Friday, December 22, 2006

London Song of the Day: I wouldn't want you to walk across Hungerford Bridge ("London's Brilliant Parade" by Elvis Costello)

Those who know me know I like my music. (If you don't know me that well, you should know this: I like my music.) Even in London, music is an important and vital part of my life. For each and every trip to London I've spent much prep time in the weeks leading up to the holiday compiling the perfect iPod playlist (or, before that, mix tape). The 2006 one has some songs overlapping with the 1999, 1998, 1997, 1992, 1983 playlists, but many of them skew in different directions and reflect the pop and rock sensibilities of not only their times but my mood and frame of mind. I love listening to them all as I walk through the streets and gardens of London: sometimes the new playlist, sometimes older ones. I have hundreds of different songs that either are about London or Britain or at least remind me of it, many dozen BBC and Capital Radio jingles interspersed in between, and even some of Emma Clarke's cheery and concise London Underground tube train announcements.

Don't get me wrong: I don't shelter myself behind headphones every minute of every day in London. Much of the fun in traipsing around the city is the aural delight: the sounds, the voices, the music you hear from the world around you, not just from you iPod. But I do love a soundtrack to my London life, and enjoy plunking on the headphones on some stages of my walks to accompany the panorama unfolding in front of my wandering hooves to the sounds of tunes both classic and obscure. On this holiday I'll take you on a brief tour of "what's on the BullyPod" by featuring a specific London song I deeply love each day. Yesterday's was of course "London by Night" by John Williams. Let's take a step into a different direction—a very colorful and on second or third listen a very cynical direction—with today's London Song of the Day: Elvis Costello's "London's Brilliant Parade."

"London's Brilliant Parade" is a track on Elvis's 1994 CD Brutal Youth one of the post-Attractions nineties Costello albums that most fans bought on instinct rather than need and which probably soon got pushed to the back of the CD collection after a couple listens. (There's a reason, after all, that you can get it for 63¢ on Amazon.) That's a pity in my book, because I think it's one of Elvis's stronger nineties albums, not only because it features the sublime "London's Brilliant Parade."

It's a song that at first listen appears to be celebrating all the joy and color of England's capital

Just look at me
I'm having the time of my life
Or something quite like it
When I'm walking out and about
In London's brilliant parade

But like some of the other pleasantly-tuned but deceptively social tracks about London (likewise Pet Shop Boys...your turn on "London Song of the Day" is coming, to, I'm sure, the delight of Kevin Church), "London's Brilliant Parade" paints a grey picture of life:

I wouldn't want you to walk across Hungerford Bridge
Especially at twilight
Looking through the bolts and the girders
Into the water below
You'll never find your answer there

They sounded the "all-clear" in the occidental bazaar
They used to call Oxford Street
Now the bankrupt souls in the city
Are finally tasting defeat

First time I heard this song, my little floppy ears perked up quickly at the mention of "Hungerford Bridge." It's the footbridge between the South Bank and the Embankment Tube station near Waterloo Bridge. The old Hungerford bridge, the one Elvis is singing about, was a rattly unattractive deathtrap that was eventually replaced with a more modern, Millennium Bridgish affair. Like Elvis, I'm more familiar with the old one than the new one: countless times I passed over it on my way to and from the National Theatre, sometimes at a fast trot to get to the last train from Embankment Station after a late play. (The new one isn't even on the right side!) Don't get me wrong personally, because I have many sentimental and irrationally happy memories of the old Hungerford Bridge, but it's a bridge that you do realize certainly would have been easy to leap over the railing and commit suicide. (No, relax, folks: my thoughts were never on that, just upon "Gotta make the Circle Line train!") Just like Elvis suggests, "you'll never find your answer there." Whoa, that's not a happy London thought. Neither are "bankrupt souls", and later

From the gates of St. Mary's, there were horses in Olympia
And a trolley bus in Fulham Broadway
The lions and the tigers in Regents Park
Couldn't pay their way
And now they're not the only ones

There are plenty of London landmarks and traditions in "London's Brilliant Parade": red Routemaster buses, London taxis, trolley buses, the London Zoo and Hammersmith theatres, but they're all colored with a sad shaking of the head of opportunities lost and glories past, and if Elvis is celebrating London, he's celebrating one that's hard and grey, that's more than just skin deep. There's more, much more, than red buses and bustling shops, and if you look in the faces of the people who make up the actors on the stage that is the city of London, you'll see that the parade is not always that brilliant.

"Brilliant"? Well, that's irony, Elvis. It's not as heavy or immediate a message as the Clash's "London Calling," of course, but then Elvis Costello was always a little sneakier: a little venom in the lyrics mixed in with the sweetness of his melodies is an Elvis trademark, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

So why is this a favorite London song, or more important, the London Song of the Day? "Sounds dreary, Bully," you might say, and that's absolutely not my frame of mind today: I'm deliriously happy to the point of outbursts of giggles all day today. But "London's Brilliant Parade" reminds me there is more to this city than my holiday playground, there is more behind the faces of my fellow riders on the Tube. It's a beautiful city, but it's also grimy. I love the culture, but life here can be tough and hard for those who reside here. And that's why I choose it to listen to today and celebrate not only the excitement of London but the reality—the sometimes sad smoked mirror to the parade.

Outside my window
Not long before sleep arrives
They come with their sirens
And they sweep away all the boys
Busy draining the joy from their lives
They never said their prayers out loud


Just look at me
I'm having the time of my life
Or something quite like it
When I'm walking out and about
In London's brilliant parade

Other songs in heavy rotation on my London playlists today (links will open in iTunes, unless you don't have iTunes, in which case they won't.):

"London Rain (Nothing Heals me Like You Do)" by Heather Nova, from the album Siren
"A Foggy Day (In London Town)" by Michael Bublé, from the album It's Time
"Streets of London" by Sinéad O'Connor, from the album Fire on Babylon
"Werewolves of London" by Warren Zevon, from the album Excitable Boy

No, not all the songs I listen to have the word "London" in the title. Like tomorrow's London Song of the Day. Stay "tune"d!

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