There is something about the mythical “big city” that despite pretty much all advice to the contrary, keeps on pulling people in. Something of a land of opportunity, where there are jobs, there are things to do, perhaps even somewhere where you can “shed a skin” and be something you might not be able to be elsewhere.
Tuesday Ten: 317: Hometown Unicorn
Tuesday Ten: On Location
082: Life In The City
135: A Night On The Town
258: That’s why múm has gone to Ísland
262: A Place Called England
275: First We Take Manhattan
278: Camden Town
But what about those equally mythical “small towns” that people come from? What happens to those that stay, what happens to those that put down roots, or even try to be different there?
The results are, predictably, mixed. Those are what I’m looking into this week. They are all songs about broadly identifiable locations – in some cases far more obvious than others – and are all about, in one way or another, places that are not the “big city” – which in the UK’s case is of course London.
A word on why I say London more than anywhere else – London has a population of around 8.8 million (as of 2016), 13.3% of the UK population of 65.64 million, and provides as much as a third of the tax take in the country. As a result, it sucks in a lot of jobs and culture – and younger adults. Compared to the extraordinary sprawl of London – the next biggest conurbation is the whole of the West Midlands, at 2.8 million it is only a third of London’s population. So compared to London, pretty much everywhere is a “small town”, and some might say with attitudes to match. These songs look at those attitudes, and before I start – let me say, it’s not all bad.
England Keep My Bones
I was a late convert to Frank Turner, but it was England Keep My Bones that hooked me for good – and Countdown: 2011: Tracks was topped by One Foot Before the Other from it. But elsewhere on the album, that were a few songs that stopped me in my tracks, and this was one of them, a simple, acoustic song of a journey through a familiar town as it throws up vivid memories and happy times.
This might be about Winchester, but it rather also feels like my birthplace of Salisbury, another Wessex city, and there are elements of this song that absolutely nail the sense of home, in a small town. Even if you’ve moved on, and you have no physical connection to the place any more, as this song suggests, just one step in that town brings memories and feelings flooding back. Weirdly, too, I only actually lived in the Salisbury area for about a month after my birth (before I began something of a nomadic childhood that had seen me live at eight addresses before I was ten (in five towns or cities), and sixteen before I was twenty), but I spent various school holidays with my grandparents in the area and so when I made my first visit in well over a decade recently, for my grandmother’s funeral, there was no need for maps – I knew it all so well, and the walk back to the station from the wake in East Harnham the other side of the city was bittersweet.
I’m sure I’d have hated growing up in such a place – Salisbury is a small city, that’s for sure – but going back to it occasionally still gives me a sense of warmth and…homeliness?
Green and Grey
Thunder and Consolation
Location: Bradford/West Yorkshire
The green hills of West Yorkshire, the grey stone of the buildings so characteristic of West Riding towns and cities, the smalltown attitudes against being different…man, this takes me back. While I was born in Salisbury, and spent my early years in north London, the Medway Towns and then Cambridge, I moved north to Huddersfield aged nine. I was still there when the time came to head south to London for University. Within West Yorkshire, nowhere is particularly far away as the towns and cities rather bleed into each other now – from Huddersfield, Bradford is just 12 miles/19 km to the north – and while each have their character, there are some things that are common to all of them.
Sadly, the attitudes against being different can very much be one of them. In my (admittedly infrequent nowadays) visits north, dressed in any form of “alternative” clothing can still attract calls of “mosher” from “normally” dressed teenagers (and sadly can also still be a problem on the streets of Bradford around Infest, too), and those that are part of the “alternative” scene will broadly find themselves in particular venues – there is little of the more blasé attitude of London, where mostly no-one cares how you dress. There is more of a freedom to be “you”, or to reinvent yourself in a big city, of course there is. Frankly, it’s easier to disappear.
The Age of Consent
In times gone by, too, that need to disappear – or more importantly the need to escape – had even more of an importance, and it could be said that to many young gay men in the eighties, this song (and the stark, unflinching video that accompanied it) was a sign that there were ways of being yourself. It just meant leaving home and going somewhere more…accepting. As a child I (perhaps unsurprisingly) totally missed the subtext of the video and indeed the song, but watching it nowadays, it gives me a sense of what some friends of mine who experienced these kind of issues growing up must have experienced. Being different, being gay should not be a stigma, but sadly for some it still is.
