By some distance the best song covered so far, Petula Clark’s “Downtown” is an easy stand-out in 1964 music. If 1963 saw the start of what we think of as “the Sixties” in a cultural sense, 1964 is where that seed really bloomed. Everything in 1964 is the arrival of the Sixties. The vast majority of that cultural momentum comes, naturally, from The Beatles, and their complete domination over the first half of year means hardly any other music even got a look-in. “Downtown” came out at the end of 1964, when things had calmed down a little, but so many bands that we think of as quintessentially Sixties really found their footing during this year. Some of them were high-quality mainstays of the music scene – The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks – and some were destined to clog up cheap, tacky compilations and nostalgia television for ever – Manfred Mann, Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits and many, many others. The sheer number of bands that broke through in 1964 is remarkable, even while so many of them prove Sturgeon’s Law. Petula Clark falls into neither camp – more than simply nostalgia but never quite destined to be a name in lights for all time – and “Downtown” doesn’t fit conveniently into a year whose material is otherwise fairly easy to categorise.
Which is one of the reasons it stands out, and one of the reasons it’s such a fantastic song. No dreary Mersey Beat influence here. No pop/rock sensibilities either. No attempt to ape existing musical trends on either side of the Atlantic. “Downtown” is a remarkable song because it seems to straddle so many different genres without belonging to one and as a result it’s mostly a song on its own and very much the better for it. Stylistically it’s not a million miles away from something that Tom Jones, Matt Monroe or Shirley Bassey might sing, but Clark has a voice all of her own – a little girlishly innocent, but more thang grown-up enough to understand the world of neon lights, movies and food places that never close. It’s a song that manages to be grown up without simply being parental, and in 1964 that’s a real trick. Though now in terminal decline, the odd crooner and 50’s hangover still pops into the charts upon occasion, something for Mum and Dad to enjoy. And the music of the Beatles and vast wave of other bands that follow in their wake is clearly aimed at a younger, predominantly teenage market. “Downtown” is in the middle.
It’s sophisticated enough for a young listener to feel grown up listening to it without sounding like something their parents might slip into their record collection alongside the Mantovani. And at the same time, because the actual music is based primarily on an orchestral rather than a guitar-drums-bass arrangement, it might be something the older generation could enjoy without all that new-fangled noise the with-it kids are into these days. It’s an artfully constructed song, and a piece of music that understands exactly its place in the world. It was written by Tony Hatch, a man with an extraordinary career who’s as well-known for writing TV theme tunes as he is smash-hit singles, and who’s worked with everyone from David Bowie to Bruce Forsyth – his is a fascinating career and “Downtown” is just one of many, many notable highs.
It starts on those elegantly-constructed introductory piano chords. They already feel sophisticated before Clark’s voice comes in. Even on that first line her voice is so full of warmth and understanding the listener can’t help but be drawn into this word because it’s an escape. And that line, “where you’re alone and life is making you lonely you can always go downtown”, is a masterclass of how to draw a listener into your song. Set up a problem – alone, lonely, in other words relatable problems – and offer an exit, an alternative for the listener to invest in. It’s followed by a second line that repeats the trick – other problems but the same solution, head off to a place where the world is simply better. It’s a trick the lyric constantly repeats, always entreating you to enter that world and leave your own behind. The first line of the second verse shifts from explanation to encouragement, “don’t hang around and let your problem surround you”.
There’s an inclusiveness present in the song that pulls the listener inexorably towards the vast, joyful chorus. The way Clark’s voice surges and finally explodes on the “Down! Town!” of the chorus is successful partly because of the sheer, unbridled pleasure of what she’s singing about and partly because her voice, ever so slightly tinged with a coquettish reserve on the verse, doesn’t suggest the sheer power that Clark delivers on the chorus. It’s quite exhilarating.
