davey dreamnation

seething since 2001

Chris de Burgh: Spanish Train and Other Stories (1975)

Well it seems that the first part of my analysis of Chris de Burgh’s poetic oeuvre has hit a few nerves, or at least pushed the pause button on at least two portable CD players, with JDG and Tom weighing into the debate by dropping some pertinent comments about CDB’s career stages and the true gravity of ‘The Lady In Red’, respectively.

While, as ever, there’s never enough time to explore these issues deeply, can I just say that I’ll be happy to hear from anyone who has time for Chris, as JDG and Tom obviously do, and that while we may differ in our opinions about what may be his best song or album, what inevitably brings us closer together is our admiration for his songwriting abilities, not to mention the fact that Chris has now been made a goodwill ambassador for the Intergovernmental Institution for the use of Micro-algae Spirulina against Malnutrition (PDF).

Yes, folks, just in case you didn’t hear it the first time, it’s all about respect.

spanish-train-and-other-stories

All of which makes it that much easier for me to begin my examination of CDB’s second collection of poems, Spanish Train and Other Stories (1975), with one simple observation: namely, that it is in this book that Chris really starts to hit his stride as a poet.

Released, unbelievably, only months after Far Beyond These Castle Walls . . ., Spanish Train . . . is a massive statement of intent, containing two of Chris’ best ‘storytelling’ lyrics (I speak, naturally, of the title poem and ‘A Spaceman Came Travelling’), plus eight other poems it would be perhaps wise not to dwell on for too long.

A little-known fact about this collection is that it was nearly banned in South Africa at the time, due to mentions of the ‘devil’ in the title poem. One can only wonder how different the world would be now had the South African authorities been successful in their attempt to throw a spanner into the massive Chris de Burgh marketing machine that was only then beginning to really get into gear. I mean, two books in one year, closely followed by that peculiar and ‘difficult’ third volume, At the End of a Perfect Day.

But once more, I digress. What I find harder to make sense of is the peculiar back cover of the book, featuring what looks like an alien’s hand making a devilish gesture reaching up to the hand of Jesus, complete with stigmata. Ah yes, I see, it’s the devil, as in the title poem, a-and he’s … what, trying to drag ‘The Lord’ down to some beastly level, and his fingers are all red whereas Jesus’ are white, and so this means … what?

And, and, like, the devil’s little finger is as long as his index finger, meaning … hmm. Clearly, many of the allusions here are lost on me, and I can only blame my ignorance for my inability to understand exactly why anyone would allow such a hideous image to appear on the back of their book.

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Still, stranger things have happened. I recall as a young child hearing some of these poems set to music, as they were collected on the Best Moves compilation—in fact, four poems from this book found their way onto that melodious and moving tribute to Chris’ music, recorded and produced by an unnamed group of aficionados, probably in a castle somewhere in Normandy, after hours and in deep secret, just as in one of Chris’ now-all-too-common espionage poems (I speak, here, naturally, of ‘Moonlight and Vodka’ and the rest).

Unfortunately for me and my equally-enthralled siblings, we were not allowed to hear that group’s rendition of one of Chris’ saucier poems, ‘Patricia the Stripper’, its contents being deemed by our parents unfit for our pure ears.

Having now had the chance to go back and read the words to this pathetic poem, with its smart-arsed rhymes (‘And Maude said, ‘Oh Lord, I’m so terribly bored’ . . . yes, we all are, Maude) and almost casual rhythm, all I can say is ‘thank you’ to my mother and father for sparing me the indignity of this poem, and its wretched ‘punchline’:

Well, Patricia was arrested
And everyone detested,
The terrible manner in which
she was exposed

Later on in court
where everyone thought
A summer’s run in jail
would be proposed . . .

But the judge said, “Patricia,
Or may I say Delicia,
The facts of this case lie before me (knock, knock, knock)
Case dismissed . . . This girl was in her working clothes . . .”

Chris De Burgh, ‘Patricia the Stripper’

Let’s move on, shall we?

‘Lonely Sky’ is, for me, one of Chris’ most haunting and affecting lyrics, ranging across several extremes of emotion and foreshadowing, in its own way, some of Chris’ later drug-fuelled poems, for example ‘High On Emotion’, or ‘The Ecstasy of Flight’. Its meticulously constructed final stanza and its interlocking lines remind me of nothing so much as a set of stairs, although the the strange pun of ‘mourn’ does tend to bring on the down-vibe for me, personally. Read this with me:

I’m sailing beside you in your lonely sky . . .
I’ll come in with the dawn,
I’m sailing beside you in your lonely sky . . .
On the wings of the mourn,
I’m sailing beside you in your lonely sky . . .
Above the world we’ll be flying,
I’m sailing beside you in your lonely sky . . .

