A Musical Oddity

When I was first listening to music, in that far-distant land called 1970, there was an Australian band, a duo rather, going by the name of Tin-tin (whose cartoon adventures in stilted five minute bursts I absolutely loved), whose single “Toast and Marmalade for Tea” was a turntable hit, a record played heavily by Radio 1 that nevertheless didn’t chart. The following year, they came back with a follow-up, “Is That The Way?”, using the same distorted piano sounds that made their first single so distinctive. The story was the same: heavy airplay, no sales. Not even a Top of the Pops appearance, on which the signature sound could not be reproduced with even a fraction of fidelity, did the trick. End of story.

But years and years later, I found a rare Tin-tin LP, including “Toast and Marmalade for Tea”, downloadable as an mp3 from YouTube, which I planned to break down into individual tracks and burn to a CD-R for my preferred kind of listening. Tonight, feelingly massively tired, I let it play, and now I shalln’t bother recording it.

It’s too light, too wimpy, too featherweight in melody and instrumentation, too unoriginal except in that signature track, which stands out. And yet, in a weird way, it’s a near-perfect album. Because almost without exception it is an album of perfect intros.

Each songs begins with a tight, individual sound, a strong melody, the perfect cue-in that draw your ears… and then fails to live up to it in any way.

I’ve never heard that before. An album of songs whose intro makes you crave to hear what springs from it… and then disappoints unfailingly when you do.



The Infinite Jukebox: The Beach Boys’ ‘California Girls’

In those long ago, sunlit years of my youth, otherwise known as 1977, I was out of work and broke, broker than I have been since.
It was a year in which I only bought four new albums, and that counts the presents I got for birthday and Xmas, which didn’t involve my money.
Into that economic wasteland came the news that The Beach Boys – The Beach Boys! – had signed up to play a concert in Manchester, and not just a concert, an open-air stadium concert, albeit that it was at the Bitters’ old home, Maine Road.
I wanted to go. I wanted to be able to go but it was out of the question. I just couldn’t afford it, whatever the price, it would not be possible on Supplementary Benefit and walking two miles there and two miles back every Monday morning, at Matthews Lane in Levenshulme because that not only saved two busfares but it took up the entire morning so I had that much less of the week to find something to do.
So I didn’t have the cash (it says a lot about my relationship with my mother that I never even thought of asking her to lend me the money), but there was also the complications of getting there, with no direct bus and, much more pertinently, getting back afterwards, in the dark, from Moss Side, which even then had a reputation. It wasn’t on.
But every time I thought about it I had the same thought, almost a vision. The Beach Boys – the real Beach Boys when their voices would have been the voices of all those great Sixties tracks – at the front of the stage as the sun goes down above the stands, the last light beaming into our eyes like Star Trek lasers. And the piano picks out those notes with a bell-like clarity, the horns pick out their notes and then the song jogs into that organ-based rhythm, and they come together in those harmonies and the sound of ‘California Girls’ echoes around the ground. It would be incredible. Imagine, listening to the Beach Boys singing ‘California Girls’ live and for real.
It wasn’t incredible for me that year, nor anyone else because for some reason they had to cancel. And too many of those voices are gone and those that remain aren’t those voices any more, so I’ll never get to hear ‘California Girls’ with the sky draining of light and the voices filling the air.
Funny isn’t it, but with ‘God Only Knows’ coming as near to perfection as music will ever get, and ‘Good Vibrations’ still astonishing in what it does with a song, it’s ‘California Girls’ that comes first to mind when I think of the Beach Boys singing live. It’s simple, unadorned, musically naïve by the standards of what was to follow, and Lord knows you just couldn’t write something that sexist now, with its treatment of women as just faces and bodies, celebrating only those most superficial of characteristics. Even by the standards of Sixties pop, with its near universal negation of the woman’s viewpoint, this is going beyond every Pale there may be.
But they called the Beach Boys the sound of Summer, and this is the archetypal Beach Boys and it’s the sound of Summer, with its uninhibited, joyous and practically naïve celebration of women, or girls. You’ll notice that the singer hasn’t got a bad word to say for any of them. No matter where they’re from, be it a section of the United States or from far beyond its borders, they’re great and the guy loves them all, but the girls from where he comes from, from nearest to his home and his heart, they’re the best, they’re the ones. There’s no girls like them.
And yes, you know that it’s all about sex in the end, that’s all he’s responding to, the prettiest faces, the sexiest bodies, that indefinable sum of everything that makes you look at a woman and go ‘Wow!’ inside, only he’s saying it out loud, and proud, with such naïve enthusiasm that you can let yourself go with it, and obliviate that urge to remove their clothing and get up close and jiggy with it, and just glory in the fact that this world has such wonderful beings in it.
Yes, it’s sung by Mike Love, and yes, he’s a dick and always was and it’s so visible in those old TV clips that survive on YouTube, you wonder why it took so long for everyone to realise it, but in his voice he’s not being a dick, just a guy in awe of the fact that his home state produces the cutest girls in the world. And you too, no matter where you come from, no matter where your heart lies, you wish they could all be California Girls.
And somewhere, in the Infinite Jukebox, the Beach Boys – Brian, Carl, Dennis, Al and Mike – are out on stage as the sun dips towards an Ocean we cannot see and they’re singing ‘California Girls’ and I am lost in the music that reaches into forever.

