Sunday, November 04, 2007

HARVEY ANDREWS: Twelve Songs


Some time ago, I wrote a profile reviewing the forty year career of Birmingham-born songwriter and performer Harvey Andrews. Constraints of space meant I confined myself to biography and wasn’t able to focus much upon my take on Harvey’s life and beliefs, as reflected in his songs.

With some trepidation, as a fan with no musical background, this is my attempt to explore twelve songs selected as representative of the artist and the man and that I still enjoy listening to in 2007.

Once I had decided to do this, I revisited his albums to decide what criteria to apply to single out just twelve songs. I put the songs into broad categories to establish what he wrote about most and to work from there.

The exercise cast an interesting light on Harvey’s output thus far and helped me decide which songs most fully reflected where he came from and his values.

I didn’t quite go so far as producing a pie chart or even a Venn diagram (remember those from school?) but most of the songs fitted into particular categories. The largest groupings related to social or political issues, emotions, exploration of the past and examination of a performer's life. Subsets included personal dramas, romance, humour and the family.

This exercise led me to appreciate which subjects interested me most by seeing under which heading my favourites fell. Hardly any of my all–time favourites were full-on politics or humour. Virtually all were gentler and more personal; they evoked the past, family or life as an artist.

The first three songs come from Harvey’s debut solo album Writer of Songs which was recorded in 1972.

In some ways it is more interesting to consider why some obvious popular songs from the repertoire were not included in my list. Many would expect well-known and successful compositions such as Hey Sandy and particularly Soldier to be included.

For me however, it’s just matter of personal taste. I admire both songs as skilful examples of the writer’s craft and appreciate the drama each entails. They both tell their story and make a valuable point with integrity but they are quite intense. Sometimes less is more – particularly if you’re devising a small selection of discs to be listened to repeatedly on your metaphorical desert island.

This takes me to my first choice, Boothferry Bridge. Harvey admits that this song was founded on the idea that English place-names don’t have the resonance of those in America –which is why no-one sings of leaving their heart in Catford or being 24 hours from Penge.

Boothferry Bridge has a kind of lilting California coolness about it. It’s a wistful road song. It may be entirely tongue in cheek and its title may make conscious use of assonance, but it does its job perfectly in conveying the feelings of the person on the road whether gigging musician or ball-bearing salesman.

Beautifully arranged and produced, it has brilliant tinkling sub-honky tonk piano accompaniment by Rick Wakeman that embroiders the vocal and a consummately tasteful bass line. It’s a soothing and relaxing song of which I never tire.

Another favourite is Gift of a Brand New Day which Harvey sings to an intricate guitar accompaniment by Ralph McTell. This song encapsulates the joy of a young couple bringing home their first baby. It is song of pure optimism and unfettered hope for the future

The driving, positive melody pushes the song forward without pause right up to its simple, confident final bar. The song is life-affirming and can always be relied on to provide a lift on a bad day.

The 1989 album 25..Years on the Road begins with this song updated for empty nesters who now have time to be on our own now that the kids have grown. So, it’s all good.

The album concludes with its title track, Writer of Songs. I love this song as an unselfconscious hymn to aspiration. Few artists have been prepared to lay out so clearly what first excited them and attracted them to their work.

Nowadays, many youngsters yearn only for wealth and celebrity. Harvey’s aspirational daydreams appeal to me because his role models were writers, artists and great creative men – Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright and Brunel.

I take pleasure in the admission of being stimulated by examples of brilliance and being inspired to excel too. In these anti-competitive days, some educators have made pursuit of excellence anathema. This song reminds one that the young and gifted can and should aim to fly high. After considering a range of heroes, he concluded with his modest and very English decision just to be a Writer of Songs

And I’ll just hope that someday someone will rate them
And maybe someday investigate them – seriously

- which is basically what this piece is trying to do.

Writer of Songs was followed in 1973 by the well-received, Friends of Mine. This classic album was very much of its time and seems to reflect the new freedoms that marked the new decade. Poignant songs such as The Mallard look back to the isolation of a sensitive only child or have a melancholy introspection, such as Autumn Song. Others such as Sweet Little Fat Girl and the title track capture the heady sense of personal freedom and unbridled opportunities of an exciting time in Harvey’s career.

For me however the stand-out track on this milestone album is For my Father, another autobiographical song. It has a fine vocal and guitar accompaniment with a delicate arrangement of strings and woodwind rather after the manner of Eleanor Rigby.

It’s a track I returned to particularly after reading Harvey’s Gold Star to the Ozarks with its depiction of cycling down quiet Shropshire lanes, farm holidays and shared hours in the countryside.