It’s also an exquisitely well-produced song, recorded live and it shows. There’s touches (the little “downtown” backing vocals that gently push the appeal of the destination during the verse) that show a producer’s hand but nothing quite matches the power of the full band, whether the perfectly positioned timpani on the run-up to the chorus that give the song just that little extra momentum or the unhinged, ecstatic squall of the deranged trumpet right at the song’s conclusion, everything is orchestrated for maximum effect.
It’s more than a little melodramatic, but the instrumentation is written and delivered as if it were scoring some imaginary film scene, the neon lights glittering in Piccadilly Circus or Times Square, the tempestuous thrill of a city lit by artificial illumination and the intriguing scent of mysterious food joints. The appeal isn’t just in the lyric, it’s layered through every single note of the song. And at the end, as the music fades and our protagonist vanishes into the city’s depths to swallow up everything it has to offer we, the listener, are left breathless but cheered, ready to follow but never to intrude. As we gasp at the song’s conclusion, a gasp of breathless joy, we find ourselves beguiled. And that’s the only word to describe this song – it is completely beguiling.
Petula Clark would never have quite such an impact again but she’s had a very successful career touring, singing and acting (including a Golden Globe nomination). She’s one of the singers on John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance”. She had a by-today’s-standards very mild scandal when – gasp – she took Harry Belafonte’s arm on TV in 1968. She’s an accomplished stage actor. There’s been a couple of remakes of “Downtown”, a cover by Dolly Parton and at time of writing – aged 87 – Clark is still around, still out there, and still performing. But “Downtown” will always be her signature song, the one that above any other she will always be associated with. Nobody can cover, sing or deliver it in quite the way she did, and if “Downtown” is to be her legacy despite a huge body of other work, well, it’s still an amazing legacy to have, and it is absolutely one she can be proud of. So many songs in 1964 were disposably forgettable. “Downtown” is the exact, precise opposite of that.
What Else Happened in 1964?
In an attempt to get “with it” the BBC launch, for the very first time, a programme dedicated to popular music, Top Of The Pops. It’s a landmark programme, has an astonishingly long run, and remains a by-word for the singles charts even as the show itself has now fallen to the passing of history. There’s unsurprisingly a lot of Beatles news – that famous Ed Sullivan performance, holding five of the top five slots in the Billboard Hot 100, releasing both the movie and album A Hard Day’s Night, that sort of thing. The Stones are coming up though, having their first (and second) U.S. tours and also doing that Ed Sullivan thing. Keith Moon joins The Who, which can only end well, and Shirley Bassey bellows her way into infamy with the immortal “Goldfinger”. The Animals hit the top spot with the always-cheerful subject of finding a corpse in the middle of nowhere with “House Of The Rising Sun”, and the Kinks make their first significant impact with “You Really Got Me”. It’s not all quality singles though – Manfred Mann score a huge hit with the unforgivably awful “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” and fans of screechy Sixties kitsch can be reassured by the presence of puntastic Sandie Shaw’s “(There’s Always) Something There To Remind Me”. And I can only apologise by informing you that “Surfin’ Bird” by the all-too-aptly-named Trashmen is released but then again, it is the word.
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
For America it’s all Beatles all the time in 1964 – not a lot else gets a look in. Louis Armstrong got to Number 2 in the U.S. charts with “Hello Dolly”, which isn’t bad but if you’re going to discuss Armstrong there’s better songs than that to cover. He makes it there in May (after nearly half a year of the Beatles occupying the Number 2 slot with various different ditties) and – ironically, given our last entry – is held off the top spot by their version of “Do You Want To Know A Secret”. He does eventually gets to number one though. Martha and The Vandellas get to Number 2 with the inexplicably-popular “Dancing In The Street” – they’re held off the top spot by The Supremes (it’s “Baby Love”, a song that never sits at Number 2) and, um, Manfred Mann. In the UK it was the usual shuffle-the-deck collection of Mersey Beat dreck, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks (“All Day And All Of The Night”, a strong contender), and little else to capture the imagination.
1. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
2. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
3. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
4. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
5. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”