The Infinite Jukebox – Love Affair’s ‘A Day Without Love’

I crack on that all I know of Sixties music I learned from listening to Radio 1 in the Seventies. There was a generous ration of ‘Golden Oldies’ in practically everyone’s programme, not to mention the frequent reissues that made the charts; Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Albatross’ was a Number 1 early in 1969, and four years later it came within a place of repeating that feat.
But of course it’s not entirely true that I spent the whole decade unaware of the music going on around me. Only a card-carrying hermit could have been oblivious to The Beatles, and to some extent The Rolling Stones. At Brigham Street, Mam would have the Light Programme on all day as she did her housework, and I have fleeting memories of songs that penetrated even to things like ‘Housewives Choice’. I remember Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey’s ‘Freight Train’, more than once, and ‘All My Loving’ many times. Sat in the car one not Saturday afternoon, whilst Dad and Uncle Arthur pored under the bonnet, there was ‘Sorry Suzanne’ by The Hollies. And I vividly remember Mam and Dad’s disgust at switching over from ITV one Thursday night and catching Arthur Brown with his flaming headdress, the week ‘Fire’ was Number 1.
And I started listening to Radio 1 in 1967, or thereabouts, after Dad built that old radio set into the bottom half of my bedside cabinet. I would have been twelve or thereabouts, and I tuned in on Saturday and Sunday mornings, to listen to Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart present ‘Junior Choice’. I was listening for the kid’s records, the Charlie Drakes, Bernard Cribbins, Terry Scott’s ‘My Bruvver’ and ‘We’re all going to the Zoo tomorrow’ (whatever happened to Julie Felix?)
I was there for the childish stuff, but these were mixed in with pop, practically none of which has left any impression on my memory.
But as well as the cabinet radio, Dad had bought me a tape recorder, a simple, cheapish reel-to-reel. Later, I’d progress to a series of four-track recorders, offering only mono reproduction, where a track would use only half of the available tape track (on the same principle as cassettes – which Dad scorned for their flimsiness and narrower, quality restricting tape – which play side one from left-to-right, so to speak, on the top half, and side two right-to-left on the bottom half). This doubled the amount of time available on a two hour reel.
And having provided this tape recorder, he also, by some means I can’t recall, hooked me up to record directly from the radio. I remember only recording four songs on that tape, which I had for a very very long time. Two were the sort of thing I’d expect myself to record at that age, not that I’ve any idea what these were. The other two were pop songs. Pop songs that sounded trebly when I played them back because of some flaw in the recorder that meant that playback sped up fractionally (50rpm instead of 45rpm?) but noticeably when compared against the original. One was The Move’s ‘Fire Brigade’. The other was Love Affair’s ‘A Day Without Love’.
Why I taped that, I have no idea. Sixties music was such a blank to me in the Sixties, with my parents’ distaste for it and their practical control over pretty much every avenue by which I could have heard it. Nor did I learn about it at school: I had no mates with which I could discuss it and I was acutely aware of my many and varied ignorances about things around me and not eager to open up any new channels for humiliation.
So what was it about ‘A Day Without Love’ that spoke to such a musical ignoramus? Looked at objectively, it’s a classy, big-sound, highly orchestrated upper mid-tempo pop song typical of that brief, post-Engelbert fad for semi-cabaret sounds. It’s a clear attempt to recapture the effect of Love Affair’s debut hit, the Number 1 ‘Everlasting Love’. ‘A Day Without Love’ was the second follow-up, after ‘Rainbow Valley’ had barely scraped the Top Thirty.
That this was such a heavily-orchestrated sound would have made Love Affair something of a bridge from the music my mother, listened to and to which I had been exposed for more than half my life to date. I would have been completely unaware of just how calculated a song this was, repeating exactly the formula of ‘Everlasting Love’. The big, sweeping, spacious sound, the female backing singers, the band reduced to a generic rhythm, only the drums of any real importance behind Steve Ellis’s white soulboy voice. And it worked as far as a Number 9, and so did its follow-up, also written by Philip Goodhand-Tait, to the same formula. Even down to the regret.
That’s the only area in which ‘A Day Without Love’ differs from its template. The words in themselves aren’t exceptional. Ellis’s girl has gone away, given no reason, given nobody any explanation as to why, where and when – or if – she will be back. No-one knows anything. And we find ourselves questioning, as Ellis must, try as hard as he might to ignore the voice in the back of his head, did this girl ever love him as he did and still does her? Concerns of no relevance to a boy crowding twelve in 1968.
But a day without love is a year in emptiness, Ellis sings, banging into that chorus with an ocean of yearning and despair. The band hustle, Sue and Sunny, legendary session singers, echo and respond to Ellis’s plaints, drop magnificent ‘ooh-oohs’ in all the right places, strings soar across the melody, horns add their sad phrases and that big chorus comes round again, and yes, this is a commercial product and was built with nothing more than sales in mind, but it has vigour, it has energy, it has a heartache in the centre of its brash and bold sound, and it’s yet one more reminder that, in the Sixties, even the plastic could be brilliant.
Whatever my very much younger self heard in this still resonates with me now, throughout the years of growing to understand what lies within songs such as this. Why did you have to go? Ellis asks. He’ll never know, and neither will I. I greatly prefer this to ‘Everlasting Love’, ‘original’ though that was because, as that killing chorus line makes plain, this bright, light, vigorous confection is about loss and aching.
And every time I hear this, I am transported back to that boy in the bedroom he still had to share with his little sister, overlooking that back garden, in a house where there were still four of us and the shadow hadn’t started to encroach. I go back to that old taping, a song that was an oasis in an ocean of ignorance. It wasn’t a beacon, because it would be another eighteen months or so yet, and the Sixties dying on the vine, before I switched the cabinet radio on on a Monday morning, and I found the music and never let it go, but ‘A Day Without Love’ was a moment that foresaw the world before me, in more ways than one.

The Infinite Jukebox: Let Loose’s ‘Best in Me’

