Searching for a meaning: A dozen songs about places I love

Songs always become linked to specific locations in my head – be it the first time I heard it or the person I was with at the time. But others have a head start. Here’s twelve songs about places I love.

1. The Parachute Men – Leeds Station

Like any level-headed and popular fourteen year old circa 2004 I used to bulk-buy NME compilation tapes from the late ’80s. They were full of serviceable janglepop songs such as this one which took on some significance after I spent a bitterly cold November night on the Leeds Station concourse while trying to get home from a British Sea Power gig. The platform clock is still burnt into my retinas after watching it tick through every second from 2am to 5am. All the while this song rattled around my head as I attempted to sync it with chattering teeth.

I guess their thought process went something like: “Right lads, our career’s on the up but we need a hit. Let’s record a song that speaks to the ordinary man…yeah, just sing about an incredibly grim 1960s transport hub.”

2. The Fall – Edinburgh Man

Yeah, Yeah, so you did the grating, painful, challenging stuff. Then you met Brix and went pop. And now you find that the North-West has become the coolest place in the music world. So what do you do if you’re Mark E. Smith in 1989? Bugger off to Leith and knock-out well-produced albums that feature approximations of actual singing. [See also: Bill Is Dead.] The ultimate Salford resident wrote one of his best songs about a love of the Scottish capital.

It’s one of my favourite places: tenements cascading down the volcanic rock, wide streets that suck in light and astonishing views around every corner. Sit on top of Calton Hill and listen to this while taking in the Forth Rail Bridge, the Scott Memorial and Easter Road and attempt to understand how the city fits together.

[Watch Mark talk about the city]

3. Half Man Half Biscuit – The Light At The End Of The Tunnel (Is The Light Of An Oncoming Train)

Nigel Blackwell celebrates unloved Britain better than anyone else – and did it two decades before anyone started writing quirky off-piste travel pieces about alternative destinations. There’s endless songs to choose from:  “We Built This Village on a Trad. Arr. Tune” is my rural upbringing in musical form while “Mathematically Safe” is both the greatest love song ever and has a reference to the Cumbrian monastic village of Cartmel.

But to have a song that includes a shout-along advertising slogan about a small Peak District settlement? A place that’s mainly notable for the overwhelming stench from the nearby Parma Violets factory? That’s good going. Altogether now, “No Frills! Handy for the Hills! That’s the way you spell ‘New Mills’!”

[For a better quality studio version try Spotify]

4. The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu – It’s Grim Up North

York. A64. Slipways. Driving. Passed Test. M62. Pounding music. Service station. Leeds. Batley. Dewsbury. Change the CD. Cleckhuddersfax. Over the damn. Under the bridge. Lanes divide. Stott Hall Farm. Up. Summit. Down. Milnrow. M60. Bury. Salford. Manchester.

Are all in the north. I like driving up north.

5. Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers – Roadrunner

…and I like travelling all over the place. One of the world’s worst earworms, a creature that winds its way around your brain for hours as you hum it under your breath and only punctuated by the odd subconscious shout of “Radio On”. It’s the soundtrack of movement and of pushing on towards the destination. It worked when I was singing it with Tommy Ogden as we pounded along a seemingly endless stretch of the beautiful Pennnine Way. And it worked when I was driving to Torquay on a Friday night to watch York City lose.

6. Elbow – Station Approach

That feeling of being away for a few months and then being overwhelmed by the comforting embrace of home – finding you can walk the familiar city without thinking and recognise the streets through your soles.

Pull into Piccadilly station, look over to the Star & Garter and recall being chucked out at 3am, give a nod to the crumbling Victorian Fire Station on your left, head down the approach ramp past the bloke hawking copies of the M.E.N., turn right onto the cobbles past the Golftorium (“Manchester’s leading Indoor Golf Bar, Pictures of Stella only £9”) , head over the Rochdale canal where Britain’s industrial dominance began, go into the Jolly Angler pub where there’ll be a pint of Hyde’s at £2.20 and Granada Reports on the TV. Sit down.

