Saturday, February 7, 2009

top ten songs about places

Today I went to buy my first single for 8 years - I didn't succeed, though, because when I went to HMV I couldn't find the singles section. It was a bit simpler when you just had to look for the racks with 7" 45 RPM's...then I found out that the track I was looking for was only released as a single digitally.

I liked the warm, winsome feel of Mykonos by the Fleet Foxes the first time I heard it. It was redolent of many sounds, like CSNY, the Byrds etc while being beholden to none, the way a fine wine can suggest cinnamon, ginger and strawberries without any of those ingredients having been near it. And when Terry Wogan gave the track his seal of approval by calling it "strange but beautiful", I knew I had to have it. I found a version of their eponymous album containing an extra disc which had Mykonos on it, and which, in fact, to date contains all of their recorded music. So I breathed in the country-rock harmonies married to pastoral music - it was as if much of popular music from the Bay City Rollers to Robbie Williams had been nothing but a bad dream.

This gave me an idea. It occurred to me that many of the songs about places that I've heard over the years have struck a chord with me, stayed with me as it were. I'd like to share ten of them with you. Maybe you might even like to do the same.

10 - Mull of Kintyre

The place is at the end of the Kintyre peninsula in a part of South-West Scotland I never got to know as well as I would have liked; the McCartney family bought a farm there shortly after the break-up of the Beatles.

I remember dancing to this at a school disco in Glasgow, at a time when you didn't hear many songs about Scotland in the charts. Some pseuds suggested that it wasn't Paul McCartney's best work, but I would put it up there with Eleanor Rigby, Let it Be, Pipes of Peace and all his many classics. I heard that the bagpipe band was offered either a one-off payment or a share of the royalties, and, deciding that a song with bagpipes would never make it, asked for the former. I bet they were kicking themselves!

9 - The Alamo

After Johnny Cash looked at a map of Ireland - never having been there - and used the names to write Forty Shades of Green, he couldn't do anything wrong in the eyes of the various Scottish/Irish communities of the world. Even so, it was a surprise to go to Rome to study and find a group of Scottish blokes singing the college song, Remember the Alamo in thick (mostly) Glaswegian accents. I think a couple had relatives in the US, but the reason for the adoption of the song had been lost to posterity long before they came. Some suggested it went right back to Scottish singer Donovan's version of the song, released two years after Cash's in 1965. Whatever the origins, this stirring tale of the bravery of a group of men following Travis, Bowie and Crockett in their doomed attempt to prevent the surge of Santa Anna's troops into the (then) Republic of Texas has as its chorus the battle-cry of of the troops in the Battle of San Jacinto, when the Mexican army was driven out of Texas: Remember the Alamo!

8 - Tozeur

We never worked out why Alice e Battiato, the duo singing for Italy in the 1984 Eurovision Song Contest, were singing about a deserted Tunisian town, but in terms of writing and production this is a consummate pop song and they deserved to win. It was certainly better than Britain's Love Games, sung by Belle & the Devotions, who made it sound like a half-hearted warm-up for a Three Degrees tribute band. The winners were Sweden's The Herreys with Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley, in which they sang about their magic shoes. But the lyrics of I treni di Tozeur are perfectly crafted - and the video's got a steam locomotive.

7 - The River Clyde

During the spring and summer, the people of Glasgow had a venerable tradition of taking a ride on a paddle-steamer down their river to one of several coastal and island towns - Dunoon, Rothesay, Tighnabruaich, etc - that was called going "doon the watter". Only one ship does this now: the Waverley, the world's last ocean-going paddle-steamer. The ship features in this video of The Song of the Clyde, which is about going doon the watter, sung by tenor Kenneth McKellar, a Scottish "national treasure" whose fine voice was ignored by the classical world because he chose to sing traditional folk songs for a popular market instead of pursuing a career in opera. Looking at the careers of Pavarotti, Domingo et al, his crime appears to have consisted of being ahead of his time. I hope you enjoy the song, and looking at my old stamping-ground.

6 - Palace of Aranjuez

This is a section of a classical concerto, not a song, but I didn't want to make the title of the blog too unwieldy. This is the adagio, the middle of the three segments of the Concierto de Aranjuez of 1939. Some people have asserted that the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War may have had an input into the piece's sad theme, and that may be, in part, true. But others have asserted that Joaquín Rodrigo wrote it after his wife suffered a miscarriage. This is closer to the truth, but again not quite accurate. Rodrigo gave an interview, aired on British TV shortly before his death, in which he said that he composed this piece while his wife was going through the miscariage, the hell - for both of them - of wondering whether their baby was going to live or die. The slow, minor theme between guitar and clarinet that kicks off the piece is Rodrigo praying to God for his and his wife's baby; this eventually gives way to ever more frantic flamenco-inspired strumming, as he begs so feverishly for the child's life that man and prayer become inseparable; and then we have an orchestral reprise of the guitar's original theme - if what went before was his Gethsemane, this is his "your will, not mine" moment. It's one of the few pieces of music that make me want to weep and is, I think, a perfect international anthem for the unborn.

