The family phonograph, which the advent of the evening set in action, was another musical machine I could hear through my verse. On the veranda where our relatives and friends assembled, it emitted from its brass mouthpiece the so-called “tsiganskie romansi” beloved of my generation. These were more or less anonymous imitations of gypsy songs – or imitations of imitations. What constituted their gypsiness was a deep monotonous moan broken by a kind of hiccup, the audible cracking of a lovesick heart … At their worst, they could be likened to the apache stuff composed by mild men of letters and delivered by thickset ladies in Parisian nightclubs. Their natural environment was characterised by nightingales in tears, lilacs in bloom and the alleys of whispering trees that graced the parks of the landed gentry.” 

(Vladimir Nabokov – Speak, Memory)

(n.b. if you click on the links in this piece, they will play you a tune …)

The town where I live is often visited by a band, who set up and play on a bridge over the river. The man I take to be their leader (an accordionist) is always there. Sometimes he plays alone, often he is accompanied by a trumpeter. Occasionally their number swells to four with the addition of a trombonist and, I think, a saxophonist. Although they play in a style that I think of as ‘gypsy jazz’, I do not recall a guitarist or a fiddler. Their accents, from the brief exchanges I have had with their leader, suggest that they have their origins somewhere in Eastern Europe, but that they are gypsies is pure supposition on my part.

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Their repertoire is eclectic, and varies with the seasons : at Christmas (when they were at full strength) they played ‘Jingle Bells’ ; in the Summer ‘In the Summertime’. ‘Love Theme from The Godfather’, ‘Sway’ and ‘My Way’ are other particular favourites. Whatever the source of their material, it is played at roughly the same tempo, punctuated by whoops. I enjoy hearing them play, and always give them a little money when I pass by.

Recently I heard them playing a tune which I thought I recognised, but could not quite place. When I next passed them, I identified it as ‘Those Were the Days’, by Mary Hopkin, a song I had not heard for some time ; I may be wrong, but I think it is now less well-known than it used to be. I do not recall any popular cover versions, or it being a favourite with talent show contestants or used in adverts, and I doubt whether it is often played on the radio. In my memory, though, it was, for a time, inescapable.

That lies in the brief interval between the time when I am sure that I can remember nothing clearly, and the time when I think that I can remember public events with some degree of accuracy. I believe it was the first song I was aware of being ‘Number One’, and understanding that this was thought to be, in some way, significant. It seemed to be there (both at ‘Number One’ and in my world) for a very long time and, given that I had not yet understood how the charts worked, I knew of no reason to think that it would ever end.

As a small child, songs seemed to me to be natural phenomena, quite beyond my control, which appeared at random out of the aether and then disappeared again with no reason or rhyme. I think this is how the very young tend to experience life anyway, but the effect was accentuated by my circumstances and the historical period through which I was living. My parents were not particularly interested in music, and we did not have a record player in the house (I’m not sure I had ever seen a physical record, or had much idea what one was), so that the concept of owning a song and being able to summon it up at will was unknown to me.

We owned a radio, but this was only capable of receiving what it described as the ‘Home Service’ and the ‘Light Programme’ (it teasingly advertised the existence of more exotic possibilities such as ‘Hilversum’, but, even when I had worked out that twisting the dial enabled you to change stations, that conjured up only a frustrating sonic furball of static). This was the prime time of pirate radio stations, but none of their vessels were moored off the Fylde Coast, and, even if they had been, I doubt whether my parents would have been inclined to tune in, or that our radio would have been capable of receiving them. So, if it was music we wanted, which my Mother sometimes did, it was the ‘Light Programme’ or nothing (the ‘Third Programme’, as far as I knew, was devoted entirely to cricket commentary).

This ‘Light Programme’ was devoted to ‘light music’, a jumble of light orchestral music, show tunes from various decades and the lighter end of pop music ; to preserve its lightness, the heaviness and darkness which weighed down and cast shadows over the music of the latter years of the decade was excluded. Once a song had been admitted into this canon it never left, even if it survived only in pureed form, as performed by one of the various vocal groups (the Mike Sammes, Swingle or Kings Singers) or light orchestras. Even when a song was in its prime (particularly if it was by an American artiste) it would be as likely to appear as a cover version by some British singer as in its original form.