7. Pulp – Wickerman

I’ve always had a propensity for wandering around ruins and jumping around abandoned industrial sites. Jarvis is talking about a trip through the heart of Sheffield but it applies to any area where industrial waters sink and rise, railway arches cross over the path and flecks of resilient wildlife appear amongst the shopping trollies. To me it’s walking the grubby paths around Gorton industrial estates that transform into the gentrified towpath around Jutland Street, then heading past the Gay Village where rentboys once used the unlit route to supply their wares and on past Castlefield towards the endless new flats in North Hulme.

8. Billy Bragg – A New England

A song I’d always liked but never adored, until I had the briefest of chats with Billy Bragg. He told me that he’d spotted the “two shooting stars” that inspired him to write the song while walking past the Chemistry block at my old school. The same place where twenty years later I’d had my first kiss by the fume cupboard extractor fans. Oh, the youthful taste of sulphur dioxide…

9. Iggy Pop – The Passenger

I’ve written about my love of Berlin before and this always puts me in the mood for trundling over the S-Bahn rails from Warschauer Straße to  Zoo Station with a bottle of Beck’s Green Lemon.

10. Pet Shop Boys – King’s Cross

Way before JK Rowling inadvertently wrote about the wrong London Terminus I found King’s Cross magical. It was the portal into the foreign country of London, a bizarre place full of strange accents and odd people that was well removed from North Yorkshire. The annual trip down with my parents was a big event and there was a real thrill as the emerged out of that long tunnel, past the gas holders and pulled into King’s Cross.

We’d be off to visit some attraction or meet some friends but the station was amazing in itself. The enormous engines that carried us down would be lined up at the buffers, humming under the great canopy. And it was an impossibly busy place with people rushing in every direction, accompanied by the clackety-clack of the old departure board that rattled through every possible station – Leicester, Lincoln, Luton – before finally reaching ‘York’ and revealing our platform.

A few years later I discover King’s Cross was essentially a crap area full of prostitutes, drugs and poverty. Way to go, Neil Tennant.

11. Saint Etienne – Teenage Winter

One of the most underrated pop groups writes a misanthropic monologue full of regret, love and non-League football. Yeah, I’m in for descriptions of real people; of changing habits and dying communities.

Gary can’t believe the Claremont Road pitch is going to be covered in executive housing /He talks about the Newcastle game, Boncho’s debut, / but Tony can hardly hear him.”

It’s from a vaguely concept-album entitled “Tales from Turnpike House”, a name that meant nothing to me until I was wandering around Islington last month and saw said building, a prominent tower block stuck in no-mans land by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Beautifully mundane source material for perfect pop songs.

12. Malcolm Middleton – Ryanair Song

Aka the “One that’s basically about me”. The beautiful and wonderful developments that enables us to fly around the world also screws us up – it allows us to grow attached to things that should be beyond our reach. Because you CAN fall in love with people in different countries, because you CAN pop over to Stockholm to catch up with old friends, because you CAN just about afford an away day to see a gig in Berlin… because you can, I did.

Which condemns you to a life playing hard-ball with Ryanair. I’ve taken around forty flights with them in the previous eighteen months. It’s become a mundane, dopey ritual to head around Europe in search of new thrills. Grab the five pound flight, turn up wearing seven layers of clothes and push on through to the other side.

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One Response to Searching for a meaning: A dozen songs about places I love

  1. Wilson says:

    Where’s ‘England, my country, the home of the free, such miserable weather’? Or ‘Don’t ask me why, don’t ask me why. I went to the circus, Piccadilly Circus. It was very strange. Don’t ask me why ’cause I don’t know why. Never one to roam, I took the first bus home and I haven’t changed’? Or quite possibly every other song from that album?

    No one writes songs about Chapelizod or the Phoenix Park or the Strawberry Beds, only bukes.

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