The narrative covers teenage disaffection and the rapprochement of maturity when father and son spent more time together, came to talk and rarely disagreed.

The song has a balance and reflective quality that makes it a true record of changing relationships and the comforting way these things can run full circle.

For those who have attained that accepting understanding in their closest relationships, it is a reassuring song; for the dysfunctional who have not, it gives an insight as to what might have been

My collection includes the CD Someday Fantasy which combines Fantasies from a Corner Seat made with Graham Cooper and Harvey’s next solo album, Someday. I’m particularly fond of it since it is autographed and inscribed To the Tony Hancock Society. Hancock was the subject of the excellent Mr Homburg Hat. The albums were made for Transatlantic Records in 1975 and 1976 and have recently been re-released under the title I’m Resigning from Today.

The album marks further development in Harvey’s song-writing during a time when he admits “I wanted to write songs about life as it was lived now” and wanted songs that were “short stories about our lives”.

From this fertile period several songs have stood my test of time. They include He played for England a meditation on former glories inspired by the hard times experienced by former England centre forward Tommy Lawton after the cheering had stopped.

The vocal line is accompanied by a hypnotic piano and bass which build dramatic impact and atmosphere. The lyric is sparse and evocative – such as, we saw him on the news-reel, he was talking to the King. It immediately summons up grainy black and white film of a foggy Wembley, baggy white shorts and thousands of supporters in gabardine raincoats and flat caps cheering, smoking Woodbines and waving rattles.

Lines such as He played for England once leave one wondering whether this was on one occasion or many times, long ago. This song is like a good play or painting; it creates a picture, tells a story and stimulates thoughts and emotion. It’s a very good song.

Another favourite from this period is Song for Phil Ochs.

One can review Harvey’s career and work out his obvious influences including Buddy Holly, Harry Chapin and Tom Paxton.

From the early 1960s, folk music tended to involve an earnest interest not only in the roots of English and American song but also radical politics such as the civil rights movement in America and other liberal causes. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez sang after Martin Luther King spoke in Washington and were seen as continuing the tradition of Woodie Guthrie.

One of the leading figures in the field, Phil Ochs appealed particularly to Harvey both for his music and idealistic views. Harvey came to know Phil and put him up for a few days in the mid-1960’s and Song for Phil Ochs laments the passing of both a hero and friend.

The tone, pace and gentle guitar accompaniment remind one of Don Maclean’s homage to Van Gogh, Vincent released in 1971. The song is a simply constructed, sincere expression of grief for the loss of someone who’s talent and values he shared.

For Harvey’s generation, Phil Ochs’ decline and death may also have represented the loss of youthful idealism and the realisation of a necessarily greyer mid-life ahead: the saddest song I’ll ever sing.

One of Harvey’s particular strengths is the ability to recapture the past and sum up our feelings about the effect of time passing. The ultimate song in this sepia-tinted vein is Margarita: to Harvey what Maginot Waltz is to Ralph McTell.

It tells the true story of Harvey’s blind great aunt who used to serve him tea in her perfectly preserved Edwardian house and show him the framed photograph of her fiancé. Nobody ever told her the sad truth that the image had faded and disappeared. The song is not shallow sentimentality; it is a bittersweet evocation of real loss – loss of sight, of a loved one and of the life they might have had together.

Harvey casts further light on his boyhood with Dear Miss Allyson, which I always think of as his original version of Judy Garland’s Dear Mr Gable (..you made me love you).

The song takes the form of a fan letter to June Allyson who he found (and still finds) magical in The Glenn Miller Story. The formal and ingratiating language has all the innocent charm of a child of 1943 - so different from today

The forties-style piano accompaniment and opening and closing reprises from Moonlight Serenade are atmospheric. One is taken back - exactly as Harvey intended.

Harvey uses the same device –I guess it’s now called sampling – on Blue Moon Memories from the 1995 Snaps: The Family Album.

The song begins with the theme of Blue Moon. Accompanied by a lilting piano and gentle dance-band snare drum, Harvey first sings of teenage lovers by the canal with his father singing their song gently in his mother’s ear.

Later in the factory, as sirens sound, his mother hears her name on the wireless in a dedication from her husband fighting abroad and her hips gently sway to Blue Moon. As a piece of writing that line is perfect; it recaptures the rapturous moment when music captivates a person and lifts her out of a grim present to a better place and time.

Their song has been with them through all the key moments of their lives and sums up their love. At the end, after father has died, mother pauses, closes her eyes and remembers her boy singing that song to her and.. Now I’m no longer alone.

Some of the most meaningful art recognises and describes the virtually un-describable moment or feelings that real life involves. This song does just that.

