Where once I might have chosen Paul Handyside’s ‘Hip hip’ as my favourite Hurrah! 45, now it’s his ‘Gloria’ which has greater emotional sway. ‘Hip hip’ is necessarily celebratory, excitable and exciting, the adrenaline rush of poetic youth, but it’s also tinged with nostalgia and melancholy, for the many memories it conjures, for the distance which has opened up within me between the man I am now and the boy I was then. Perhaps inevitably at this distance, the lyrics read as and sound somewhat adolescent. And that’s fine, because if ever songs caught the rush of feeling that being young involves, the confusion and exaltation and cloud nine highs and dismal pressure drop lows, the happiness shot through with sadness and the sadness shot through with a refusal to be beaten, then it was the early songs of Handyside and Taffy Hughes, the Geordie Lennon and McCartney.
‘Gloria’, with its Cyrano de Bergerac gallantry and transposition of a serenading or star-crossed lovers balcony scene to twentieth century Newcastle, is perhaps no exception, but it seems tempered by both a feeling of duende and a dreamlike quality; the dream that starts when you want it to. While the yearning edge of Handyside’s voice filled so many of his songs with a sense of melancholy and things not quite working out as he might have hoped and planned, here he manages to convey a sense of certainty and destiny that pervades waking and sleeping, night and day.
It doesn’t hurt that musically, it’s a classic-sounding song which in my mind twines about Procol Harum’s ‘A whiter shade of pale’ like ivy or wisteria, the Hammond organ line of which was itself famously lifted from Bach. ‘A whiter shade of pale’ in turn makes me think of the Clientele’s ‘Isn’t life strange?’, and how’s that for a trio of timeless songs?
‘Trust in me, things I tell you…’ Hurrah! were a group of infinite importance to a small, select number of people; folk took the trouble to testify to this when I wrote about the group over at Backed with. Implored to do so by the collective persuasion of both Hungry beat and Are you scared to get happy? fanzines (the latter named after the rousing challenge in the chorus of ‘Hip hip’), I bought a copy of Boxed: long-shot pomes from broke players, which collected together Hurrah!’s early singles for Kitchenware, including ‘Gloria’. The title was borrowed from Charles Bukowski, whose novel Factotum I would have read around the same time, following up every suggested lead. Back then I never saw the delightfully silly and presumably somewhat satirical video for ‘Gloria’ featuring a dippy New Romantic-looking girl dancing (surely not the Gloria in question?) and bass player David Porthouse cross-dressing (now, if he were the Gloria in question, that would certainly give the lyrics some swing); all of which doesn’t quite undermine Handyside’s earnestness nor the enduringly affecting nature of the song.
Image of Longshot pomes for broke players via bukowski.net.
In Merioneth, the wind lives and wails,
On from hill to lonely hill:
Down the loud, triumphant gales,
A spirit cries Be strong! and cries Be still!
– Lionel Pigot Johnson, ‘Dead’
Call it rather lent on permanent loan. For Welcome, stranger, to this place the Wraiths have delivered – on top of This is Charing Cross – another albumsworth of predominantly nineteenth century poetry just about perfectly set to music of their own making. Mog and Jon really do pull out all the stops to perform these poems, not simply via vocal delivery but through spot-on accompaniment and an all-round thoroughness of approach. Sometimes managing to combine earthiness with a grim jauntiness – Beddoes’ ‘The drowned and the shipwrecked’ and Tennyson’s ‘Dark house’ – at other times making an unlikely pairing of ululation and the ethereal – ‘Merioneth’, ‘Above the dock’, Dickinson’s ‘Wild nights’ – the end results always engage with both poem and listener.
There’s nothing radically different about this second set, but nor did there need to be. Keats’ ‘Casket of my soul’ is uniquely Gravenhurst-esque musically (you can imagine Nick Talbot getting his own morbid teeth stuck into this one), but otherwise they continue to elaborate musical settings which though grounded in guitar pop have something more – something other – about them. A firmness of purpose, a dramatic and melodic kick, and an intuitive feel for the poems, nowhere better demonstrated than on another Tennyson, ‘Touch of a vanished hand’, which retains Mog’s first-time-of-asking improvisation over Jon’s foot-stomping music. In so doing they reanimate Victorian poetic sensibilities – in these stanzas there’s a lot of death and loss, a lot of wind and water, but life too, in its extremities – and make you want to jump into the poetry both with and without their guiding musical hand.
Presumably the Wraiths are still majoring on nineteenth century poetry for rights reasons, but I start to wonder what they might do with late twentieth and twenty-first century poetry – perhaps even working with a living poet – and where that might take the music. And I wonder whether they do requests. There’s Rilke or Anna Akhmatova – admittedly with the additional complication of translation – or Sharon Olds and Paul Farley poems that I’m sure they’d do wonders with.