After the ‘Light Programme’ split into Radios 1 and 2 in 1967, Radio 1 tended to play only songs that were currently in the charts (with the exception of the occasional ‘rave from the grave’, introduced by a comical sound effect) ; Radio 2 continued with the ‘light’ mixture much as before, but felt even less obligation to play new songs (not that I was aware of any of this, as our radio could no more receive Radio 1 than it could ‘Hilversum’). A few programmes were broadcast on both frequencies, two of them being the Top Twenty (as I was soon to discover) and Junior Choice, which was the only programme I can remember my parents actively encouraging me to listen to (perhaps so they could have an hour to themselves on Saturday mornings).

As the name suggests, this was a programme for children, which broadcast a predictable repertoire, composed, mostly, of comical novelty songs, such as ‘Sparky’s Magic Piano‘, ‘Would You Like To Swing On A Star?’ and ‘Nelly the Elephant‘. It did, though, allow a few more contemporary songs to slip through, presumably those that were thought particularly suitable for children, most of which seemed to be intent on gently intimating to me a presentiment of loss : I remember ‘Puff the Magic Dragon‘, ‘My Name is Jack‘, ‘Excerpt From A Teenage Opera’ and, particularly, ‘The Carnival Is Over’, by The Seekers. ‘Those Were The Days‘ would have fitted into that category quite well, and hearing it every Saturday morning may have contributed to my impression that it had become inescapable.

It could have permeated my environment through other routes : light entertainment shows on the television (which usually featured musical interludes), the tannoy at football matches, fairgrounds and amusement parks, brass bands, whistling milkmen, girls returning arm-in-arm from a night on the town (heard through an open window). It may even have been adapted into a football chant. Then, of course, there was ‘Top of the Pops’, which I had begun to pay attention to, in the hope that a strange-looking man with his head on fire whom I had once glimpsed, might reappear (he never did, but by then I was hooked).

I am not sure that I precisely liked Hopkin’s song, but I was fascinated by it and sensed that it hinted at some kind of change. On the one hand, it marked a beginning : its themes of nostalgia and regret were novel to me and offered a frisson of adulthood ; on the other, I was dimly aware, in the way that animals can sense the approach of Winter, that it prefigured the end of something, though what that was I had no way of knowing. In retrospect, I suppose that it was the ‘Sixties, though that would have been meaningless to me (born at Christmas in 1960 I had never known anything other than the ‘Sixties and I had no real sense, as children tend not to, that the world ever had, or could be any different from what I had known).

Once, I would have had to leave this Autumnal half-memory, of something not wholly understood but enticing, undisturbed. If I had wanted to hear the song I would have had to find a record shop that stocked a copy. If I had wanted to watch a contemporary performance I would had to wait for a clip to turn up on some kind of nostalgic TV programme. If I had wanted to learn more about the song, its singer or authors, its progress up the charts or its posthumous life, I would have had to visit a library, thumb surreptitiously through reference works in a bookshop, or enter the netherworld of fan clubs and fanzines. No doubt, this would all have demanded too much time and effort to be devoted to a passing fancy. As it is, a few idle clicks are enough to lead me through a potentially endless series of links, subjecting my fragile, hazy, intimate memory to both a kind of ‘reality check’ and a spin through a hall of distorting mirrors.

I can substantiate that the song was around for a very long time. It was released on 30th August 1968 (when I was seven), reached Number One on 24th September, stayed there until 5th November and made its final appearance in the charts on 22nd January (by which time I was eight). It was in the charts for roughly one sixteenth of my life up to that point, and perhaps an eighth of my conscious life. I suppose I must have been in my last year at infants’ school, and my youngest sister had been born the previous December, but I find I can retrieve no particular memories from this period.

I can find three contemporary videos of Hopkin performing the song on YouTube, none of which, I think, can have been the one I would have seen on ‘Top of the Pops’. Judging by some rudimentary attempts at scene-setting (in one she is sitting in a ‘tavern’, next to a bottle of unidentified booze, in another (mysteriously) she is posing against a backcloth of a seaside promenade), they have been extracted from some light entertainment show, probably continental.

Mary Hopkin

The first thing that strikes me now (as it would not have at the time) is how young she looks (she was barely eighteen), and the incongruity of her singing such a world-weary song. To be so widely popular, the song’s appeal must have stretched from teenagers, perhaps attracted by her connection to the Beatles, to the middle-aged and old, who may have known her from ‘Opportunity Knocks’ (also, I think, where I would first have encountered her). The lyrics’ appeal to the old is obvious ; to the young, perhaps, it offered the chance to experience a novel emotion at no cost to themselves.

