• David Kowalski

Sunday Butterflies Goes To England…

I recently made my first trip to England and, as most music fans do, I took in some of the sights and locations related to much of the great music that has originated from the place. “Pilgrimage” is a word that’s often bandied around to describe such a trip, but I think that’s too strong a my case. I’m not exactly devoted to The Beatles or anyone else with the kind of evangelical fervour that is implied by the word.

The Statue of the Beatles at Pier Head, Liverpool, England.

That said, we visited Liverpool and took a look at all the places one could see when wanting to know about the Beatles story - Menlove Avenue, Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields, the River Mersey, the dockside, the Cavern Club and Mathew Street. In London we saw Abbey Road, Waterloo and all the usual tourist hotspots.

The Gates of Strawberry Fields in Liverpool, England, before the renovations started. Source: Google Maps

What struck me was just how mundane and everyday ordinary some of these places were. Strawberry Fields was covered in plastic as its being renovated. St Peter’s Church (where the grave of Eleanor Rigby is) was locked up and inaccessible at the time we went past and Penny Lane is just a normal street like many others in Liverpool. Where was the romance in these places for the Beatles to write such profound pieces of music?

Penny Lane, as referenced in the song by the Beatles.

Off to London, and the daily train trip from our accommodation into the city terminated at Waterloo Station. Of course, my mind immediately recalls the beautifully poetic “Waterloo Sunset” by the Kinks. Again it’s a normal inner city suburb like plenty of others in London. What was it about the place that made it so special to Ray Davies?

Waterloo Station, as namechecked in “Waterloo Sunset” by The Kinks

I spent a lot of time looking about these places with my eyes open thinking about these songs, trying to find out why these places inspired these great pieces of music. At face value, there didn’t seem to be anything that interesting about them.

However… the chronology of the Beatles, by late 1966 they’d finally stopped touring and slowed down their pace of life. They took a moment to take a deep breath and to take stock of how far they’d come. In the four short years from their first single release, they’d travelled the world and had all but conquered it with their music and the huge fame it brought them. Collectively, John and Paul took a look back to their childhoods for inspiration. They’d come a long way from their roots in Liverpool and wanted to give a bit back to the fans in their hometown.

Writing in the Beatles Anthology, Paul McCartney had this to say about “Penny Lane” and Strawberry Fields:

“A lot of our formative years were spent walking around those places. Penny Lane was the depot where I had to change buses to get from my house to John’s and to a lot of my friends. It was a big bus terminal I knew well…It’s [the song “Penny Lane”] part fact, part nostalgia for a great place - as we remember it”.

In effect, these places don’t have to be magical, picturesque or even places of reverence. They are important to John and Paul and George and Ringo because they grew up there. They knew those places well. They are a part of who they are and forever an indelible part of who they’ve become.

We all have those places as part of our own life experience. I didn’t live in Raymond Terrace, NSW, however I spent loads of time in and around the town as a child with my grandparents. My “Strawberry Fields” could be Riverside Park, on the banks of the Hunter River. My “Penny Lane” could be Irrawang St where my grandmother lived. Again, these are probably average places to the eyes of the casual observer, but they’re important to me in the same way Penny Lane was to Paul and Waterloo was to Ray.

Riverside Park, Raymond Terrace. Image source: Port Stephens Council

The takeaway from this for me was that artistic inspiration can be gained from unlikely sources. I have gained a deeper appreciation for the artistry of some of my favourite musicians, who have created such beautiful and poetic pieces of music inspired by these quotidian surroundings of their past. These places are romantic to the writers, and I’m glad they are, otherwise we wouldn’t have these great songs. It still amazes me that they have found the deeper meaning and hidden beauty of these areas when the casual observer would be completely oblivious to it. It also made for a more fascinating travel experience as it meant that I could go off the beaten track to see different things or even look in unusual places for something interesting that I wouldn’t otherwise look for, prompted by the ideas I’d heard about in the records I’ve grown up listening to.

The original Australian vinyl release of “Waterloo Sunset” by The Kinks

Indeed, these places don’t have to be romantic to anyone else of course, but that is the beauty of nostalgia. You can’t be truly nostalgic for something you weren’t a part of. And you don’t have to be connected to London or Liverpool to appreciate the magic within the grooves of those classic records. But, having seen these places now, I now enjoy these songs even more than previously, having first hand experience for added context.

I now know exactly what Ray meant when he sang “chilly chilly is evening time, Waterloo sunset’s fine…”

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