5 - London

Noël Coward is said to have written this song while sitting in a bombed station during the Blitz. Much more of a "man of the people" than either his accent or detractors might suggest, he was fiercely patriotic: if you listen carefully, you can occasionally hear short parodies of Deutschland über alles. London Pride (Saxifraga urbium) is a perennial flower: both it and Londoners can thrive just about anywhere, not least in the bombed-out shells left by the Blitz.

4 - Galveston

Jimmy Webb wrote three place-name songs for Glen Campbell: Wichita Lineman, By the time I get to Phoenix, and my favourite is this - although it wasn't until recently that I found out the meaning of the song, that US Marines would leave Galveston to travel to Vietnam. When I realised that, then the words, coupling the optimism of youth with an ever-present awareness of one's mortality that perhaps belongs to older heads, took on a whole new meaning.

3 - Leidenstadt

Né en 17 à Leidenstadt was written by Jean-Jacques Goldman, who wrote songs for Celine Dion when she was singing in French. Goldman, who is French but has Polish Jewish forbears, imagines himself being born on the site of a humiliating defeat for the Germans towards the end of World War I and asks if things would have been different for him had he been born German. Then the focus goes to Belfast (this was 1990 - before the Peace Process): would one have been able to reach a hand beyond one's tribe? And finally, the late great Carole Fredericks sings the lyrics wondering if she'd have heard the voices saying that things would never be the same if she's been born white and rich in Johannesburg. A very engaging song - and the sampled bagpipes in the chorus are the icing on the cake.

2 - Loch Lomond

I was taught this song as a young'un, and was delighted when a Scottish group called Runrig, who came originally from the isle of Skye, released it in 1979. It was good to hear a Scottish group singing in a Scottish accent; although it's a bit strange, now that original singer Donnie Munroe has left, to hear Canadian Bruce Guthro speaking in an American accent and singing in a Scottish one. I hope you enjoy the video of Donnie performing it with the band.

1 - Home

I knew I wanted to end this blog with the idea of home, but wasn't sure about the song: Home Loving Man by Roger Whittaker, for example, or Back Home Again by John Denver, or Going Home by Runrig? The thing is, to me, home isn't so much a function of the location of one's birth, as of the people that accrue around you as the years go by. I think, personally, that the process of going home is a pilgrimage from culture to identity and from place to people, whether or not life leaves you where you were born. Personally, I was born in Glasgow, and, moving forther afield, upon meeting Maxima knew that I'd come home, which was no longer a set of co-ordinates but a person, then a group of people. There are still some people I love in Glasgow, and I enjoy going to visit them; then I come home.

Related posts: click here for more top ten songs about...


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this and it was just what I needed today. Thanks

  2. Thanks for your comment, Ang. I'm glad you enjoyedthe post - it's something I've wanted to do for a while. - FD

  3. I like Mull of Kintyre too. Also, I never knew that extra bit about the song "Galveston". The town is a day's drive from here, and is an annual trek for us (winter is best).

    My father was plagued by people thinking he resembled Glen Campbell, for a number of years, about the time that song came out. (He had the sideburns at that time, too.)

    Is the Loch Lomond song the same as the old one that goes "On the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond"? I like that one very much. (We have dial-up internet, and to view anything on YouTube can take a good half-hour, which I don't have just now.)

  4. Yup, "Loch Lomond" is the very same song. I remember accessing YouTube with dial-up, it was a real hassle.

    I laughed when I read that your Dad was mistaken for Glen Campbell - mine was often being accused of being Danny Kaye, until he opened his mouth!

    I think Jimmy Webb may have had th Spanish-American war of 1898 in mind when he wrote "Galveston", but when Glen Campbell sang the promo (remember them?) in fatigues it changed the song forever. When you say winter's best for going to Galveston, do you mean because it's so hot?

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  6. Pam - I had an acute attack of stupidity today. I forgot to ask you: how are you feeling? - FD

  7. I'm better; just waiting to get over the occasional loss of energy, those I-don't-feel-so-good periods that are scattered through the day, after one's been sick a while. My eldest is still pretty ill, tho' on the mend.

    Galveston's not much of a beach for swimming - water's brown, or at least a brownish shade of green; occasionally blots of tar on the beach, and boy, is it hot, sticky and crowded! (?) in summer. In winter sometimes it's in the 60s or 70s (F); there's always a stiff breeze, and sometimes lots of shells on the beach, especially on the peninsula, where almost no one goes, as one has to take a ferry ride which is a bit time consuming.

  8. I'm sorry to hear you and your eldest still aren't feeling right. Hope it's possible for you to take it easy.

    Galveston peninsula sounds really nice, but I didn't realise the rest was so polluted; but going by the state of some British beaches, I shouldn't be surprised.

  9. Well, the brown isn't, technically, pollution - it's mud. One surprising fact, for people who've never been to the Gulf of Mexico, is that in summer, the water's about as warm as bathwater. There are a lot of sharks, though. Folks stand on the beach and fish for them, and leave the carcasses lying around for passers-by to see. Alarming....


Please feel free to leave a comment - Frugal Dougal.