The Immortal Jukebox A10: Petula Clark – Downtown

‘A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.

The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose meaning will always remain elusive.’ (E. B. White, ‘Here is New York’)

‘The city as we imagine it, then, soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration and nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate on maps, in statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and architecture.’.
(Jonathan Raban, ‘Soft City’)

‘One belongs in New York instantly. One belongs to it as much in five minutes as five years’. (Thomas Wolfe)

‘Downtown, things will be great when you’re Downtown … Don’t wait a minute more … ‘
(Tony Hatch, ‘Downtown’)

Cities have been the great engines for transforming human lives. In that nowhere where you lived before your life was blocked, locked down and you were as good as locked up.

When you looked in the mirror back there you saw the person you were told you were – not the person you knew you could be, the person you really were, if only you could be released into that wondrous life waiting for you just outside the central station of the fabled city.

In the city, above all in New York City, you can forge a new identity and show the world (and yourself) what you are really made of. Welcome to the Big Leagues!

In this supreme cultural crucible whatever talent, determination and willpower you possess or can summon up will be tested and proved to acclaim or destruction. What could be more thrilling!

Now when everyone knows your name it won’t be because they knew your dad it will be because of what you have done yourself. Somewhere in the milling crowds among the roaring traffic’s boom illuminated by the brightest lights you’ve ever seen there’s an, ‘In Crowd’ who will recognise you as one of them.

Here, there’s a new home for you – the one you dreamed you would find and make for yourself. Somewhere where you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares – Downtown.

Petula Clark’s, ‘Downtown’, written and produced by Tony Hatch, is a gloriously joyful anthem to the promise of the city, an anthem of 1960s optimism when all the frontiers seemed to be opening up to youthful adventurers.

It’s one of those records that you can’t deny – a gold plated smash from the moment the percussive piano introduction emerges from the speakers. The song then builds and builds melding pure pop pizazz with a broadway scale orchestration suavely capturing the attention and winning the allegiance of every available audience from those aged from eight to eighty.

Tony Hatch recorded the song with all the musicians playing together, with Petula Clark singing live, to create an intoxicating ambient sound that demands you immerse yourself in it.

The huge sound of the record is produced by a string section including 8 violinists, 2 violas and 2 cellos, with a punchy brass section of 4 trumpeters and 4 trombonists. Added to this there are; flutes and oboes, bass, percussion (dig that triangle!), piano, a vocal group (The Breakaways) and the three top session guitarists of the day – Big Jim Sullivan, Vic Flick and Jimmy Page (whatever happened to him?).

I especially love the drum sound – the work of big band veteran Ronnie Verell. Ronnie was a listening drummer. Here on the verses he has a lovely light touch before he kicks in with a socking snare backbeat on the choruses. His drums are powerful but never overpower his fellow musicians.

Much of the credit for the organic unity of the record must be due to Tony Hatch in the producer’s chair with crucial assistance from his trusted team of arranger and conductor Bob Leaper and recording engineer, Ray Prickett.

Of course what sells the record above all is Petula Clark’s utterly charming, quintessentially English vocal, which manages to be beautifully controlled while embodying both mature reflection and dizzying excitement; with every word of the fluent lyric being enunciated perfectly so that you can commit, ‘Downtown’ to memory from the very first time you hear it.

Add to that Petula’s wholesome good looks and winning vivacity and you have a package that works everywhere from Paris to Portland to Potsdam!

Embed from Getty Images

No wonder it was a No 1 record in the US and a worldwide multi-million selling hit as well as winning a Grammy and an Ivor Novello award. Tony Hatch and Petula recorded many very fine songs, together and separately, but, ‘Downtown’ will always be THE ONE.

Yet the story behind its creation shows that hits frequently owe as much to fate and happenstance as they do calculation. In late 1964 Petula Clark, though she was selling records by the truckload in France, was, with her producer and chief songwriter/producer Tony Hatch, desperate to turn around a two year run of records that had flopped in the UK.

