During the coronavirus restrictions, a friend sent me an email with the heading No Particular Place To Go, a light-hearted song reference to life under lockdown. In reply, my header was another song reference, Every Day Is Like Sunday, Morrissey’s 1988 record.
For those of us of a particular age, lockdown has perhaps reminded us of how life used to be on Sundays – everything closed and nothing much to do. For Morrissey, everything is “silent and grey”.
Which got me thinking about my cultural influences growing up – and in particular, the interweaving of pop music, television comedies and “kitchen sink” films and books of the 1960s and ’70s.
There are so many reflections on the boredom and loneliness of a provincial life in the writing of pop songs. I particularly like the Everything But The Girl couplet:
“Every day’s like Christmas day without you
It’s cold and there’s nothing to do”
This mirrors a strong thread in youth culture generally, with teenagers yearning for the excitement and bright lights of the big city, the opposite of the dull, small-town lives that are “silent and grey”. There’s an idea that somewhere, interesting stuff is going on and there will be like-minded people.
In her autobiography, EBTG’s Tracey Thorn talks about growing up in the Hertfordshire village of Brookmans Park which “represented for me everything that was suffocating and inhibiting about small-town life . . . it turned its back resolutely on all that [London] seemed to offer or threaten, depending on your point of view”.
The video for Every Day Is Like Sunday was shot in Southend and mines another rich seam for nostalgics – the English seaside holiday. In the video, a young woman wanders the empty streets and deserted promenades, taking in views of seaside rides and people playing one-armed bandits. She longs for something more – and queues for her Morrissey album.
For the bored teenager, feeling alienated and disenfranchised, there is a voice they recognise and that recognises them – that of the writer of great pop songs.
There’s a fonder view of seaside holidays in Squeeze’s Pulling Mussels (From The Shell), inspired by a weekend caravan holiday in Margate that Chris Difford was taken on when he was 12.
The line, “Two fat ladies window shop something for the mantlepiece” is a vivid distillation of so many things about a holiday of those times, where bringing home mementos for friends and family was an essential part of the holiday, as obligatory as the sending of postcards (something else that has now been almost consigned to history).
The “two fat ladies” reminds us of seaside bingo on the pier. The sound of rain on the roof of a holiday caravan as the hours were whiled away with (bored) board games will be a Proustian memory for a lot of us.
Although Squeeze’s song-writing was often compared to the Beatles, I think Difford’s lyrics owe as much to episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour and television plays as they do Lennon and McCartney.
Another clue can be found on the cover of his solo album, The Last Temptation of Chris, where, dressed in the Homberg hat and astrachan coat that were Hancock trademarks, Difford gives us all the hang-dog stare.
Galton and Simpson’s writing for Tony Hancock showed that it wasn’t only teenagers who were bored rigid by the staid and repetitive routines of life – adults felt trapped and ground down by it too. The episode, Sunday Afternoon At Home, broadcast in the late 1950s, describes the tedium thus: “Stone me! What a life! Every Sunday’s the same. Nothing to do, nowhere to go.”
There’s a more raw telling of the tedium and frustration of a 1960s Sunday indoors in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Whereas Tony Hancock is merely cheesed off and frustrated by a boring Sunday indoors reading the newspapers, Osborne’s Jimmy Porter is downright angry and spiteful.
Writing about the lyrics for the Squeeze song Up The Junction, Difford said, “I was brought up on Wednesday night plays on the BBC. I loved those short stories, with lives condensed into half an hour. I was intrigued to see if I could tell a similar story in three minutes.”
Up The Junction borrows its title from a collection of short stories by Nell Dunn written in 1963 and adapted for television in 1965 by Ken Loach. Difford’s writing partner, Glenn Tilbrook, refers to Up The Junction as “the first instance of reviewers using the dreaded phrase ‘kitchen sink drama’ to describe our songs”.
“Kitchen sink dramas” or “kitchen sink realism”, showing the lives of ordinary working class people, warts and all, has been a common influence for the writers of pop songs. Morrissey has said, “I’ve never made any secret of the fact that at least 50 per cent of my reason for writing can be blamed on Shelagh Delaney,” referring to the writer of A Taste of Honey.
Many of the protagonists were unhappy and angry with their lot and railed against a system that was stacked against them. Other writers used similar themes – boredom, poverty, yearning for something better, domestic violence, adultery – to distil half-hour plays into three-minute songs. I love The Beatles’ She’s Leaving Home and Billy Bragg’s Levi Stubbs’ Tears.
Many of these dramas first appeared in the theatre. If my upbringing was typical, visits to the theatre did not feature very much in the lives of working-class people in those days. Instead, we saw a lot of similar issues played out through television comedies and dramas like Play for Today and Armchair Theatre. Galton and Simpson also wrote the sublime Steptoe and Son, Johnny Speight wrote Til Death Us Do Part and Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais wrote The Likely Lads.
All of these were standard fare for us – written about working-class life and not only making us laugh, but to sneak in points about class, bigotry and racism. Harold Steptoe is as frustrated by his position in life as any of the characters in a kitchen sink drama, but the light-touch of comedy, contrasted with the pathos of his plight, made the points just as well.
I think we’ll all be more or less glad to see the back of lockdown. For those of us in the suburbs, life may have become a bit more “villagey”, walking to local shops and local open spaces, getting to know our neighbours a bit more, pottering about in the garden and enjoying having time on our hands for hobbies and pastimes.
For others, it has been horrible.
Many older and vulnerable people have had to forfeit the vital human contact that allowed them to thrive and survive, others have struggled with financial hardship or even faced fear and violence. And, of course, others have lost loved ones to the virus.
I’m sure songs and plays will be written about lockdown. It will be illuminating to see how many of them will be lighthearted reflections on the tedium, as per Tony Hancock, and how many will have a grimmer tale to tell.
- Richard Pacitti spent all his working life in the voluntary sector, including 30 years at Mind in Croydon, where he was chief executive until he retired in April 2020. He also has remarkably good taste in music…
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