16. A Song about Cities

‘Downtown’ – Petula Clark

A friend of mine recently told me about a showbizzy party he’d been at. The whole thing sounded hilariously anachronistic, like a scene from Anchorman. One imagined cocktails for the ladies, whisky tumblers for the gentlemen, a deep white carpet, easy listening on the stereo. Mika was there, and Craig Revel Horwood. Best of all tho’, Tony Hatch was there, and at a certain point in the evening, someone asked if he’d sing one of his songs. There being – naturally – a piano at the party (presumably it was white and grand), he sat down and played Downtown.

At this point in the story my mood shifted from amusement to envy. I love Downtown. Born and raised in Pinner in north-west London, Hatch was on a brief visit to New York in the early 60s when the song came to him. Perhaps it’s because Hatch was a tourist – seduced, briefly, by the surface of the city – but its evocation of the city (of Midtown in fact) is so enticing, so positive. Take a line like “Listen to the music of the traffic in the city” – it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine it on the first Velvets’ album, and yet Hatch’s romanticisation of New York is the diametric opposite of Reed’s: pure light in place of the Black Angel’s Death Song. Instead of feedback and tom-toms, Hatch gives us the big, big band treatment. (I love that fact that Jimmy Page played on the session – it may be his rhythm guitar marking the offbeats in the second verse.) Instead of drone notes that last the whole song, Hatch throws in that semitone key shift before the instrumental break, ramping up the song’s already-giddy enthusiasm another notch. Hearing it is like coming across an old tourist brochure. Come to New York! Don’t wait a minute! Things will be great! I’m convinced, and despite Petula Clark’s unashamedly English diction (rubbing up curiously with the song’s Americanisms – its sidewalks and movie shows, even its title), America was too. The song became the first US #1 by a female Brit since Vera Lynn.

As a side note, since the early 60s, Clark had been having considerable success in France, where she recorded French-language material. It was natural then, when Downtown was a hit, that she should release a French version. The translation, however, is decidedly odd – the perfect companion piece, perhaps, to the English versions of Brel’s La Mort. Instead of finding a French term which means roughly the same thing as “downtown”, the French version decides to stick with the same phrase, or rather to stick with the same syllables but recast them as “dans le temps” (pronounced, roughly, donton – the le is almost inaudible). But the meaning then is completely different – roughly “back in the day” – and the rest of the lyrics have to fit around this newly-inserted theme. Hatch’s orchestral score, which in the English version seemed to exude an uncomplicated joy in the city, now becomes the backdrop to a ballad of nostalgia, a tale about a lost love and a town where nothing is the same any more. It’s a shame Nico never covered that. She’d have been marvellous.

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