I know nothing about Let Loose, have no memories about them and about when they were around. If it were not for Wikipedia, I would assume them to be another boyband in the popular mode kicked off by Take That, but they weren’t, not really. I don’t even remember hearing ‘Best in Me’ when it had its hour of glory, taking the band to a number 8 slot in 1995. I don’t even remember where or when I did hear it first. I just know that for a long time now it seems to have been there, and that every time I listen to it, it delivers a kick to the back of the emotional knee.
I can’t gauge how ‘serious’ Let Loose were as a band, whether they were into it for the music or whether they wanted to catch their share of the teen market. The video for ‘Best in Me’ is frankly risible: an Ultravox-esque piece of pretention, divided into quarters showing the same image multiplied, slick and portentous, the band dressed in high-collared Russian greatcoat-length coloured coats, with military buttons, giving the impression of being shoegazers. They look dodgy as hell.
Which makes the song even more amazing. It’s a sweet, upmarket pop ballad, a hazily strummed acoustic, a tinkling piano and masses of strings built around a husky, near-hoarse vocal that bleeds into a power ballad chorus with the band executing note perfect harmonies with an angel’s choir falsetto. What is there to like about this? It’s the template for any boyband, Westlife with less drippiness. What is it doing here?
Because underneath all this calculated wrapping, singer and songwriter Richie Wermerling surpassed the commercial crap this might so easily have been. I think I read once that this song was to be taken seriously, one of those songs that bands write when they want to be thought of as musicians, though apparently he was supposed to have recorded it in his bedroom when he was fifteen, a dozen years before its commercial release. But if that was all hooey, it didn’t change the effect, for ‘Best in Me’ proves that long after the Sixties died on us, it is possible for something created solely for commerce to be true art.
There is a simplicity to the music, and a sincerity in the words that very well might be the work of an earnest fifteen year old. But there is a truth to them that I recognise instantly. Wermerling sings that he doesn’t care if he’s some kind of foolish and some kind of weak, he’s not ashamed to say that he’s fallen head over heels, because, and this is where the song goes through the superficiality it might otherwise display, because you bring out the best in me. And how Wermerling sings it makes it not a line, not a thing to say to a girl, but it’s the truth and it’s the whole of him.
I know what that feels like. It’s happened twice for me, twice I met women I loved deeply, who loved me, and these times were not just the best of my life, they were the best in and of me. I was transfixed and transformed. I became everything I could be, I was more than I’d been. I learned more about what I could be and do, and what strengths I had. The best in me was indeed brought out, and I can hear in Wermerling’s voice that he has been there too, and it doesn’t matter how concocted the song is, it’s chorus soars and I am filled with memory and regret.
Like the best of songs, during the moments that this plays, I am taken out of the world in which I live, and like such things I don’t want to return to where I am. Such, whatever the attention, is Art and high beauty. There are many things with more serious intent than this track that I would not care to listen to even once.
And a quick listen on YouTube confirms it was indeed a fluke.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Rascals’ ‘Groovin”

Back in the really good old days of Sounds of the Sixties, when production of the show and the choice of music was firmly in the hands of Roger ‘The Vocalist’ Bowman (which tells you how far back I’m going), there was a regular feature that came along about four times a year, when SOTS would clear its middle hour, from 8.30 to 9.30, to play a full Sixties American Top Twenty, for the week of the show.