Come Friendly Bombs
Orchestra of Wolves
Location: home counties
Frank Carter, when he first appeared fronting Gallows, was a young man fuelled by sheer fury and hatred (of others and, perhaps more importantly, himself) and that drove the band and their thrashing punk sound like a roaring engine. The band came from Watford, one of the many towns that ring London in the Home Counties, and judging on the lyrics to this song in particular, life was not easy being a punk in towns like that. Here, Carter is constantly on his guard for someone that might start a fight just because of the way he looks, and is clearly sick of the town and the ingrained attitudes as a result. The title, of course, comes from Betjeman’s poem inspired by post-war Slough, a town not too far south-west of Watford, and it could be said that the fate that befell Slough in recent decades has since reached towns like Watford too.
(The Everyday Story Of) Smalltown
The Big Express
XTC were a very English band (and belatedly had success in the United States by playing up that Englishness), and many of their songs were rooted in their hometown life and upbringing in Swindon, a town that has had more than its fair share of jokes and sneering over the years. Watching the marvellous documentary about the band (XTC: This is Pop) last week revealed just how much that sneering bristled with the band, and how proud they were of where they came from. This song rather reminds that life in towns like Swindon had a beauty in the details, a fascination with the small cogs that turn a much larger wheel of life.
“I was born in this town / Live here my whole life / Probably come to die in this town”
A sentiment I’ve heard from friends and other people in the past, from those who feel trapped in a town, either from a lack of opportunity or, in some cases, perhaps a lack of ambition. Whatever the reason, it is a difficult cycle to break, and Steve Albini’s Big Black took on this concept in particularly blunt terms. This is a savage tale of teenage sex and setting things on fire, as ways to alleviate the boredom of youth in a small town, and the track attacks like an army out of the speakers, spitting fire of nihilistic spite, hopelessness and boredom in its wake.
Leicester’s Trying To Tell Me Something
Regardez, Ecoutez Et Repetez
My wife was born and raised in Leicester, and so for this song I’m handing over to her:
“The loss of music venues (and indeed decent drinking holes) is a problem everywhere it seems, but this song resonates particularly for me given that I grew up, and spent my formative drinking and gigging years, in Leicester. The list of venues ‘demolished or turned into some flats’ reads like a list of the places me and my friends used to frequent as teenagers, from the Spreadeagle (50p vodka mixers, perfect for broke students), to the Physio (lovely except when the Tigers were playing at home), and of course the more widely missed and iconic Princess Charlotte, where I once took my mum to see Arab Strap. As part of Leicester’s current regeneration, thanks in part to Richard III, there is some bitter irony in the fact that the ‘Banana Buildings’, where Hibbett goes to protest the destruction of the venues, have themselves recently been demolished (many would say not before time). Knocking down my life in rock indeed.”
My wife and I met in Sheffield – and I’ve looked at bands from the city in a more general sense – but the extraordinary detail in Pulp’s songs about the city are worth mentioning again here. In particular, this, the glorious opener to their breakthrough album His’n’Hers is about youthful boredom, and the petty (and worse) crime that can result if you give youth nothing to do (a much argued subject, and any number of more stories and reports can be found about it), and the narrator is either the innocent bystander or victim, depending on how you look at it – or is a collaborator by virtue of doing nothing about what he sees. Like any provincial city, yes, there are bad people, there is crime, but thankfully it was something I saw little of (in the main) within Sheffield.
Dubstar were something of an overlooked band in the nineties, partly because they didn’t really fit in. They weren’t a guitar rock band, they were more of a synthpop band with a deeply melancholy edge, and their songs were very much informed by where they came from – Newcastle and the wider North East. This song is, it seems, about small-town loneliness, and attempts to make things better by meeting new people don’t exactly improve the situation. Dubstar were at their best when their bright, poppy sound disguised extraordinarily bleak subjects, and this is very much one of those – and the penultimate song that they released before disbanding. We saw their live return to London nearly five years ago (Into the Pit: 167 refers), and sadly despite promises of new music since, I don’t think it ever actually happened.
Amid the industrial-rock fury of the rest of this album (where the Poppies nearly shed their old image for good, before disintegrating the first time around), this track rather stuck out. That’s because it was the one track on the album without the grinding, bleak atmosphere, and instead was clearly a hugely personal track. A song that, while it is about the home of the band in the Black Country, this has a rather more universal feel. That of the return home, where everything and nothing has changed. The kind of place you return to infrequently, catch up with the old friends who chose to stay, and you spend half your time trying to work out what’s different, as it doesn’t especially feel the same anymore.
It’s certainly something that’s on my mind at the moment, with a potential meet-up of old friends in March coming up, which will mean my first trip back to Huddersfield in a couple of years. I’ll be curious to see what feels different, if anything does.