I admire Snaps. It concerns the people and places now passed – childhood, Saturday morning buses into Town, funny uncles at parties, war, peace, but mainly family through happy times and sad.

The song Birthday Boy evokes the world of Saturday morning pictures through a child’s eyes. It’s not one of Harvey’s songs telling a story or making a political or social message, but is a gem.

The insistent guitar accompaniment has the feel of a children’s song or round. The vocal has a wide-eyed quality of wonderment at a world focussed on cheering for Roy Rogers on the screen, choosing sweets and swapping football cards. The breathless enthusiasm of birthday parties and reading with a torch under the sheets speak accurately of more innocent and nicer times - before rap and drive-by shootings.

He admits growing up isn’t easy but has a presentiment of a normal future of falling in love and marrying and going on to a life of domestic bliss with a roast on Sundays. The vision of the future may or may not be realistic, but is founded on a truthful insight into a happy, uncomplicated time in childhood that few songs achieve.

My penultimate choice She Saw him Smile rather surprised me. It’s an understated song. Unlike Birthday Boy, it reflects on the passage of time from later in life rather than its beginning and portrays the last months of his parent’s happy marriage. The loyal wife spends time caring for her husband, who no-longer really knows who she is, save for the odd fleeting smile of recognition, before sadly leaving him and returning home.

It’s an understated song that has a Continental feel of Charles Aznavour or Jacques Brel. It speaks of remembrance of the past and the cruel effect of time that has done its worst. The devoted wife hums their song and they remember happier times as newly-weds. When she leaves, the contrast of yesterday’s happiness with the loneliness of old age is poignant.

Again, the restrained dignity of the lyric makes the song ache with melancholy. Harvey has seen right into the heart of the painful trials that life brings in the ordinary course and crystallised them in a wonderful song.

My final selection is The Journey, the title track that brings Harvey’s 1997 album to a close.

When I first obtained the CD, I focused on the opening track Manet and Monet which immortalises the minutes of the Yardley Arts Club outing to Ludlow in 1949.

Harvey’s cover notes sum up the appeal of this unique, quirky and touching recreation of a special day for a group of innocent dedicated self-educated working class men and women – including his father Victor Andrews -who believed in the power of education and art and used their miserly leisure time to the full.

As with songs such as I’d Rather Read a Book, this track is a significant indicator of what seems to make Harvey tick. With a light touch, it points towards some of the things that matter in life - self improvement, creativity, fellowship, but always being an individual and marching to your own drummer. I’m only able to exclude Manet and Monet from my final list of twelve tracks because I see it as an evocation rather than a song.

When I recently returned to the album, I listened more attentively and realised that the title track was also very special in summing up a view of life that possibly only fully dawns on one at the age of 54.

Over restated piano chords with a tasteful double bass line and with a hypnotic repeated Morse code-like theme on keyboard, the mantra: It’s the journey is repeated - followed each time by the tentative, rhetorical isn’t it: the uneasy question of a small man in a large universe.

This journey is initially presented almost prosaically as where we go in the time we’ve got: the joy we make, the dream we chase, the hope we hold, the chance we take. It’s what we say, do and try to win or lose because that’s what you do on the journey.

It’s at this point that the piece turns into a song about love, support and reassurance: so when you came to me to walk along, you made the stone a garden, made the sea a song for the journey. Touchingly he continues: So here’s my hand...all else above for good or ill for now until…there’s only love. He concludes, love’s the journey.

The Journey addresses big themes. It manages to be a love song and to suggest a meaning for life: not a bad achievement.

So there you have my selection of twelve key Harvey Andrews’ songs. The choice is entirely personal and subjective. I wanted to identify tracks that had stood the test of time for me and would continue to bear repeated listening.

In working out my preferences, I could see I most enjoy strong melodies and well-crafted lyrics that show respect for language and sensitivity and insight on their subject matter.

I still enjoy Harvey’s many songs that tell dramatic stories like Soldier and Lot 204 or use humour to target the bad guys - estate agents, fly-tippers or centre-lane drivers.

Similarly, I admire and agree with his issue-based songs such as Spring Again and PG. Harvey has addressed a long list of ills in songs too numerous to list here; they range from modern planners to Thatcherism to mistreatment of the elderly. I haven’t selected them because of the self-imposed artificial constraint of nominating just twelve songs that meant most to me personally.

Looking at my list they seem mainly to relate to integrity and worthwhile values and an examination of the past from many angles – family, growing up, love, aspiration and the life of an artist through an artist’s eyes.

In my last selection he manages to sum up the only plausible answer to it all with the phrase Love’s the journey – and quite a journey it’s been.

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