The beat boom tide has begun to recede, having changed root and branch the way music gets made, bought and taken seriously (as commerce, as art) in the UK. Its main players are changing their sound, its successors are plotting their various coups. At the top of the charts, though, this means a return to normality. Which is…?
Let’s imagine a kind of popular music that has a direct origin in youth subcultures (leaving aside the question of how to define those). This – we won’t try and name it – is fairly well-represented in a list of No.1s, but it’s obvious that it doesn’t cover most of the material on said list. Expand the definition to include music that is indirectly linked to those subcultures – that imitates or tries to exploit them – and you cover a lot more ground. But there are still plenty of enormous hit records which seem to have nothing to do with any history of pop that bases itself on what ‘youth’ does or listens to.
This is part of why I find the charts so interesting. As well as being a barometer of what happens when subcultural trends bubble up to the surface, they’re also a log of whatever whims happened to grab the occasional record buyer. Filtering out the whims pasteurizes the story. “Normality” in the world of No.1 hits means a stew of novelties, trinkets, and songs which history and her assistants have fished out and wiped down as ‘classics’. All of which give one another a kind of context.
Lecture over. Roger Miller’s charming “King Of The Road” must have won a lot of friends through the simple likeability of his voice. Perhaps it won others because in 1965 people had begun to like the idea of the free life, of “means by no means”, beholden to none.
I think – and honestly I have no basis for this other than a few old childrens’ books – that the British were once culturally (if not actually) friendlier to vagabonds and men of the road than they are now. And here is the lifestyle presented crisply, evocatively, romantically – with a sprinkling of US exotica. Trailers and stogies, far more other than caravan parks and fag ends. I’m still very impressed by the economy and poetry of the lyric (“pushing broom”) – and the warmth. If ever a song could have a glint in its eye, this does.