Is it better to have hit only once than never to have hit at all? British one-hit wonders comprise a class all their own. You’ve got your Soft Cells (1981), who had several more hits in their homeland. Occasionally someone like Donna Lewis (1996) whose hit was even bigger “over here” than in Britain. But bands like the Dream Academy got their one-hitness just right everywhere, with broad acclaim for exactly one song, forever and ever, amen.
To a Yank like me, “life in a Northern town” (the concept, not the song) doesn’t conjure a specific image. British readers, feel free to chime in. Apparently the North of England, i.e. just south of Scotland, is somewhat like the South of America: less urbane (London is in southern Britain, my droogs), worse health, more poverty, less education, fatter, under-represented culturally. The writers of “Doctor Who” considered the distinction worth noting when Christopher Eccleston’s incarnation of the non-human title character had a Northern accent, leading him to quip to his companion, “Lots of planets have a North!” For a point of reference, Americanos, consider Darth Vader or Superman with a sudden deep Georgia accent.
Dream Theater surfaced in 1985, as the tides of culture were pulling the original MTV-fueled New Wave of British pop back out to sea. Stalwarts like Duran Duran, Eurythmics, and Culture Club had presented their career-defining hits. Minimalism was out around then; baroque density was back, in hits from The Moody Blues, Tears for Fears, and Mr. Mister. Also, early 1960s nostalgia was starting to overtake the late-1950s homages of Billy Joel and Huey Lewis. “Life in a Northern Town” presents an idyllic time when,
The Salvation Army band played
And the children drank lemonade
And the morning lasted all day
And through an open window came
Like Sinatra in a younger day
Pushing the clouds away:
“Ah hey ma ma mommy doo-din-nie-ya…”
The lyrics eulogize the glossolalia of the doo-wop tradition, found in the backing vocals of a zillion songs from The Silhouettes’ “Get a Job” (1957) to The Marcels’ “Blue Moon” (1961). That scene had been fêted in its own latter days by Barry Mann’s “Who Put the Bomp” (1961) and Johnny Cymbal’s “Mr. Bassman” (1963), among others. Even in 1973, The Carpenters were still pining to re-experience the “shing-a-ling” music of “Yesterday Once More.” Wordless vocalizing had long been part of the cowboy tradition, as practiced “way back when” by Jimmie Rodgers, a.k.a. “The Blue Yodeler,” and more recently by Dolly Parton and Jewel Kilcher. Scat singing predated commercially available recordings such as Louis Armstrong’s faux-trumpet solo on “Heebie Jeebies” (1926). Nonsense singing is silly and fun, often showing up in novelty hits like the Oak Ridge Boys’ cover of First Edition’s hit “Elvira” (1981 and 1970, respectively), or even the big pop hits from Crash Test Dummies (1993), Hanson (1997), and Kid Rock (1998).
He said, “In winter 1963
It felt like the world would freeze
With John F. Kennedy and The Beatles”
Heya… Life in a Northern town
Heya… All the work shut down.
Dream Academy’s songwriter Nick Laird-Clowes (b. 1957) links three sad turning points of his childhood. First, the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy (November 22, 1963) was big news in Britain, getting nonstop news coverage for 24 hours. (Trivia: When the Kennedy news coverage ended, everyone turned off their TVs in shock, thereby missing the very first episode of Doctor Who. It was re-broadcast the following week as a result.) Even for those of us not around back then, it’s easy to imagine how upsetting the assassination was for Europeans, many of whom would have remembered the time that an assassination triggered a World War.
The second disaster hit closer to home and thus is even easier to understand: “All the work shut down.” North England was coal and industrial country, and the second half of the twentieth century was no kinder to it than to Rust Belt America. Many a pop song has chronicled these painful economic transitions: Billy Joel’s “Allentown” (1982) and “The Downeaster Alexa” (1989), U2’s “Red Hill Mining Town” (1987), Cowboy Junkies’ “The Last Spike” (1992) among others. Bruce Springsteen made a career out of songs like this.
But the real kicker is the third catastrophe: “The Beatles.” Woah! Talk about trampling on a national treasure! We can understand how a “lonely teenage broncin’ buck” American like Don Mclean might seethe with envy over the apparent ease with which the British Invasion of the mid-1960s supplanted homegrown rock-n-roll singers. But it would appear the John Lennon is not the only one who doesn’t believe in Beatles. Within the few lines of this song (three stanzas, virtually wordless chorus, no bridge), Laird-Clowes doesn’t elaborate on his disdain for the Fab Four, but he’s deeply attached to the songs of his early childhood, as opposed to later music. Musicians who love music itself, as opposed to the perquisites of fame and fortune that come with music stardom, write songs about music: Rush, Boston, U2, even Eric Carmen. One can imagine how a music-loving child might see a change in the musical climate as a threat on the order of massive unemployment or political unrest, and seek refuge in the old songs.
Not that he tries to emulate the sound of those songs; “Life in a Northern Town” sounds as mid-80s as a song could, and the tribal beat underlying the chorus chant has less in common with The Marcels and more with the world beat sounds being popularized by Talking Heads’ “I Zimbra” (1979), Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” (1986), and Paul Simon’s Grammy-riffic “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes” (1986). Laird-Clowes was also shooting for the langurous mood of Nick Drake, a late 1960s British singer-songwriter who enjoyed posthumous success in the States after his songs began appearing in advertisements. Kate St. John adds an oboe line at least as pretty as the one in Madonna’s “Crazy for You” (1985), and producer David Gilmour washes the whole thing in echoes of his Pink Floyd days. “Mellow tribal” sums up the results; “dream pop” sounds more like one of those pseudo-genres dreamed up by a publicist.
These days, the Dream Academy themselves suffer from frequent confusion with the more enduring prog metal band Dream Theater, but “Life in a Northern Town” goes on, even getting a cover at the 2007 CMT Awards of all places, by Sugarland et al. That live performance, nominated for both a Grammy and a CMA award, doesn’t sound the same without the massive studio production on the original chorus, but still, not a bad way to commemorate great music of the past, which is what Dream Academy were shooting for themselves.