This was usually absolutely fascinating, as long as we weren’t going too far back into the decade. It was a complete guessing game as to what the chart may contain, with the date of no help whatsoever, except as to what ‘British Invasion’ songs we might get. Lots of American records that went big in Britain didn’t even get released over here until a couple of months after they were hits at home, several only scored on reissue, years later (Louis Armstrong’s classic ‘What a Wonderful World’ was a UK no. 1 in 1968, but it was an American hit in 1964).
And of course there was the unfailing fascination of the songs that went big in America yet meant nothing over here. Listening to the full Top Twenty gave such records an immediate context: what they were up against in their homeland, with the British tracks a marker for what time of our chart history this was.
Sometimes, it was obvious why a record wouldn’t have appealed over here. And naturally it’s impossible to know what may or may not have been released in Britain, and what did or didn’t get airplay. But the most interesting of all are those records that were absolutely massive in America but which were completely ignored over here, but should have been equally celebrated and loved by us.
The Association, for me, are an obvious example: ‘Cherish’, ‘Windy’, ‘Never my Love’: why on Earth did none of these singles even reach the UK Top Fifty? It wasn’t even as if British bands were doing the old trick of recording their own versions and pushing them out, trying too snatch hits before the record label could do a deal to licence the original. That’s what Amen Corner did, inaugurating their brief commercial phase with a cover of The American Breed’s ‘Bend Me, Shape Me’ (though I happen to prefer the rawer, more energetic version by Andy Fairweather-Low and co).
The Young Rascals were one of those bands that never really crossed the Atlantic. They started out as raw, energetic blues-blasters, blue-eyed soul with a distinct New Jersey/Italian twang that linked them spiritually with The Four Seasons, but in 1967 they were among those who reacted to changing times by going psychedelic: not the full-out Pink Floyd psychedelia but a broader, hippyish approach, incorporating softer soul and jazz sounds, that brought a sense of space into their recordings, as well as a lyrical shift towards peace and freedom themes.
‘Groovin” was the only Young Rascals song to make it in Britain. Though it was recorded as The Young Rascals (the name chosen when a band called Harmonica Rascals objected to them being simply called The Rascals) and was the title track of an album under that name, by the time it came out over here the band had shortened their name to The Rascals and it was released under that title. It reached no. 8, a single week in the Top 10, in the first Summer of Love.
‘Groovin” is pretty much the perfect summer song. It’s slow and lazy, lit-up with a quavering harmonica that repeats three wistful notes, it’s the sound of picnics and cool drinks, and boats on park lakes, the sound of the sun beating down on an endless day.
It’s a song in which Felix Cavaliere’s piano carries the rhythm and Dino Danelli soft-handedly pats out the conga drum, Eddie Brigati and Gene Cornish sing sweet and yearning ah-hah-hahs over, clear, bell-like notes. Felix sings soulfully of groovin’ on a Sunday afternoon and you slip down Alice’s rabbit-hole into a golden trip with someone who means all there is to mean, in a time and a place that is neither time or place because there’s nothing to do and forever in which to do it and the only thing that is to be done is to let the day go around you. Sometime it will end, but whilst the song plays that sometime is never and there’s no better time than this.
All in less that two minutes and thirty seconds.
This isn’t a song, it’s a transport. It’s a summer and a memory of a summer and every summer there has ever been in which a clock or a calendar has ceased to matter
We gave a track like this a single week in our Top 10, at no. 8. One Saturday morning, on SOTS, I listened all the way to the end of an American top Twenty and when we got to the Number 1, it was ‘Groovin”, and not for its first week.
Sometime I am deeply ashamed of the musical preferences of this country.

