The Infinite Jukebox: Mr Acker Bilk’s ‘Stranger on the Shore’

After nearly eighty entries, this is only the second instrumental to appear on the Infinite Jukebox, and it is something of an odd choice. It’s a spur of the moment choice, brought about by one of those moments of YouTube serendipity: I put on an album of surfer instrumentals as background music for a post I’m writing, get bored with how samey the guitars all sound, decide to play an instrumental not on this collection, put up Jack Nitzsche’s ‘The Lonely Surfer’, notice he’s done a version of ‘Stranger on the Shore’, play it out of curiosity, check a couple of other versions using trumpet, piano, guitar as the lead instrument, then play the original with the urge to explain why it works and they don’t.
First, I have to distinguish for myself why this isn’t just a case of infinite familiarity trumping the shock of the new. For I am familiar with the Acker Bilk original, right back from when it was a commercial phenomenon, a number 1 hit single and a single that hung around the British charts for a full year.
And I am familiar with something that not many people recall, and even fewer know, which is that ‘Stranger on the Shore’ was the theme music for a BBC children’s Sunday teatime drama series of the same name, that it was retained as the music for the show’s sequel, ‘Stranger in the City’ (silly kid me, I expected the music’s name to be changed when the sequel appeared), and that the single was credited as being the theme to the TV series.
To my amazement, though I remember nothing about either series, it has its own Wikipedia entry, describing it as a five part drama about a shy French teenager in Brighton, acting as an au pair and facing culture shock. ‘Stranger on the Shore’ was broadcast in 1961, and would seem to have been shown over the five weeks immediately before my sixth birthday! And it seems that I was not that wide of the mark in thinking the instrumental’s title would change thanks to the sequel, because it had originally been entitled ‘Jenny’, after Bilk’s daughter, and it had been renamed to the show’s title.
By rights, I should have no time for this track. It’s from the pre-Beatles era, lacking in that energy and aural freshness that Merseybeat introduced, and Bilk – Mr Acker Bilk and his Paramount Jazz Band – were mainstays of the “trad” boom (traditional jazz) that was supposed to have replaced rock’n’roll, and I do not dig jazz and I especially do not dig trad (spare me, please, from ever hearing ‘When the Saints go Marching In’ again).
But ‘Stranger on the Shore’ rises above everything else recorded by Bilk and his band of pretend Somerset yokels in this period. Bilk is the only ‘band’ participant on this track, which features sweet strings from the Leon Young String Chorale. This is yet another factor that ought to prejudice me against it, that and its associations with my parents’ ideas about music.
Yet it works. It’s more than just a time capsule that, without fail, takes me back to those black-and-white days, to the Light Programme whilst Mum did her housekeeping, to making a mini-den out of the clothes maiden, hiding between its wings, surrounded by the smell of drying cotton, to dull and empty Sundays waiting endlessly for the TV to come back on again, to those times before my sister was born. It contains all these things and even nearly sixty years later, tied indelibly to its times, it is still a moving, soothing, atmospheric piece of music, whose TV-born title lends to it an air of fitness. It is, despite its smoothness, the sound of loneliness.
Those alternate versions I’ve listened to today fail, not just because they replace the clarinet with other lead instruments, but because they fail to understand the meaning of the music. They treat it as easy-listening, as nothing but a good tune. They apply a rhythm, a beat, background instruments, against which the trumpet, the piano, the guitar plays the music, and they pick out the individual notes, and they lose it completely.
Mr Acker Bilk’s version doesn’t bother with such things. There’s just his clarinet, supplemented by the sweet strings, in little background moments that complement the melody, that work with and for it, or provide an ‘instrumental’ break from the voice of the clarinet. For the breathy, low-register smoothness of the clarinet flows forward, the notes integrated, almost elided into one another. Nothing else intrudes, there is no beat to dictate the tempo, just Bilk out on his own, the stranger through whose mind these sounds progress, heedless of others, on a shore that in the tv series (the early episodes of which I missed) was that of Brighton but which in the music is merely a shore in the mind, ethereal and endless.
Sometimes, when I focus upon it rather than listen to it with familiarity, tears start up, for the wish to live then again, a little boy without cares or fears and two parents he loved in that instinctive way that is the right and necessity of all small children, and for the contemplative mood of the music, the sound of being alone.
Acker Bilk understood that. The others don’t. A good tune is a good tune, but in only one man’s hands does it have soul.

