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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13 Comments:

Blogger Sell By Dave said...

Hi Deryck, thanks for the piece on Harvey's songs - it makes fascinating reading. I have to admit that I'd almost forgotten about Harvey. My parents took my brother and I to see him at a folk club just outside Sheffield many years ago, and I loved what I heard. I've since listened to many of his albums and share your love of his songwriting. It's a testament to his skill as a writer that I could probably nominate 12 songs and many would be different to yours. I really should dust down those albums - I've not listened to them for such a long time.

Keep up the good work!

3:58 PM  
Anonymous Paul said...

My favourite Harvey Andrews song is "Wheels"

How many CD versions of the albums are there?

I currently have 10 (8 from the site and 2 from Amazon) but I cant seem to find any more, some help to locate more would be appreciated.

Thanks.

7:10 PM  
Blogger Deryck Solomon said...

There are so many good ones to choose from. I've recently enjoyed "Able Baker" from the Mother Earth vinyl LP and didn't even mention it in the Twelve Songs piece. By the way there's a brilliant video of Harvey singing that song at Accoustic Routes on You Tube, if you're interested.

I think we have more or less the same CDs. My 11 are:
1.Writer of Songs 2. Friends of Mine. 3. Someday Fantasy 4. The Gift 5. Snaps - the Family Album. 6. 25 Years on the Road 7. The Journey 8. Margarita Collection 9. Spring Again 10. Somewhere in the Stars 11. I'm resigning from Today- the Transatlantic anthology. I hope you fing the outstanding one.

There is a comprehensive discography by Reinhard Zierke on the blog on Harvey's website under the entry for July 2008 which you might want to check out. I keep trying to buy a vinyl copy of Harvey's first LP Places and Faces on eBay but it seems they are rare and go expensively to dealers or collectors - it would be great for Harvey's fans if they could release a CD version of that - and also the LPs such as PG and Mother Earth. Fortunately most of the tracks are on the Margarita Collection CD but there are some ommissions such as Able Baker. Hopefully Harvey might re record this on a future CD - he knows many fans particulalrly enjoy it. Cheers.

11:30 PM  
Blogger alan said...

Alan
Your review of Harvey is great but all choices are subjective and my choice would include the more obvious however i would add that Harvey is the best siger songwriter this country has ever produced by far and all his songs are brilliant. My selection
Soldier, Hey Sandy, You knew we were coming, Martha, Gift of a brand knew day, Pinball, Soap opera, I,d rather read a book, The mallard, One machine, The waiting room,The way we lived then.
Harveys so good i could do another list just as good.
Thanks Deryck and thanks Harvey.

11:46 AM  
Blogger Deryck Solomon said...

Thanks for the comments Alan.I certainly don't disagree with any of your selection. If I was doing it again I would have to find room for "Able Baker" and "First You Lose the Rhyming". I enjoyed hearing a few of Harvey's newer songs when he performed at Warwick folk club a few moths ago, so the task will be even harder when his next CD comes out!

7:19 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

Loved your comments on Harvey,s music. I cant get enough of the man,s music. I have managed to get most of his stuff either on CD or records but I am having difficulty finding "Mother Earth" and "someday" any ideas ( have tried the web sites to no avail)

I tried to see Harvey some years ago while I was still in the army but got sent away and gave my tickets to someone else. However I finally got to see him this year at Chatham and it was one of the most enjoyable nights I have had in years. I met harvey and found hime to be a very likeable person. If only some of the other personalities I have met could have lived up to their image. Long live Harvey and his music.Wesspre

5:19 PM  
Blogger Deryck Solomon said...

I agree with you entirely, Alan. I only saw Harvey perform for the first time recently at Warwick and seeing him live you get a real sense of his warmth and humour as a raconteur as well as his brilliance as a writer and performer.

I filled in the blanks in my collection via eBay for a vinyl copy of "Mother Earth" and a CD of "Someday Fantasy". All the Someday material is also on the reletively recent double CD "I'm Resigning from Today", the Transatlantic anthology. They come up resonably regularly on eBay or googling the title on-line (which is how I got my CD of "The Journey" before Harvey started to stock it on his site.)

I have been trying to get a copy of Harvey's first LP "Faces and Places" but have always been outbid by dealers or more serious collectors rather than simple fans of Harvey's music, but I'll keep trying.

When I e-mailed Harvey some time ago I asked him to consider re-recording the excellent song "Able Baker" on his next CD since the track on vinyl is not of the usual clear sound quality. The live version at Accoustic Routes on Harvey's website and Youtube is superb.

Good luck in finding the missing material!

11:40 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

Deryck

I am still looking for the "Old mother earth" LP. I thought I had found a copy at a reasonable price but they vendor let me down saying the LP had already been sold and he hadn't had time to take the advert off the site. I have got the faces and places Lp and I want to try and put it on to my mp3s. but that will only happen when I get time. If any of your readers have a copy of "Old mother Earth" and are ready to part with it I will make them a reasonable offer.

Alan

12:31 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

there is a "places and faces" LP on the ebay site at the moment just in case you want to bid.

Alan

6:32 PM  
Blogger Deryck Solomon said...

Sorry you haven't found a copy of "Mother Earth" yet, Alan. I'll keep looking too and if I find one I'll put a comment on this entry on the blog. Thanks for flagging up the "Place and Faces" on eBay - I have bid yet again but no doubt will lose out as usual to a dealer or a collector from Japan or Russia! I guess persistence will bring its reward in the end.

8:01 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

Deryck
Both of us are Hrvey fans and love the man and his work but due to a few mentions in some of his songs I have been dicovering and in some cases re-discovering a lot more English folk stars. Vin Garbutt amongst them. Although none of them come up to Harveys standard there are some quite good ones.
I have found one bloke I had never heard of, Les Barker. He is a poet and his stuff on utube is great.
A rediscovery is Blaster Bates (also on U tube) Blaster is not a folk singer but he is another one who brightens my day.

I listen to Harvey all the time and find some thing new each time as there are nuances to most songs
that I don't notice the first few times I listen. He has to be one of the finest Poets this country has produced,

Alan Baker

4:30 PM  
Blogger Deryck Solomon said...

I share your enthusiasm for Messrs Garbutt and Barker, Alan - both excellent. As well as Harvey's material, recently I have been going back to enjoy older favourites such as Nick Drake, Pete Atkin, Fairport Convention and Sandy Denny. I know you mention English folk stars - but I followed Harvey's recommendation on "Somewhere in the Stars" when he performed "Can't go Home Again." I now have several of his CDs - very American, but consistently brilliant lyrically and musically - just like Harv!

Still no sign of "Old Mother Earth" but I'm still watching on eBaY.

5:30 PM  
Blogger Deryck Solomon said...

PS - I see I forgot to actually mention the name of the performer I was recommending! I should have said it was Dave Mallett. Excellent - unlike my absent-minded blogging!

6:01 PM  

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