The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, April 14, 2003

"Downtown" is the sister song, or the reverse side of the song coin, to the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?" As sung by Petula Clark, it's an audibly desperate plea for you (or her?) to reconnect with the world, if not necessarily humanity. There's something slightly forced about the song's gradual build-up from a solitary piano, to mid-register brass, then backing vocals, and then the key change at 1:59 where Tony Fisher's lead trumpet suddenly elevates the song into a gaudy bazaar, slightly too over-emphatic to be euphoric. And Clark - and indeed the song's author, arranger and producer, Tony Hatch - is well aware that going out at night may not necessarily lead to salvation or rebirth. "Everything's waiting for you," she proclaims - but is it, and if it is, are you bold enough to claim it? "When you've got worries, all the noise and the hurry seems to help, I know" - help do what? Obliterate them? Certainly can't extinguish them. And more pointedly, in the second verse: "Don't hang around and let your problems surround you - there are movie shows downtown." So you are being invited to participate in or observe a facade. Note how the music momentarily dips before the chorus, as if to ponder the nature of reality - "How can you lose?" "Happy again." And finally, Clark proposes herself as the solution: "You may find somebody kind to help and understand you/Someone who is just like you and needs a gentle hand to guide them along." The whole song is an invitation to meditate on the real meaning of "society" and whether you are actually going to be any happier or wiser by the end of the night. The option of "you leave on your own, and you go home and you cry and you want to die" isn't denied, explicitly or implicitly. Listen to Fisher's muted trumpet braying which takes the song out - and then consider, seven years later, Dave Holdsworth's cadenza over the increasingly hostile trellises of the opening section of Mike Westbrook's Metropolis, which could be interpreted as a representation of what happens when the neon burns your soul into shards.

"Downtown" was certainly the last chance Clark was prepared to give herself/Tony Hatch - although still immensely popular in the UK, her chart career had dried up somewhat in the early '60s, and had "Downtown" not hit, she had been quite prepared to abandon recording in the English language altogether and concentrate on her far more lucrative career in Europe, specifically in France, where she lived in some splendour.

Although she had already been recording Hatch's songs for a year or so, these had not been at all noteworthy (early efforts like "Darling Cheri" and "Valentino" remain embarrassing listening). However, with "Downtown" the relationship suddenly clicked, and there followed a short but remarkable series of songs in which both Clark and Hatch explored the seeming emptiness of London life. "I Know A Place" imposes some Beat Boom guitars on the "Downtown" template (and follows logically from "Downtown"'s "maybe there are some little places you know that never close") and is chiefly remembered for introducing the phrase "a cellarful of noise" into the pop lexicon. More remarkable, though, is "Strangers And Lovers," a two-part mirror image song which indicates a very ambivalent attitude to London. In the first ballad section, Clark muses on the "strangers" who are "up from the country, down on the money" in a suspended animation of sonics which clearly must have influenced the Etienne of Sound Of Water. Then, after she has sinisterly intoned, "I hope this never happens to you" (shades of "I Can Never Go Home Anymore"?), the music suddenly accelerates into the same song delivered from the opposite perspective; a "Plastic Palace People"-style ironic commentary ("Up on a cloud, going downtown" with the appropriate musical quotation) which culminates in Clark's sneer "Such a happy future!" before the music pauses for breath/thought, and the voice returns to regretful sadness - "They never see the strangers." It is obviously the same couple, once innocent and now corrupted, and the orchestra finally settles on a harmonic question mark. You decide.

Desperation was certainly never far from the Clark/Hatch outlook. In '60s pop there are few performances more harrowing than Clark's near-hysterical delivery of "You'd Better Come Home." Outdoing even Cilla Black's explosion in the final verse of "Love's Just A Broken Heart," this is the obverse of the amused perspective of the SOS Band's "Just Be Good To Me." "Baby come home to me," sobs Clark, before starting to scream (as the orchestra swells up beneath her) "You'd better come home to see the damage you've done...I WON'T SHARE MY LOVE WITH SOMEBODY NEW." Mary Wollstonecraft pleading at Gilbert Imray; an abnegation of the rights of woman. One fully expects to be confronted with a sofa bathed in blood draining from slashed wrists when (if?) one finally comes home. An emotional numbness which Clark and Hatch never really dared risk again. How much easier it was for the public to consume the simple sentimentality of Chaplin's "This Is My Song," Clark's only UK #1 during this period ("Downtown" hit #1 in the US, but here was kept off the top by the Beatles' "I Feel Fine"); a hugely reassuring record which had nothing to do with Tony Hatch or modernism of any kind, a song which could easily have been sung by the teenage Clark of the post-war Huggetts films, by the fireside with the cosy father figure of Jack Warner.

