How potent cheap music can be

Over the last five or six years I’ve become obsessed with post-war British history. It started as part of an on-going project on the history of British science fiction in which I wanted to look at the literature in relation to the social, cultural, political and scientific milieu from which it arose. But that project is in abeyance at the moment, there are too many other things in the way. But the interest in the social and cultural history has not abated. I’ve always got a book on the subject to hand, by Sandbrook or Marr, Hennessy or Beckett. Maybe it’s a factor of my age, this is mostly the world I’ve lived through; maybe it’s nostalgia: gosh I remember that.

modernity britainCurrently I’m reading the first volume of David Kynaston’s Modernity Britain, which covers the years 1957-59. Kynaston is wonderful if you want to get a flavour of what books people were reading, what television programmes they watched, what wireless broadcasts they listened to, and what they actually thought about all of this. But I only turned five in the September of 1957: how much of this am I likely to remember?

Then, in the middle of a chapter about the first sputnik, he recounts a rhyme that schoolchildren would chant: “Catch a falling sputnik / Put it in a matchbox / Send it to the USA”. It’s a parody of Perry Como’s “Catch a falling star”; and suddenly I recalled the whole song:

Catch a falling star and / put it in your pocket / never let it get away / catch a falling star and / put it in your pocket / save it for a rainy day. / For love may come and tap you on the shoulder / some starless night / and just in case you feel you want to hold her / you’ve got a pocket full of starlight.

Repeat ad nauseam. Jesus, that’s bad. Jesus, it’s invidious! Before the Beatles came along, popular songs didn’t really have a sell-by date on British radio, they wouldn’t be dropped from the play list to make way for the next hit. Perry Como’s song was ubiquitous on the Light Programme; for maybe four or five years, from the late-50s into the 60s, I doubt there wasn’t a week went by when it wasn’t played at least once. I don’t think I’ve heard it since, probably, 1963, yet there it is, complete in my mind. I didn’t check those lyrics, that’s exactly as I remember them. And it’s not just the lyrics, I recall the tune, the rhythm, Como’s intonations. It’s like I’m hearing the original recording over and over in my head, still fresh after, what, fifty years?

When I was little I suspect I loved the song, I loved all songs, anything I could sing along to. By the time I was getting on for ten I’m pretty sure I was sick and tired of it. There was new music coming along that was more jagged, music that wasn’t designed to be as smooth and soporific as everything Como did. I suspect, however, that I did not realise just how banal the song was until I typed out the lyrics just now. It really is designed to sweep across you and leave not a trace behind.

And yet, I repeat, it is lodged in my mind, immovable, inescapable. It is not even as if it is associated with a particular time or place.

There was another song that came out, I think, a couple of years later, that is similarly lodged in my mind: “Things” by, was it Bobby Darin? I’d need to check that, I remember the song but not the singer. “Things, like a walk in the park / Things, like a kiss in the dark / Things, like a sailboat ride / How about the night we cried? / Things, like a lover’s vow / Things that we don’t do now / Thinking about the things we used to do”. Again, that is from memory; but I suspect I heard that song more intensely but over a shorter period of time than the Como, and it is longer ago since I last heard it. Because this song is unavoidably linked in my memory with a specific time and place.

When I was about ten, so let’s say the summer of 1962, we went to Hastings for a holiday. We were in a bed and breakfast place high on one of the steep hills overlooking the town. (This was not far from where Chris Priest and Leigh Kennedy would move, many years later, but though we visited them many times I never quite identified where that b&b was.) Every day during that fortnight holiday we would end up at an Italian café on the seafront called Eorio di Maggio (the last I saw, the building was still there but the café was, of course, long gone; and I have, of course, no notion of the correct spelling of the name, I just recall the mellifluousness of it). The café had a jukebox, possibly the first I ever saw, and every day it would play “Things”. I’m pretty sure that at that point my parents were no more capable of operating a jukebox than I was, so I suspect that the song was a favourite of the café’s owners. Whatever, it became, inevitably, the theme song of that holiday. We didn’t go back to Hastings in subsequent years, and I probably didn’t hear the song again after that fortnight, but it is still the song of that holiday. But that is what Noel Coward’s “potency of cheap music” is all about: it brings back a time and place.

But the Como song has none of those resonances. It emerged out of the monochrome fog of my early childhood and brings with it no pictures, nothing solid. But I can’t get rid of the song.

And I thought maybe I should just share the pain.

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