The Infinite Jukebox: Honeybus’s ‘I Can’t Let Maggie Go’


Though it’s sullied slightly by its latter-day association with a former doctrinaire and divisive Prime Minister (that little turd, Jonathan King, recorded a cover version when the late Mrs Thatcher was forced out of office), Honeybus’ only hit single is still a wonderful piece of light as air pop, delivered in almost formal tones, with one of the late-Sixties’ best simple-but-sweeping chorus lines. Better yet, the song survived a million repetitions throughout the next decade in television commercials promoting Nimble Bread.
Honeybus are a bit of an oddity. Their recorded oeuvre includes songs only aired as live broadcasts on pre-Radio 1 BBC programmes where they’re called The Honeybus by a young and enthusiastic Brian Matthew, there was much confusion over whether they were Honeybus or Honey Bus, and just when they were on the edge of catching on in a way that their delicate, often fragile music deserved but which would have felt alien, their leader quit because he hated live gigs.
‘I can’t let Maggie Go’ was the band’s only hit, although with the frequency that Radio 1 used to play their second single, ‘(Do I still) Figure in your Life?’, as an oldie, you’d have thought that that too was a massive success. Honeybus were a basic four piece guitar/bass/piano/drums outfit, and their music had a distinct Beatle-esque tone, but unlike most bands inspired by the Fab Four, their main source of inspiration was ‘Eleanor Rigby’.
The first thing you notice about ‘Maggie’ is that its intro is played on a clarinet, with the band almost a distant sound beneath its melody, and it’s the clarinet that gets the solo, as well as wandering in and out of the song, adding decoration to the otherwise plain and simple, acoustic based sound. There’s a surprising busyness to the drums, which are mixed forward and frequently vigorous without ever doing more than complementing the music
But like so many other songs of the Sixties or inspired by them, the music is a vehicle for the voice, which carries the melody. Writer, band-leader and singer Pete Dello (sometimes called ‘Psychy-Dello’ according to Brian Matthew on one of those BBC shows) sings smoothly, sweetly. He’s singing about a girl, a fresh and lively girl, who makes him laugh and cry ‘with a twinkle of her eye’. They walk here and there, and people stop and stare (but not at him). The girl is what would then have been called a stunner, and there’s a touch of awe in Dello’s voice as if he can’t believe his luck that she’s with him.
It’s simple, plain and sweet. But beware of simplicity. The minimal verses may depict an idyllic scene, lead you to imagine a summer’s day, a park, the breeze in her hair and the girl alive with life, but that’s to neglect the chorus, on which the band sing in harmony, on one of the best and most uplifting lines of the Sixties. Because She flies like a bird in the sky.
Is it real or is it fantasy? The Nimble Bread ads concretised the the image with a beautiful girl with long dark hair soaring across idyllic country in a big old hot-air balloon, effortless and romantic, like the music. The line in the song comes from Dello’s intense love and awe. The flying is figurative, the girl is lighter than air, she rises above him, like a bird.
And the next line confirms as it confuses: She flies like a bird, and I wish that she was mine. She’s with him, but not with him. They’re friends, perhaps, but he loves her deeply and she doesn’t know. He’s in awe of her: She flies like a bird, oh me, oh my, I see, I sigh, but no real relationship can be based upon awe. Now I know, he says, I can’t let Maggie go.
On the surface this sounds like typical male Sixties chauvinism, but Honeybus aren’t like that, the music is too soft and sweet, too undemanding, and anyway, he can’t insist on keeping her because he hasn’t got her. He never has, and the yearning of that sweet and gorgeous chorus is that deep inside he knows he never will. He’s the best male friend, the one who is faithful and trustworthy but who will never be seen in the light in which he sees her.
The clarinet plays its miniature solo and the song returns to its chorus, unable to say more and only able to celebrate hopelessly the woman who is loved. She flies like a bird in the sky, they sing, again and again, and you could listen to this for hours upon hours, but Dello is canny enough to end as he began. The music winds down, the clarinet decorates the ceasing memory and the band’s final, ‘ooh-ooh-oohs’ and thus it is ended. It’s a sound that typifies 1968, and the spring in which this song reached no. 8. It couldn’t have been recorded at any other time.
‘I can’t let Maggie go’ is undoubtedly a minor song. Honeybus, in turning their sound towards cellos and woodwind, were turning their face away from the slowly increasing heaviness of electric music to the countervailing appeal of baroque pop, which in the end failed to make the impression it should have, because ultimately the baroque was fey and charming, qualities not wanted as the music business began dividing itself between controlled, cabaret pop and the burgeoning underground. Honeybus missed out, especially after Dello left.
Compilation CDs are available, showcasing their entire repertoire, and they are an intriguing delight. But the only visible remnant of Honeybus is ‘I can’t let Maggie go’, and it is a gem of which The Beatles themselves would have been proud, except that John Lennon would have been too strident for this, and Paul McCartney insufficiently nuanced. Pete Dello it had to be. And it’s not a bad legacy to have, is it?