Monday 15 October 2012

AAA Songs About Carlisle (News, Views and Music Top Five Issue 166)

Everyone has a spiritual home, even if they don’t actually live there. Mine is in a windy, rainy city where the weather is always awful but the people (usually aren’t), a city that’s been both English and Scottish during its troubled history and is near enough to both Wales and Ireland to have several people from all places mingling about it, giving it a Cosmopolitan feel where accents collide. Older than any other city (except possibly London), with more history in a 10 mile radius than whole counties, Carlisle remains the place where my heart lies, despite the atrocious weather, even if I don’t get to travel there as often as I’d like (if there’s one thing chronic fatigue doesn’t like its travel). Despite spending most of my life in the Midlands it’s the North that’s my home and always will be, wherever I actually live. If I can’t get there, then at least I can do the next best thing and listen to it – or at least these five AAA interpretations of it (with one slight twist because we were getting desperate). (How many of your hometowns have been mentioned in AAA songs? Drop us a line!):

The Monkees “Carlisle Wheeling” (recorded 1968, unreleased until ‘Missing Links One’ 1987)

No one is quite sure why this song is called – in its original title – ‘Carlisle Wheeling Effervescent Popsicle’ including the author himself. Mike Nesmith is renowned in Monkees circles for never including the title of his songs in the actual lyrics and this one is more impenetrable than most. A moody ballad about the narrator suddenly realising he’s been in love so long he’s forgotten to tell his lover that he really does treasure here, the original unreleased band version is a quick jaunt and the finished Nesmith solo version (released under the title ‘Conversations’ on second album ‘Loose Salute’) is a slow melodrama. Like virtually every place name that originated in England, there is an American equivalent of Carlisle (in Pennsylvania) which is probably where the wool-hatted Texan got the name from. Sweet song though, which would have made a fine addition to the Monkees’ seventh LP ‘Instant Replay’ (for which it was recorded). Relevance: I’ve never been to the American Carlisle, so for all I know this type of wordy philosophising goes on all the time; as for the Uk version its only true of wordy English lectures!

Pentangle “Lady Of Carlisle” (‘Solomon’s Seal’ 1972)

As revealed above, this is Pentangle’s updated version of one of England’s oldest folk songs (dating from a time when, unusually, Carlisle was part of England – for much of its history it’s been Scottish). A noble lady of the land throws down the challenge that if anyone wishes to claim her hand in marriage they will have to get it back. Unfortunately for the two would-be suitors who come forward the mysterious unseen woman has thrown her glove into a den of lions and, unsurprisingly, neither are that quick to claim it back. The song dates back at least as far as the 13th century, but seems to have been an ‘old’ song even then (just possibly not one that was ever written down before) and the real writers are lost in time. What we do know is that there never were any lions in Carlisle (wolves yes, lions no) so there’s more than a bit of imagination going on here! Later on this list the Grateful Dead will do their own twist on the song...Relevancy: In terms of being set impossible tasks and then getting told off for not doing them, this folk song is spot-on! I never did get to see any lions though (mongooses yes, lions no...)

Paul McCartney and Wings “Helen Wheels” (Single 1973, plus US copies of ‘Band On The Run’)

McCartney’s great ‘driving song’ is named after the nickname he gave to his landrover (‘Hell On Wheels..’, get it?!) and probably the closest he could get to what he really wanted to sing and still make it past the 1973 censors. Its a song that namechecks lots of towns and cities in the UK and was written to give Macca’s homeland their own ‘Route 66’, though it has to be said places like ‘Birmingham, Midlands’ don’t have the same magical ring as ‘Birmingham, Alabama’. The song may well have been started as early as Wing’s 1972 tour when they really did drive aimlessly up and down motorways, stopping off at places that sounded exotic and asking local universities and colleges if they could play (‘Ashby-De-La-Zouche’ is a town that Macca remembers fondly in ‘Wingspan’, with the band debating what this exotic land would be like – and being appalled at how dirty and grey it was when they got there). Carlisle is one of those places mentioned in the second verse (‘Carlisle city never looked so pretty...and the ghetto freeway’s fast’). Relevancy: The first half’s accurate (especially if you see the city at night from my favourite walking post up a giant hill in the middle of the country overlooking the busy town centre), but the second half isn’t (as all the frustrated lorry drivers beeping outside my halls of residence will attest). Perhaps it’s changed since Wings’ day.

Grateful Dead “Terrapin Station” (‘Terrapin Station’ 1977)

A 22 minute epic based on the folk song ‘Lady Of Carlisle’, but re-written by lyricist Bob Hunter to take on a more symbolic, whimsical quality. As far as I know neither Hunter nor music-writer Jerry Garcia ever played at the English Carlisle, which might well be why they created such a mystical, intriguing land full of hidden dangers and life tasks to be fulfilled. I never saw maidens as lovely as the one in the song, either, although quite a few of them acted like the Royals in this story (perhaps the pair were thinking of the Carlisle in Pennsylvania again?!) The result is the last truly great Grateful Dead song, sucking you in from Bob’s invocation to the muse to let his inspiration flow, to the enjoyable percussion interlude ‘at a siding’. The differences are that there aren’t two soldier suitors but one sailor, the events all happened long ago as a memory The ‘Terrapin’, by the way, isn’t a real station (although Carlisle railway station was one of the first ever built, it’s never had a name except ‘Carlisle’) but a reference to the old folklore that the Earth is balanced precariously on the back of a terrapin (Terry Pratchett didn’t get the idea out of thin air, you know!)The only problem is the album’s peculiar production, which insists on plastering the band with a choir and strings. Relevancy: ‘Sullen wings of fortune beat like rain’ – I take it back, somehow Hunter and Garcia must have travelled to ‘our’ Carlisle because this sentence is perfect – as are the idea of an unrelenting quest taking its pursuers ‘to hell’ without reward. I can’t figure out if it’s the end or beginning either.

Mark Knopfler “Border Reiver” (‘Get Lucky’ 2009)

There isn’t an actual mention of Carlisle in this song from Mark’s last-but-one album, but that’s who he’s singing about – the border reivers were a group of bandits who lived on both sides of the borders between England and Scotland and lived off what they could find (the word ‘reiver’ means ‘to rob’). Frankly, though, I think these outlaws get a bad press: after all, with their main city changing hands every five minutes I’d have trouble knowing which Royal (English or Scots) to pledge my allegiance to and would be less than thrilled at the draconian laws handed down to the peasants of the day which were supposed to take precedence over clan loyalty (think of Braveheart – but the real story, not the godawful Mel Gibson film where most of the facts are wrong). Knopfler’s dark tale is basically a re-write of Dire Straits’ own ‘Romeo and Juliet’, with a Scots lad in love with a girl across the borders in ‘Albion’ (ie England), a thief ‘stealing time’ because all he wants is to survive a while longer. The reference to ‘1969’ is interesting, especially in the context of what must be Mark’s most nostalgic album (full of references to his teenage years that decade) – are we all struggling to survive, taking what we need to get by even now? Relevancy: ‘The ministry don’t worry me, my paperwork’s alright’ and ‘She’s not too cold in Winter but she cooks me in the heat’ – this is clearly a work of
fiction, although as a Newcastle lad Mark is probably the only person on this list who did know the borderlands before writing his song (he’s played Carlisle’s Sands Centre arts theatre a few times too!)

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