The Infinite Jukebox: Syd Straw’s ‘Love, and the Lack of It’

Sometimes, discovering new music is as simple as hearing a song on the radio. At other times, it can be a bit more convoluted.
In the summer of 1986 I was working for a Manchester City Centre firm. An Articled Clerk at our London Head office had qualified and was leaving, but his replacement couldn’t start until a month later, so I was asked to go to London to fill the gap, run the departee’s workload down and leave the new guy a clean slate.
It was a very interesting experience, the most time I have ever spent in London at one go, and whilst it was very disruptive to many plans I had at home, I’m glad I did it. Not that it got me anywhere with the firm, given that I was made redundant in December the same year!
Being in London gave me the chance to meet up with some of my comics fandom friends based there, including an invitation to tea one night in the wilds of north-east London: so far that by the time I got to the terminus the Underground was running above ground. During the evening, the conversation turned to music, and I proclaimed my love for R.E.M. (whose fourth album would unexpectedly appear in the Oxford Street Virgin megastore, the night before my last day).
Ah, it was said, knowingly. So I’d know about The Hindu Love Gods and The Golden Palaminos then? This was presuming a bit more knowledge than I actually had, knowledge I set about remedying once I was home. The Hindu Love Gods was an ad hoc solo project by Berry, Buck and Mills with Warren Zevon, an IRS single, but the Palaminos were an ongoing ad hoc project, put together by drummer Anton Fier and bassist Bill Laswell, with a mixture of guest musicians: Michael Stipe sang on their latest album, Visions of Excess.
It was only available on Import, and thus both a bit difficult to track down in those primitive times, and more expensive when you found it, but find it I did and bought it.
The first thing I discovered was that Stipe sang on only three of the album’s eight tracks, the first three. The second was that the rest of the album held very little appeal for me, except for one track on side two, ‘(Kind of) True’. It was one of two tracks sung by someone called Syd Straw.
Syd turned out to be a lady, and ‘(Kind of) True’ turned out to be a bloody good song and perfectly suited to her very individual voice. I loved it and, despite the fact that her other vocal wasn’t much of a song, kept an eye out for anything else by her.
Which continued the Stipe connection when this turned out to be a single called ‘Future 40s (String of Pearls)’ with a substantial guest vocal from Michael. I grabbed it of course, and later the same year (which is now 1987), a follow-up called ‘Think too Hard’, equally excellent, that I discovered at Sifters. Then, towards Xmas, I picked up the album, Surprise, that both came from.
I found it disappointing. The two singles were the two stand-out tracks, because they were the most fully realised as songs. Both had direct, strong melodies, and a degree of energy to them. The rest of the album, although I liked the sound of it, felt unfinished, in the sense that each other track had the seed of a good, powerful song in it, that had just not been developed because of an urge to divert the melody away from fulfilling its implications, diffusing its energy in a self-conscious attempt to be different. I still have the album but I don’t play it much.
Jump now to 1996. I’m in my own home, I’m in the last few months of a job I loathed, and I’m off to Nottingham on Boxing Day, because I have a ticket to see Manchester United play. I had a ticket for a United away game at the City ground back in 1979, when I was living in Nottingham, which I’d never got to use, between snowstorms, FA Cup replays and being back in Manchester when the game was actually played, so I was looking forward to this.
About ten days or so before the day, I was browsing around in Sifters when I discovered a new Syd Straw CD, this one called War and Peace. Naturally I grabbed it. I planned to keep it for a Xmas ‘gift’ to myself, and then, realising that I was going to be on the road for a few hours on Boxing Day, going down to Nottingham, I decided that I would record it onto cassette tape, with the sound off, so that it would be completely new for me once I was in the car.