And yet, almost like the log book of a manic depressive, the mood could swing back towards absolute euphoria. Consider "Gotta Tell The World," which absurdly was only ever a B-side, but which represents an unambiguous YES to the world and to life. "Rrrrrr-ring every bell in every steeple now!" commands Clark as the orchestra sings its hallelujah behind her before reaching a crescendo as she sings "I fell in love today" (note the timpani/bass trombone parallels in the arrangement). Like Coltrane's Ascension, the record starts at a peak of intensity where most other records end, and just keeps climbing higher and higher until Clark finally hollers "and form the top of the mountains I'll shout!"

Of course you can always fall off the top of the mountain if you're not careful.

After this, Jackie Trent came into Hatch's life, both personally (they married) and professionally (she more or less became Hatch's lyricist). Their opening foray, the equally euphoric "I Couldn't Live Without Your Love," introduces a recurring musical motif - the staccato "God Only Knows" rhythm which recurs in many of their songs, up to and including what must be their most profitable song, the theme from Neighbours - and it's a kick to hear Clark deciding not to rhyme "understanding" with "demanding" (the very English "a" of the latter). Thereafter, however, something of a rut sets in. Hatch clearly by now fancied himself as a British Bacharach, and coupled with Trent's rather ungainly and slightly pretentious lyrics, they set down the road of art songs. Even straightforward hits like "Colour My World" and "Have Another Dream On Me" are spoiled by their entirely superficial imposition of "psychedelic" effects - the fuzz guitar on the former, the tabla and sitar on the latter, both sounding tacked on. Moreover, there began to appear in the songs sententious, conservative homilies. The potentially interesting "Who Am I?," which if left to Hatch alone would have made a very punctumised sequel to "Downtown" ("I'm chasing rainbows in the rain/All the dreams that I believe in let me down"), cops out with an amused nod and an acknowledgement that Love Is All That Matters (Trent's lyric portentously concludes, "To question such good fortune, who am I?"). Worse is "The Other Man's Grass (Is Always Greener)," an objectionable lecture instructing the listener to know their place in the world and keep it ("Don't look around" yells Clark as the orchestra seems almost to hijack the song into an infinitely more tortured lament). The only thing worth salvaging from this era is the genuinely strange "Don't Sleep In The Subway," with its chorus which seems to have been parachuted in from the Smile sessions, and Clark's confirmation of her sometimes exasperated but, in the end, undying love for the Victor Meldrewesque Other (again old motifs recur: "You wander around on your own little cloud...It hurts when your ego is deflated"). Otherwise there were plenty of turgid ballads which aspired towards the authentic detached despair of Scott Walker's work of the time, but finally question nothing ("Conversations In The Wind," "Cranes Flying South"). The attempted sultriness of "Beautiful In The Rain" is nearer Minnie Mouse than Dinah Washington. "Look At Mine" is a clumsy attempt at C&W. "There Goes My Love, There Goes My Life," "Las Vegas" and the failed theme from "Goodbye Mr Chips" are sufficiently hammy and overegged to suggest frustrated would-be writers of musicals.

Eventually Clark left Pye - and pretty much the charts - for opulent semi-retirement in France and the occasional musical (including a spell in Sunset Boulevard) and Hatch and Trent more or less drifted for awhile. In the '70s Hatch became better known as a proto-Simon Cowell hate figure on the judging panel of the TV talent show New Faces ("You're BLOODY USELESS!") before, pissed off with Labour's high taxation, he and Trent pissed off to Australia, composed the theme for Neighbours and continue to live very comfortably indeed. But listen again to Clark's 1965 rendition of Hatch's "Call Me." Although Chris Montez's version was the big hit, Clark, more than almost any other British female singer of the '60s, seems to exude a natural, unforced compassion in her performance. She had, after all, lived through the war.

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