Songs about pints, pals, and public transport

Elbow, Portland, November 2017

Elbow, Portland, November 2017

It might sound a bit, er, poncey, to describe Guy Garvey as an heir to John Betjeman.

But, as the years pass, the more I listen to the Elbow front man’s songs, the more he strikes me a type of minor laureate, an increasingly-beloved back-of-the-commuter-carriage commentator on Modern Life.

Not that commuting is the only thing the two artists have in common (although, it must be said, some of their better known works concern travelling on the rails – see Elbow’s song ‘Kindling’, or Betjeman’s poem ‘Middlesex’). They’re both Englishmen whose lyrical writing highlights the everyday, sometimes banal yet occasionally sublime, aspects of Englishness.

John Betjeman, 1961

John Betjeman, 1961

And so Garvey will start a song by singing of “lippy kids on the corner again”, sounding like a middle aged grouch, only to shift the tune to a heartfelt cry for the loss of innocence: “Do they know those days are golden? Build a rocket boys!”

Betjeman, for his part, was adept at highlighting the ordinariness of life’s most profound moments:
“She died in the upstairs bedroom
By the light of the ev’ning star
That shone through the plate glass window
From over Leamington Spa…”

They have something else in common too. Just as I read Betjeman’s  ‘A Shropshire Lad‘ as a song, with it’s musical cadence and rhythmic lines, so many of Garvey’s lyrics read well as simple, heartfelt and heartworn, odes.

Not just to train stations, or home, or the north of England, but to a certain slightly awkward, and very male, mix of nostalgia, friendship, and affection.

Guy Garvey

Guy Garvey

Garvey and Co. showcased this at the Roseland Theater in Portland last weekend, with a stirring performance of ‘My Sad Captains’, a song about, having a few pints with the lads, and pushing the boat out a bit, like you used to do 20 years before.

Another sunrise with my sad captains
With who I choose to lose my mind
And if it’s all we only come this way but once
What a perfect waste of time…

There’s nothing rock and roll about the song, let alone sex or drugs – it’s really just a stirring musical account of a hangover. But in Garvey’s hands, even a hangover is a chink through which we can see some universal light.

For each and every train we miss
Oh my soul
A bitter little Eucharist
Oh my soul…

Trains, ales, and a few Northern lads having the craic? I’m sure Betjeman would approve.

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