“This is where England most truly excels: in all the characterful shabbiness of its drizzled parks, soiled launderettes, frayed tailors, abject chemists, sparse barbers, bare foyers, dun pubs, weary Legion halls… and cowed solitary cafes.”
One of my favourite Simon & Garfunkel songs is “America” especially the part where it builds up to a crescendo and they sing “Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they’ve all come to look for America” which just sounds incredibly romantic and makes you want to jump into an open-top Chevy and drive off into the sunset looking for your dreams. The thing is, I’ve driven on the New Jersey Turnpike and it’s just a pot-holed, congested stretch of motorway the same as any other, the only thing I saw people looking for on it was the right exit. But even knowing that the line still sounds wonderful and makes my heart sigh.
But if the song was set in England and they sang “counting the cars on the North Circular” instead it just wouldn’t have the same effect, would it? Whatever the truth is, Americans romanticize their reality in a way that we don’t. When you think about Route 66 it isn’t just some road that goes to California, it’s a life-changing journey of freedom and discovery. But when Billy Bragg uses the same tune to take the “A13 Trunk Road To The Sea” the English locations just sound dismal and pathetic in comparison — which I guess is the point of the song, but it’s still sad that it is funny. Has anyone ever had the urge to quit their job, hit the road, and go chase their dreams in Shoeburyness? The one English “road” song I know that tries for that classic American sense of freedom is the lovely “Driving Away From Home” by It’s Immaterial which almost manages to make English motorways sound romantic, but even they can’t resist being terribly British at the end and burst their own rose-tinted bubble by singing “I mean, after all, it’s just a road.”
The truth is, we (Brits, that is) don’t look at life and see endless bright horizons and dream big dreams, we’re a gloomy, glass-half-empty kind of people and who find idealistic American positivity a little embarrassing and phony. Americans, bless their hearts, do still say things like “you can be anything you want to be” and believe it (despite evidence to the contrary) because they’re happily unburdened by history while we’ve had way too much of it and frankly can’t work up the enthusiasm for anything anymore as a result. We built an empire and won a bunch of wars and now we just want to put our feet up and enjoy England’s plucky failures.
Our pop laureates prefer to pick at the scabs of England than construct some romantic fantasy, looking at the dirt under the carpet and the gloom behind the net curtains, singing about miserable people living on dead end streets waiting in the rain for a bus that never comes. So while Bruce Springsteen makes the seaside resort of Asbury Park seem like some mythological eden of golden boulevards teeming with a rich tapestry of life, the English equivalent (Southend maybe?) only makes you think of grey, rainy Bank Holidays and Morrissey’s coastal town they forgot to close down. The kids in Brucie’s Little Eden might be working class good-for-nothings but he still makes them sound movie-star glamourous compared to the feral adolescents in a song like Pulp’s “Joyriders” — if Springsteen wrote that he’d give them romantic nicknames and treat nicking cars as some metaphor for glorious youthful rebellion. In Jarvis Cocker’s hands they’re just petty nihilistic criminals “so thick we can’t think of anything but shit, sleep and drink.”
Download: 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy) – Bruce Springsteen (mp3)
Download: Joyriders – Pulp (mp3)
These days the stubborn refusal to “have a nice day” feels like a defiant poke in the eye of today’s noisy, amped-up consumer culture (created by America, of course) which bangs you over the head with its global franchises, useless gadgets, trashy television, and blinged-up celebrities. In the face of that, being miserable old bastards may be the last thing we have to hold on to that’s truly ours.
Download: We’ll Let You Know – Morrissey (mp3)