Chris De Burgh, ‘Lonely Sky’

Putting aside for the moment how it’s possible to sail in the sky (this is poetry, after all) beside anyone, ‘Lonely Sky’ also acts as a taster for ‘A Spaceman Came Travelling’, this collection’s natural centrepiece and fulcrum.

For in ‘Lonely Sky’, Chris is actually suggesting that he is capable of flight and is, indeed, some kind of bird, if not in fact a spacecraft carrying a very odd passenger, who conveniently turns up, in ‘A Spaceman Came Travelling’, right before the birth of Jesus:

A spaceman came travelling on his ship from afar,
’twas light years of time since his mission did start,
And over a village he halted his craft,
And it hung in the sky like a star, just like a star . . .

He followed a light and came down to a shed,
Where a mother and a child were lying there on a bed,
A bright light of silver shone round his head,
And he had the face of an angel, and they were afraid . . .

Then the stranger spoke, he said ‘Do not fear,
I come from a planet a long way from here,
And I bring a message for mankind to hear’,
And suddenly the sweetest music filled the air . . .

Chris De Burgh, ‘A Spaceman Came Travelling’

Now, it’s all very well to draw a parallel between the Spaceman, the Magi (aka the three wise men) and the star above the stable (or ‘shed’, in Chris’ archaic diction) in Bethlehem wherein the mother and child, clearly Mary and Jesus, did lie.

But it’s quite another thing to suggest that this spaceman is in fact an angel with a message that he has brought across the universe for our benefit. Because clearly, as the following lines suggest, that message is simply a load of old cobblers:

And it went la, la . . .
Peace and goodwill to all men, and love for the child . . .

Chris De Burgh, ‘A Spaceman Came Travelling’

At this point I find myself needing to restrain myself from committing an act of wanton destruction, either against myself, or otherwise against some piece of religious iconography. For as anyone who has seen Chris de Burgh perform this poem live knows already, the spaceman does not simply sing ‘la, la . . .’—he actually sings this:

La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la;
La, la, la, la, la, la, la;
La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la;
Peace and goodwill to all men, and love for the child . . .

Chris De Burgh, ‘A Spaceman Came Travelling’

Such a massive oversight on the part of the publishers of this slim volume casts the authenticity of the rest of its contents into doubt. Take, for example, ‘The Painter’, an obvious rip-off of Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’:

I’d like you to meet my last queen,
over there large as life
She’s been hanging there for almost a week,
my poor late wife;

Chris De Burgh, ‘The Painter’

There is a word in the English language that was invented for such footrot as this, and it’s an anagram of ‘carp’.

Take, also, ‘This Song For You’, the protagonist of which is about to go ‘over the top’ in Passchendaele, and who commits the same mistake as the book’s publishers by uttering the following:

So I’m writing down this little melody
When you play it my love, think of me . . .
We’ll be together in this song for you,
And it goes Lalala . . . sing it darling . . . Lalala . . .

Chris De Burgh, ‘This Song For You’

I mean, really. Unless the soldier was actually ‘writing down this little melody’ in musical notation, it would be next to impossible for his ‘love’ (let alone anyone) to even attempt to ‘sing it’.

But these are minor quibbles.

Spanish Train . . . is a tour de force compared to Far Beyond These Castle Walls . . ., and deserves a place in any serious Chris De Burgh fan’s bookshelf. Historical and spatial inaccuracies aside, it constitutes his first serious collection of storytelling songs and will, no doubt, like Eastern Wind and The Crusader, endure for many years to come.

I look forward to continuing this examination of CDB’s oeuvre at a later date. Until that time, in the words of the narrator of this book’s closing poem, and at the risk of repeating myself:

It’s alright, I’m on the way, I’m going home,
I’m going home, yea . . .
Oh hold on darling, I’m going home,
I’m on the way, I’m going home,
I’m going home, Hold on darling . . .

Chris De Burgh, ‘I’m Going Home’

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2 Comments

  1. jdg73

    Hello Davey,

    I’m pleased you’ve continued your series of articles and, once again, you’ve made some comments that I agree with (Patricia is a particularly toe-curling song) and some that I don’t but it’s an entertaining read which I thank you for! I did sense a slightly more caustic tone this time and I’m reluctant to be too critical of a piece of writing that I enjoyed but . . .

