I’m currently engaging in the business of putting together an Edinburgh show. While I don’t want to go into too much detail, mainly because at this stage, it is – as one might expect – undercooked, I can say I am attempting to create some sort of an atmosphere around the process, in the interests of evoking the sort of theatricality that tends to be a part of the Edinburgh process.
To that end, I’ve been looking towards books, films and music that inspire similar ideas to those contained within the show. We’re talking open space, wilderness and notions of it taking a long time to get anywhere. As a result, I’ve ended up hovering more around American and Australian popular music, rather than Brit stuff.
I’m sure I’m not the first to suggest as much, but we just don’t seem to do a good travel song as far as this country is concerned. It might exist in the folk tradition, harking back to times when it took a few days to get anywhere, and there was a risk of the occasional highwayman robbing you and leaving you for dead (coupled with the prospect of a suitably accommodating barmaid nursing you back to health, and then dying in childbirth… or some such), but look for such material in the field of pop music, and the offerings are – predictably – thin on the ground. Songs containing UK place names even more so. Somehow, ‘By the Time I Get to Sidcup’ doesn’t have quite the same resonance.
If you want to access a truly astonishing version of ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’, check this out:
In truth, there are probably loads of English places that would sit well in a song lyric (a simple google will soon alert you to the presence of number of places in the UK named Phoenix or thereabouts), it’s really got more to do with scale. Such is the size of this place and the accompanying infrastructure that by the time you’ve set off for anywhere, you’ve pretty much arrived, before any sort of interesting yarn can take place. As far as I’m aware there’s yet to be a song adequately communicating the business of putting another rail passenger straight in relation to their anti-social behaviour, on a two hour trip from Doncaster to Kings Cross. Or more appropriately, tutting loudly thoughout the journey, in the vain hope that this will somehow rectify the situation.
Even bands originating in this part of the world seeking to explore such ideas, end up paying homage to the good ole US of A. The Rolling Stones have built an entire career on doing as much, and similarly – although we’re talking Ireland – U2’s big breakthrough came via the same means. Setting an entire album against the backdrop of the American desert brought forth tunes such as ‘With or Without You’, ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’, and its logical counterpart ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’; the latter two giving rise to the idea that the overall theme might have less to do the vast wilderness, and much more to do with the troublesome vagaries informing the life of a rookie postman.
Just one of many Rolling Stones inspired by life on the road in the U.S. (and a classic to boot):
Personally, It’s one of those things I’d like to do a bit more of i.e. travel. Sure, I’ve been to quite a few places outside of Europe, but I’ve yet to do the big ‘set off on a long adventure’-type jaunt so redolent of the student types I used to run into, when I was but a mere whippersnapper myself. There was a time – for me at least – when one couldn’t escape rank-pulling phrases such as inter-railing, backpacking and gap-year. So much so that, fuelled by class resentment, I could often be found countering with a few of my own: ‘poverty tourism’ and ‘rich parents’. But I was a bit angrier back then.
Not that I haven’t tried to give the big travelling number a go. Having met and developed a brief friendship with a pal of some students I was living with in South London back in the 80s, I thought it would be a great idea for me to play Sal Paradise to his Neal Cassady and set off on a hitch-hiking jaunt across Europe; he had just returned from a similar trip across America, after all. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, lots actually, and needless to say, it was all a bit of let-down. Although I was the older of the two, I can’t claim to have been the more resilient. The trip largely consisted of sleeping rough, initially on old war time bunkers in Calais, surrounded by rats, and ultimately, a protracted period, sleeping in a forest in Holland for far too many nights; having spent an awful lot of time walking from one place to the next rather than hitching. No one – it seems – would give us a ride. Any why would they? We must have looked pretty unappealing.
Bowie or Jacques Brel would have been much cooler… but hey, we are talking the 80s after all:
We did manage to get one memorable ride, however. Whilst heading out of Dunkirk, a car suddenly juddered to a halt, and offering the following:
‘You’re English aren’t you?’
‘Yeah, how did you know?’
‘You’re hitchhiking on the fastest part of the motorway. Get in’
And with that we headed off to Amsterdam in the company of a bloke called Piers and a mate with an equally posh name that escapes me, to spend a wild night partaking in some (some, not all) of the delights on offer in that much feted city; the culmination of which saw us sleeping it off in the back seat of their motor. Very glamourous, very ‘On the Road’.
Ultimately, the whole trip a bit anti-climactic and upon our return (having got as far as the German border), I eventually lost touch with my travelling companion amidst a flurry of letters – remember when we used to correspond in that way – which basically consisted of the two of us ripping our respective tastes in music and literature to shreds. Subsequent internet searches have proved hopeless given the relative anonymity of the chap’s name.
One thing I do remember from that brief period however, is my mate’s devotion to the Australian band ‘The Triffids’ (I seem to remember going along to see them at the Town and Country Club in Kentish Town, during the same period) prompting me – in the midst of writing this – to check them out again. Here’s a fantastic song, if you can get past the 80s production values, courtesy of a great Australian songwriter that died way too young, and was way too underappreciated. It also serves to draw a neat line under the whole discussion.
Of course, if you do know of any half decent UK travel pop or rock songs, feel free to comment below.