I’ve written the cover story for the latest issue of Uncut about a couple of days I spent in San Francisco with Paul Weller in October.
I enjoyed the incongruous location – Weller was staying in the Japanese district and played a country music festival at Golden Gate Park and a show at hippie landmark Fillmore West – as well as the chance to spend time backstage with Weller and his band unaccompanied by any label management or press officer.
Weller discussed his forthcoming projects, including an avant-garde film soundtrack he’s composed, and also reminisced about early tours of America with The Jam. On one occasion, he said, the band were asked to celebrate their London credentials by posing outside an English pub in Santa Monica with a double decker bus.
I also got the chance to explore San Francisco – where I discovered ghost signs, parrots, a punk-themed restaurant called The Brixton, coyote warnings and a complete absence of cranes, billboards, pneumatic drills and the general intensive building work that blights daily life for so many Londoners.
Although I am lucky enough to live just a short belly flop from Brockwell Lido, it will be a cold day in Cairo before you ever see me in the water.
Some people adore swimming. They embrace the invigorating iciness, relish the chance to strip down to their Speedos and take on the chill of the British outdoor pool, defying both cold and dreaded shrinkage (‘like a frightened turtle’) in search of their daily dip.
I am not one of those people.
I have never liked swimming. I don’t like getting wet, I don’t like changing rooms, I don’t like being cold and damp, I don’t like shrinkage. I know that after the initial ice-induced paralysis has worn off the swimming pool can be almost pleasant, but I don’t like the actual mechanics of swimming either, the hard work, the splashing, the water in your mouth, eyes and nose, the getting overtaken by grannies, the knowledge you are wallowing in urine, saliva and chlorine.
Slather me in seal fat and offer me the Queen, and I still won’t go near the shallow end even on the hottest day of the year. What’s the point? You can’t read in a swimming pool.
So, it is perhaps rather ironic that one of my favourite London songs is about a lido. ‘Springboard’ by The Arlenes featured on their 2002 debut album ‘Stuck On Love’. ‘Gospel Oak Lido is the place to be,’ sings Big Steve Arlene in this brisk, wide-eyed ode to swimming and love at a London lido. The sound quality isn’t great, but give it a listen here.
The Arlenes were that rare beast, a decent English country and western band. English artists have always struggled with authentic c&w. There have been some greatalbums and songs, but these are usually pastiches or neo-homages. There have been some interesting reinventions from the likes of the Mekons. But rarely have a British band truly embraced country music in all its authentic glory, creating a noticeably British take on an American art form. (A nod here to The Rockingbirds, who also got it.)
Perhaps that’s because country is too sentimental for British tastes, or maybe it’s because it’s not something we Brits grow up with – how often do you hear a country song on British radio (similarly, how many decent British Westerns have you seen)? But while imported sounds like blues or jazz are swiftly assimilated into the British musical tradition, country has always been the unwanted runt, something to snigger at, an American tradition we don’t understand like eating grits, going to church and being optimistic. Even country artists like Johnny Cash are celebrated for their rock more than their country, while the country influences behind Elvis Presley are rarely grasped on these shores.
The Arlenes, who were a half-English, half-American duo, genuinely adored country, and ‘Springboard’ oozes the sort of sunny outlook that David Hockney had to leave Yorkshire and move to California to find. It is a difficult thing to pull off in London, where the sun doesn’t shine all that often, nobody knows the words to ‘Pancho and Lefty’ and some miserable sods won’t go near a swimming pool, but they managed it.
I’m not sure where they are now. Their second album ‘Going To California’ – lacked the panache of their debut and the band disappeared, but I thank them for ‘Stuck On Love’, which I adore and listen to frequently.
So put together ‘A Bigger Splash’ and ‘Springboard’ and you go some way towards convincing me of the aesthetics merits of the outdoor pool, even if you can be sure I’m not going to dip a toe in the water.
See you at the lido. I’m the one who isn’t getting wet.