    . . . can I begin by correcting a factual inaccuracy? Spanish Train & Other Stories WAS banned in South Africa and, for two years, was released as Lonely Sky & Other Stories. And it wasnít just the title track that the authorities took issue with. The closing song, Just Another Poor Boy, incurred their displeasure as parallels were drawn not only with the tale of Jesus’ arrest but also with leaders of the black majority in that country. The line ‘His public meetings were a danger to the state’ being a case in point.

    And then there’s Spaceman, one of the more curious yuletide songs. The ‘la, la, las’ of the chorus are obviously intended to be a lullaby (as is the whole song) sung to the new-born baby. Indeed, I’ve got my own son to sleep on many occasions by singing him this song (and yes, its probably scarred him for life!)

    It’s also a tad disingenuous to call The Painter a ‘rip-off’ of Browning’s My Last Duchess when ‘the ambassador’ (!) has always said the song was his interpretation of that poem.

    I think, with the exception of Leonard Cohen and a handful of Dylan songs, there aren’t any songwriters whose lyrics come up smelling of roses when subjected to literary criticism. By the same token, I doubt whether many of the great poets would be considered so were they required to take into account things like melody, harmony, orchestration etc. Personally, I don’t think the two forms are comparable.

    Anyway, I look forward to part 3, safe in the knowledge that you’ll concur that Brazil is one of the most God-awful songs ever committed to vinyl!

    PS – Going back to your reply to my first post. Have you ever heard the extended version of The Ecstasy of Flight (released as a 12″ single in 1984)? Bombastic doesn’t do it justice!

  2. davey

    Dear JD,

    Do you mind if I call you JD? I hope that’s okay. Thanks again for your comments, and I do indeed stand corrected, having thought from the information on CdeB’s website that Spanish Train … was only nearly banned and not, as you have said, totally banned. It makes me wonder how Chris’ other albums might have been received had they lacked the crucial tracks – for example, The Getaway sans “Don’t Pay the Ferryman”, or Into the Light sans “The Lady In Red” (although I’d better stop talking about this one here – see the thread on my first CdeB post for much more on this issue.

    I’m also willing to concede that the “la, las …” may well be a lullaby but I should point out that my quibble here is not with CdeB himself but with the person who typed up the lyrics on the website – I mean, at what point does anyone other than the songwriter get to decide which words (or half words, as in “la”) to leave out of a song? It might seem like a trivial point but it lessens my trust in the correctness of the lyrics elsewhere on the site and, according to my original project, these words are pretty much all I have at my disposal in my textual analysis of Chris’ words.

    I wasn’t aware that CdeB (or, yes, the Ambassador!) had acknowledged his debt to Browning’s poem, so I’m willing to retract the caustic remarks about that song – but, again, the casual reader is not to know these things – and to take another example, the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” doesn’t even bother to change the words from the original psalm, and yet I am sure sounds better than “The Painter”.

    Which brings me to your next point, surely the pivotal point here, namely whether it’s really useful or relevant to analyse Chris’ lyrics so closely, given that as you say he also has to juggle melody, harmony, orchestration and so on. I’ve had a good think about this, but have come to the conclusion that the lyrics ARE important, if not crucial.

    Let me explain.

    Can you imagine finding an instrumental version of the song “Don’t Pay the Ferryman” interesting? I can’t, because the drama is in the story he is telling. In so many of Chris de Burgh’s songs, he posits himself as a storyteller – sure, a storyteller with musical skills, but a storyteller nevertheless. In this context, the way Chris (or Cohen, or Dylan – granted, excellent lyricists) tells his story is crucial to the success of the song. Of course, this is one of those arguments we could continue having for quite a while (and as you can probably tell, I’m quite happy to discuss these issues at length, so don’t be shy in expressing your point of view).

    Of course, there are some CdeB songs (perhaps “Moonlight and Vodka”, or “Another Record Company Bash”, or even “Transmission Ends”) that I’d be quite happy to hear sans vocals. But I personally think that as far as instrumentals go, one’s better off leaving it to the experts – Jarre, Oldfield, those guys in Sky, even Elton (“Song For Guy”, despite the whispered vocal lines towards the end of the song, is one of the greatest instrumentals of all time. Period.).

    That being said, I am curious about the 12″ “Ecstasy of Flight” single – I’m presuming it’s basically an instrumental?

    Best wishes

    Davey

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