Boxing Day was perfect. It was cold, clear and crisp, the roads weren’t busy, it was ideal driving weather. I got to Nottingham about midday, parked up in the City Centre, and had a leisurely and very satisfying hot lunch at my favourite pub, ‘Ye Olde Salutation’, the second oldest pub in England.
Then a long but fulfilling and nostalgic stroll down to Trent Bridge, the City Ground being on the far side of the Trent, which technically puts the ground in West Bridgeford as opposed to Nottingham, but who cares?
I was in the United end for about 2.00pm and it was a great game, United running out 4-0 winners. The pitch was cold and hard, the bounce vigorous. I saw Ryan Giggs standing under a clearance from Peter Schmeical that went so high it was coming down vertically, and he trapped it under his boot, killing all the momentum stone dead. I saw Eric Cantona nearly score one of the best goals I ever saw, catching the ball on his instep, playing keepy-uppy with it for three beats and then nonchalantly flicking it over the keeper’s head: it rebounded from the bar and Andy Cole headed it into an empty net.
What has this to do with the Infinite Jukebox? I headed off down the A6 in the morning, stopping to fill up with petrol on the A6, and as soon as that was done, I rammed my Syd Straw tape into the cassette player, and turned the volume up. And, gloriously, it was ideal driving music, and it was everything that ‘Surprise’ wasn’t. It was composed, sure of itself, full of energy and the songs had been allowed to develop their ideas organically.
It wasn’t a complete success, with the energy tailing off towards the back end of the album, but it was a hit with me, enough so that I stuck the tape back on for the return journey.
Two tracks from the album stand out for me, one of which is the subject of this essay. In some ways, the other, ‘CBGB’s’ is the better track, a straightforward, driving sound, with plenty of attack from The Silhouettes (who provide the music for the album). I’ve always had a personal video in my head for the song, which is a one-sided conversation between Syd and an unknown man she used to know at the legendary CBGB’s, and who she’s met again for the first time in ten years. She’s reminiscing about then and the difference to now and whilst the music is powerful and direct, the words are unbearably sad, shot through with unspoken loss.
But in the end, it is ‘CBGB’s’ immediate predecessor that, for all its laconic ease, it’s slow, sometimes disjointed formlessness, that is for me the most important and most effecting song on ‘War and Peace’, and the song that represents Syd Straw’s peak. That is ‘Love, and the Lack of It’.
It begins slowly, Syd singing with at first no backing, then minimal, guitar, organ, drums played mostly on the rim, until the band kick in fully on the line ‘my heart’s in the wrong place at the wrong time’. A solo, first on organ, then guitar. It’s all loose, mid-tempo, but as the song goes on, it picks up strength.
And then it goes quiet again. Love and the lack of it, I can’t keep track of it. The music slips into the background. Straw is alone. She sings about a woman of uneasy virtue, taking her chances when she can. This woman sits on the end of her bed, explaining her scars to another stupid man, and the bitterness pours into her voice as she sings the last three words and the moment she hits the word ‘man’, the music explodes in a righteous fury, a tearing, screaming, battering electric guitar backed by the full force of the Silhouettes, ramming the point home in the least subtle and most scorchingly effective manner, with a scream of rage and pain that lasts to the song’s end, and Straw adds the clinching line, with despair that this man, by being a man, is someone ‘who will never understand’.
It’s pain, and it’s despair, but it’s also rage, rage that things should have to be like that, rage at not being understood. Even nowadays, rage is still not felt enough from women, but in 1996, this was a very new explosion and it’s heat is undiminished twenty years later.
Yet the song ends, again on Syd’s voice only, a couplet that tells the future beyond that terrible anger and despair, fading into nothing. She dreamed of a life, every day of her life.
Not so much a song as a lifetime. Of despair that is quiet not because of self-containment but because of the utter lack of someone who will hear and understand. I am surprised this song is not better known, among women, that is.

