From the Kinks (left) to Van Morrison, pop music occasionally tries to reach an essential truth about England. By RICHARD VINE
When you’re away from home, the heart does funny things. You’re much more likely to hear English people in a heated debate about England when they’re sitting in a bar in Abu Dhabi than you are in Richmond or Milton Keynes. Geography stretches our sense of what’s good, what’s great, until you’d be forgiven for thinking that the most patriotic citizens are the ones who haven’t been home in years.
As a teenager growing up in Hong Kong, I felt none of this. Any sense of Englishness I might have quickly disappeared as my accent floated into the lazy drawl of Tom Wolfe’s Trans Atlantic Man; thoughts of Home were clouded with, well, clouds, and my sympathies lay more with a lone piece of half-joking “Brits Out” graffiti on the way to school than any desire to play cricket in downtown Kowloon. Holidays back to England were merely vinyl collection excursions, a rabid foray into the unknown zone, where bands with ridiculously long names could be found without hunting through stacks of Anita Mui records. This seemed to be England’s prime and sole reason for existing to a teenage mind pumped full of dim sum and sunshine. Music was the connection. But in the Eighties, there didn’t seem to be much to connect music to the country. Radio fodder like the Duran Duran opus “Seven And The Ragged Tiger” said little, and even less about UK life. Hearing The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary” or The Jesus And Mary Chain’s “Never Understand” for the first time were both moments of primary joy, but it was more to do with the thrill of noise than any sense of place. The music that mattered to me made Britain seem cool only by association; there was nothing in the music itself that made the country seem any less of a magnet for drizzle. Back among the expatriate community in Hong Kong there were traces of indigenous English music that wanted to celebrate, or talk about, some sense of Englishness, but the Arran-sweaterness of folk passed me by, and the insanity of Morris Dancing and its attendant curious soundtrack have not been able to attract anyone in search of teenage kicks since 843AD.
Revelation came with a song about trains. Not the smokestack lightning express of a thousand grizzly twelve bar blues, but a song about Hampshire trains, sung in a defiantly English accent:
“I often dream of trains when I’m alone. I ride on them into another zone. I dream of them constantly, heading for paradise, or Basingstoke or Reading.”
The title track from Robyn Hitchcock’s 1984 low-key gem holds a strange promise, offering the commuter belt as an alternative to paradise. Of course, there’s a finely tuned sense of the absurd being played here, but at the same time, there’s genuine affection for these most prosaic of towns.
A track on a later album, Element Of Light, describes how “in Winchester, there’s nowhere at all” and again, there’s a way in which the music allows the “water meadows curling round the hills” to rise out of the mundanity of suburbia, to create a picture that speaks volumes about the way England’s small towns can be beautiful, while at the same time acknowledging how it can seem like there’s little there but memories.
One of the most developed visions of an idyllic England comes, oddly enough, from a band better known as the kings of Sixties Carnaby cool, The Kinks. Retreating from their familiar London streets (in their minds at least), they created what was essentially a fantasy of the countryside, nostalgia for memories none of them could have had. 1968′s The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society is a concept album that used the indulgence of the format to celebrate the joys of tradition at the height of psychedelic madness, talking about being old in the middle of a global youth revolution. No wonder it flopped.
“We are the Village Green Preservation Society. God save strawberry jam and all the different varieties. Preserving the old ways from being abused, protecting the new ways for me and for you,” sang Ray Davies, before going on to declare that The Village Green Preservation Society was also strongly in favour of Desperate Dan, Sherlock Holmes, Tudor houses, draught beer, custard pies, antique tables, billiards, vaudeville, little shops, china cups and the George Cross. Not exactly rock and roll.
Maybe that’s the problem. Talking about the pastoral, entering into the romance of the countryside, or just singing about England has never really been that cool when compared to songs about America. San Francisco or Stevenage? LA or Littlehampton? Chicago or Chippenham? It always seems out of step with the agendas of rock somehow; you either start garbling about elves and Faerie Queens, or hedge a little too close for comfort to John Major’s warm beer manifestos.
Look at what happens when those Kinks wannabes, Blur, try to emulate their heroes’ sense of place – we end up with the mockney mishmash of “Country House”, or the cynicism of “Parklife”. When an attempt is made to find a local Route 66, you get Kula Shaker’s 303, not, as you might assume, an ode to the classic drum machine, but a homage to the A303 (“In the land of summer sun, we have just begun. Riding out with my friends in a Mercedes Benz. You can find your way home on the 303…”) which just so happens to be the road that takes traffic jams full of caravanning families past Stonehenge every summer. Like, deep.
Aside from The Fall’s outstanding collaboration with William Blake, “Dog Is Life/Jerusalem” (“I will not rest until Jerusalem is built in England’s green and pleasant land… It was the fault of the government.”), the most successful song to conjure up everything that’s great about being out in the English countryside is probably Van Morrison’s “Summertime In England”, recorded, appropriately enough, in the south of France.
As well as finding time during its 15.34 duration to set out one of the central tenants of his gruff Zen philosophy (“It ain’t why, it just is”), he summons forth Blake, TS Eliot, Yeats, Coleridge and Wordsworth to make the case. With former JB’s sax player Pee Wee Ellis on board, it’s a riotously joyous celebration that feels like the perfect summer’s day: “Take a walk with me, down by Avalon, and I will show you, it ain’t why, why, why, it just is… TS Eliot chose England… Did you ever hear about Wordsworth and Coleridge? They were smoking by the lakeside. We’ll go ridin’ down by Avalon. In the country, in the summertime… Can you feel the light in England?”
Maybe that’s the point. We can’t – there just isn’t enough light for most of the year. Summers seem to bring rain, and the winter is shrouded in a neverending grey. But when, on those rare, near mythical days, the sun does come out, and you’re floating far from the 303′s of the world, up by one of Van’s lakes, maybe there is paradise to be found here after all.