I’d tweeted earlier this week that one of my favorite things about vacationing in London is hearing some of my favorite songs in their original context. By that, I mean hearing songs that were big and important hits in the UK that may not have been even a blip on the US radar.
A year or so ago we were at a bar near Smithfield Market meeting with a friend of ours when Manic Street Preachers’ “Everything Must Go” popped up on the jukebox. It was a top-ten hit in the UK and signaled a new direction for the band after the strange disappearance of their former lead singer months previous.
David Bowie was of course a worldwide success, and his title theme for the movie Absolute Beginners was a very minor hit in the US (hitting #55 on the Billboard chart) but hit #2 in the UK. The movie itself is somewhat based on the British novel of the same name written by Colin MacInnes — a well-loved coming of age novel set in the hip London of the late 50s. Heard this one in a coffee shop just outside of St. Paul’s Cathedral one rainy morning.
The Divine Comedy is well known in the UK as an ‘orchestral pop’ band in the vein of Scott Walker (another musician quite familiar there but not in the US), and they wrote a song about the oversize tour buses one sees all around London. This track would pop into my head every time I saw one of them go by.
I love doing this kind of thing wherever I go, come to think of it. It’s partly to get the feel of the local sound, and partly because I’m just a sucker for rock music history. Whether it’s getting in touch with with Britain’s quirky rock (most of which became alternative rock here in the states), or Boston’s unique mix of collegiate and blue-collar, or San Francisco’s purposely weird sounds, I love being able to not only connect with the music itself, but the context in which it was written and recorded. It brings me closer to the real lives behind the music…it lets me understand why the song exists.