There is no YouTube video of the recorded song: the live performances simply don’t cut it.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Men They Couldn’t Hang’s ‘The Green Fields of France (No Man’s Land)”

For some inexplicable reason, in the shower one morning, I had ‘The Ironmasters’ by The Men They Couldn’t Hang going through my head. The Men etc. were an early Eighties post punk/folk group who I generally heard on John Peel’s show. ‘The Ironmasters’ was one of only two songs of theirs which really registered with me, and thought of that took me back to their earlier version of Eric Bogle’s ‘The Green Fields of France (No Man’s Land)’.
The song, which has been described as the greatest anti-war song ever written (though in my mind it has to jostle with Bogle’s other most famous song, ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’), is a very simple, very plain and very moving story. I’m not even sure if I’ve heard any other version than that of The Men etc., and they take a few minor liberties with the lyrics along the way, but I loved that enough to buy it in the 12″ version, for the extra sonic impact (I don’t believe that song was truncated for the 7″).
The context of the song is set out in its first few lines, now how do you do, young Willie McBride, do you mind if I sit down beside your graveside. The singer has found the grave at the end of a long day’s walking in the sun. The gravestone has very few details: Willie McBride’s name, that he died in 1916, that he was only nineteen. Willie McBride was a soldier killed in the Great War. The singer wonders aloud about who and what Willie McBride was, and who, if anyone, he left behind him.
Did Willie have a young wife or a sweetheart in whose heart he’s still the young man of nineteen forever? Or is he nothing but a faded photo, with no-one to remember?
The band play things straight. The instrumentation is slow, and simple, leaving the major part of the melody to the singer, whose voice is rough, but clearly sympathetic. The song has the feel of the time of day in which it takes place: a long day, an evening dying in hot sunlight.
The third verse breaks away from the musing about Willie to take in the scene and compare it to that which the young McBride might have scene in his last moments.
But it’s at its end that the song achieves its greatest power, and the band let the words come through as they deliberately refuse to inject any greater passion here than in the preceding verses. The singer keeps himself in check, the music is no more dramatic. Because the guy who’s found this gravestone is looking back over more than just years. He’s asking Willie McBride if he and the other fallen who lie here with him know why they died? What were they told that brought them here to these fields to go to the slaughter? All the messages about the war to end wars: did they really believe them?
Because this grave is still No Man’s Land, a field of uncountable white crosses, a silent symbol not of death in honour but of the blind indifference of man to his fellow man, a whole generation butchered and damned.
Because the sorrow and the suffering was all in vain. Because, Willie McBride, it happened again, and in this one last line the song transmutes from regret and sorrow into anger, as the singer rams home that it was again, and again, and again, and again.
I’ve read comments appending to the various YouTube uploads suggesting that this version is filled with more passion than the better known versions that come from the folk field, that give the impression that usually this song is played as more of a cosy singalong. I can’t believe that. I can’t believe that anyone with the merest understanding of English can come to Bogle’s word’s with indifference, or jollity.
I can believe in singers choosing to place no overcooked emotion in their voice, to rely on the words and their simplicity to convey the message, but I’m a long time removed from my interest in the folk scene and the local folk clubs, and the understated anger of The Men They Couldn’t Hang is the response that affects me most.