Seeking new sure fire material Hatch went to New York, no doubt to the Brill Building, the legendary songwriting factory which was seemingly the fount of early 60s pop smashes and returned with a quiver full of potential hits.

While he was in the city Hatch went for a stroll and at the corner of 48th Street looking towards Times Square a piano melody ran through his head which he heard as perhaps the basis of an R&B Doo-Wop style ballad that he might pitch to the Drifters. The lyric fragment he had was the single word, ‘Downtown’.

Waiting back in London Petula Clark, who was in her early 30s, was hoping Hatch would return with some songs that would kickstart her UK pop career again. Petula had been a fixture on the UK show business scene since she was discovered as a 9 year old radio singing sensation in the early years of World War Two.

She was then taken to the hearts of the British people being seen by those in the forces as everyone’s favourite daughter or little sister and by everyone else as that cute girl with the curly blonde hair. Post war she had triumphed on radio, TV, film and the stage seemingly working round the clock to become the proverbial all round entertainer.

But, by the early 60s she wanted to spread her wings and prove that she was ready to join the emerging world of modern pop with energy and élan – if only she could find songs with more youthful vigour.

The songs Tony Hatch presented to Petula on his return from New York did not pass that test! She pressed him – surely he had one of his own songs that would light up the radio dials?

Reluctantly, because he was chary of presenting the barest sketch of a song, he played her the piano melody and hummed along with the word Downtown cropping up as the hook.

Immediately, Petula told him that he should concentrate on finishing this song; for with a good lyric and a strong arrangement she was sure this was a fine song that might well be the one they had been looking for for so long.

Apparently Tony Hatch didn’t finish the lyric until the last half hour before recording while the mini army of musicians set up in the studio. Yet, on October 16th 1964 everything came together to produce an unstoppable pop classic that surely had No 1 written all over it!

Except the powers that be at UK Pye Records didn’t hear it that way. Instead it was Joe Smith from Warner Bros in the US who had the pop intelligence to spot that with the right promotion this song would definitely appeal to the home audience precisely because it was an outsiders romantic idealisation of the American city delivered by an artist with the right mixture of likeablity, talent and determination to win a loyal fan base. Fifteen consecutive top 40 US hits showed Joe was right in spades!

‘Downtown’ never grows old. The best compliment to the song I’ve come across was provided by Leo Moran of the Irish good time band The Saw Doctors who observed:

‘One night for no particular reason we did Downtown and you could see people loved it. All ages. You could see it brought joy to people’s faces.’

That will do for me as a definition of what great pop songs can do. And, have no doubt about it, Petula Clark’s Downtown is a great pop song. So all together now:

‘… The lights are much brighter there, You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares
So go Downtown ……’

Notes:

Petula Clark en Francais:

Following a tremendously well received concert at the Paris Olympia in 1957 Petula found a new audience and a husband, Claude Wolf.

The French were delighted by the way she sang in their language and have supported her ever since. Look out for, ‘Romeo’, ‘Ya Ya Twist’ and ‘Chariot’ among her many successes in France.

Incidentally, Downtown was a massive hit in France under the title, ‘Dans le temps’. In Italy it was, ‘Ciao Ciao’ and in Spain, ‘Chao Chao’. Everywhere it was released, whatever it was called, it was a huge hit!

Vic Flick:

When I mention the great guitarist Vic Flick most people say they have never heard of him. Yet I guarantee that unless you have been living in a cave for the last 50 years or so you have heard Vic! For whenever you watch a James Bond movie and you groove along to the irresistible guitar riff first heard in Dr No its Vic you’re listening to!

Glenn Gould and Downtown:

The great classical pianist Glenn Gould may well be the ultimate example of the eccentric musical genius in modern times. Yet, he produced one of the landmark recordings of the 20th century in his performance of Bach’s, ‘Goldberg Variations’.

In addition he had the good sense to be a very enthusiastic fan of Petula Clark and Downtown in particular. You may enjoy seeking out the essays he wrote about the song and singer and there are clips available of him lauding the record on his excellent radio shows for the Canadian Broadcasting Company.