9 November 2009

Sir John Betjeman - Licorice Fields of Pontefract

Sir John Betjeman - Licorice Fields of Pontefract

Label: Charisma
Year of Release: 1974

If there's something that until recently was quite likely to be regarded as appalling before the first note had even sounded, it's singles and albums which mix music with poetry. Prior to Scroobius Pip, it's tricky to name many examples that were even let through the music industry gate. The Liverpool Scene in the sixties would be one such rare case, and indie scribbler with synth to spare Anne Clarke another (massive in Germany, I understand) but beyond that we're left looking at odd isolated tracks on albums by artists who were merely dabbling with the form rather than immersing themselves full time. And let's completely bypass Jim Morrison's attempts, shall we?

My sympathies go out to everyone who struggles with the concept, because I certainly do myself. Most good poetry can stand on its own two legs and speak up for itself - it needs no (cow)bells, whistles, beats, catchy tunes or sultry sax solos. It should have 'killer rhythms' of its own. Any addition to the work itself will often prove to be a distraction and unnecessary embellishment. If you think I'm being narrow-minded here, try imagining Plath's "Daddy" being given a Manic Street Preachers make-over, or perhaps TS Eliot's "The Wasteland" an intelligent techno remix (although this might work, now I come to think about it). There are, however, exceptions. Some poets write in such a straightforward or earthy way - and I'd count Scroobius himself among them - that you can drop in music and not make the work sound bombastic, ridiculous or out of place. Their styles are not far short of pop lyricism anyway, and therefore, the combination can work for some (but not usually all) of their output.

And guess what? Sir John Betjeman pulls it off with this seventies single, the sly old devil. His sherry-rich delivery of "Licorice Fields of Pontefract" is combined with bouncy melodies, a minimal backing where it counts (it's noticeable that the musicians have the good sense to do the least work when his reading is upfront) and a mood and melody that actually improves upon, rather than destroys, the original. The instrumental breaks between the stanzas have a brassy pomp that recalls a lot of Sergeant Pepper apeing sixties pop, and all in all, this is a really pleasing little package, and a total pleasure to listen to. Cup your hand to your ears, and you might even hear the groaning sound of Roger McGough realising he'd been out-classed by an older, less fashionable writer.

Sir John Betjeman released a whole album of material at the same time entitled "Late Flowering Love" which I've never stumbled upon, but this snippet bodes well for the platter. No other poet laureates have followed his lead so far, and as such, we were spared Ted Hughes doing a blues-rock version of "Thought Fox", and Andrew Motion doing any-bloody-thing at all, thank goodness, although his birthday raps to Prince Harry may have veered dangerously towards record company territory.

(*An aside - when I first saw this in the record racks, I did secretly hope it was a Jamaican reggae artist who had chosen to call himself Sir John Betjeman.)

1 comment:

nlgbbbblth said...

The Late Flowering Love LP is nicely atmospheric - esp Late Flowering Lust which is the second last track.