seems like an unwitting companion piece to The Vicar’s Daughter.   With its painterly sensibility, outsider perspective and carefully chosen palette of glockenspiel, flute and organ I can’t understand why such an enjoyably original piece of top notch psychedelic pop is not more feted.

Another two or three songs of similar ambition would have made Mighty Garvey an altogether sturdier beast.  But unfortunately, having left Cubist Town behind, Mighty Garvey’s potential drifts somewhat via the last three tracks and the album is all over in under thirty eight minutes.

Quite nicely Mighty

At its best, Mighty Garvey shows how the band had absorbed the sounds, styles and adornments of 1967 and used these to promote their own take on ’60s post-Pepper pop Englishness – quite inventive, often charming, sometimes fey and almost always melodic.

It’s just not quite as mighty as it might have been.
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Semi-Detached Suburban Mr James