6 thoughts on “The Infinite Jukebox: Mr Acker Bilk’s ‘Stranger on the Shore’

  1. That brought back a lot of memories. I watched that tv series, which starred the splendid Richard Vernon as the head of the household, plus that wonderful music.

    1. I think that one of the clipos in the video may be from the end credits of Stranger on the Shore: it’s my only vague recollection of the TV show itself

  2. Received from Jake Nelson

    Hi Martin,

    Congratulations–you’re the only person that I know (apart from me) who recalls the TV series which featured this instrumental. Loads of folk know of the record of course. And I agree with virtually every word you’ve written here. Other versions just don’t seem to get what it’s about–it’s not meant for easy-listening, or piped background music–it’s about being lost and alone, and it’s powerful!

    As it does with you, this tune takes me right back to cosy Sunday tea-times, which I wish I could occasionally (or even regularly) go back to visit, and see loved ones who have passed. If I could invent a time-machine I would, and I’d probably spend more time in it going back to local ’50s & ’60s mundane stuff than viewing iconic moments that might nevertheless have changed history. Another song that does something similar is Adam Faith’s ‘What do you want’, with it’s plunkety-plunk piano notes which bring back the early ’60s very strongly.

    I have one exact memory only from the series. The lost and lonely foreign girl is in a police-station, where the constabulary are trying to figure out what nationality she is (which seems odd now in this day and age, not being able to instantly recognise somebody is French!). She can’t speak English, but then someone gets the bright idea of her pointing on a world map, and of course she points out France. And that’s all I can recall.

    Don’t know if you remember it, but the ’61/’62 hit song ‘Suki-Yaki’ is another one that really takes me back. Or an instrumental version does, recorded by Kenny Ball. And I’m sure that it too was used as the theme tune to a similar tea-time series, but I just can’t remember what it was called, and I’ve looked and can’t find anything to back up my claim online. If you or anyone reading this happens to know, please enlighten me!

    Jake Nelson

  3. Hi Jake

    As you can see from Anthony above, there’s at least three of us: you have to be a certain age to have even been there.

    I know Suki-Yaki, and have dowloaded a lovely stereo mix of the Kyu Sakamoto version, but Kenny Ball was far too much trad for me to take. If I can find any details about a TV series, I’ll let you know.

  4. Thanks Martin – yes I also remember it very well – he was an excellent player and I as a Somerset lad was a little pleased for some local recognition – had not actually heard it in decades!I must have watched some of the TV programs – but only have a memory of the opening shots. Yes no-one else gets close to it in terms of other versions – bizarrely yesterday as I walked through Norwich a group of buskers who regularly play outside Jarrold’s store started playing this – I can honestly say that this only time I have heard it played live and apart from reading your post on it last week had never given it a thought, Serendipity indeed.
    Remember reading a very fond obituary of Acker in the Guardian – he died not so long ago (2014) see:
    Thanks again for posting.

  5. You’re welcome, Roy. Aside from the nostalgia, ‘Stranger on the Shore’ isn’t my usual cup of musical tea, yet it is an extraordinary piece of music, and my vague recollections of the tv series tie it very firmly into my past. It’s one of those rare instances where the title is all-important to the music: as ‘Jeanne’ it would have felt very different, just as the original title of Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Somethng in the Air’ (which was ‘Revolution’ until The Beatles song of the same name) would have cost the ambience of the song a vast amount.

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