It is also striking how, at a time when most English music was faux-American or ‘very English’ (in the manner of the Kinks), the song has a decidedly ‘European’ feel. The arrangement (by Richard Hewson) includes a balalaika, hammered dulcimer and clarinet, as well as the swirling strings that he was soon to apply to ‘The Long and Winding Road’ and some abortive sessions with Nick Drake.

Although the song was credited solely to Gene Raskin, it is of Russian origin. Raskin was a Professor of Architecture at Columbia University, who wrote novels and plays (which may account for the self-consciously ‘literary’ diction), and performed as a folk singer in a duo with his wife. Raskin wrote only the English lyrics ; the tune, although it is often referred to as a ‘folk song’, is from a Russian song called ‘Dorogoi Dlinnoyu‘ , by Boris Fomin, with original lyrics by the poet Konstantin Podrevsky.

 

The song dates from 1924, and was first recorded by Fomin’s partner, Tamara Tsereteli, and, more famously, by Alexander Vertinsky.

Tsereteli

Vertinsky

Dorogoi Dlinnoyu’, with its troikas, sleigh bells and mournful seven string guitars, is squarely within the tradition of ‘tsiganskie romansi’ (gypsy romances), as described above by Nabokov, when reminiscing about his pre-revolutionary adolescence. The reference to ‘the apache stuff composed by mild men of letters‘ may well be a reference to the lyricist Podrevsky, and Nabokov would have been subjected to renditions of it ‘delivered by thickset ladies in Parisian nightclubs‘ if he had ventured into such establishments during his years of exile in that city, where it had been first popularised by the his fellow exile Vertinsky.

A Russian would have had to be in exile to have heard ‘Dorogoi Dlinnoyu‘ performed publicly after 1927, when it was banned, under suspicion of encouraging nostalgia. In 1929 the All-Russian Musicians’ Conference suppressed the whole genre of ‘tsiganskie romansi‘ as counter-revolutionary. Podrevsky had his property confiscated, and died in obscure circumstances in 1930. Fomin was briefly rehabilitated during the war, but, in 1946, fell victim (alongside Akhmatova) to an ‘anti-poshlost campaign‘ and died of tuberculosis in 1948.

Following the slight thaw after the death of Stalin, the song was allowed to resurface and achieved new popularity as a ‘folk song’ (its authors remained officially indescribable) ; one of the earliest new recordings was by Nani Bregvadze, who was honoured as a ‘People’s Artist of the Soviet Union’ in 1993.

Bregvadze

And among the very numerous other Russian versions, to prove the tone need not always be wistful, there is this frankly alarming rendition by the Red Army Choir.

Red Army Choir

In 1968, the song’s appeal crossed not only generational but national boundaries. Hopkin recorded it in French, Spanish, German and Italian, as did Sandie Shaw, who had released her own, less successful, English version (a rather half-hearted effort, but seeming too cool for her own material was always part of her charm). In France, the French-Italian-Egyptian diva Dalida recorded a more authentically jaded rendition (in a very loose translation as ‘Le Temps des Fleurs’) and Vicky Leandros a conventionally pretty one.

Dalida

Leandros

In one language or another, the song reached number one or two in eighteen countries, including every country in western Europe (bar Italy, for some reason) and North America, so it was not only in my childish imagination that it seemed inescapable. It must have been so through most of the Western world throughout the Autumn of 1968.

I am wary of attributing the popularity of a song to its having captured the feeling of a moment (the best-selling single in Europe throughout the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ‘Velvet Revolution’ was ‘The Lambada’), but it is hard not to feel that ‘Those Were The Days’, in its mild way, prefigured the end of the ‘Sixties, a year before those events in ‘popular culture’ which are usually supposed to have marked it (Altamont, the Manson killings).

Looking through the events of 1968, there were plenty of reasons for anyone still left elated by the supposed ‘Summer of Love’ to be feeling deflated by the Autumn.  The year had begun with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. In April, Martin Luther King was assassinated ; in June, Bobby Kennedy. By the Autumn, the événements in Paris (the most dramatic example of the student unrest that had also broken out in Britain, the USA, Germany and elsewhere that Spring) had come to nothing. President de Gaulle was re-elected with an increased majority in June and, in November, Richard Nixon was elected President.

Of those events, the only one I remember being aware of at the time (apart from Vietnam, which seemed to be always rumbling on in the background) was Kennedy’s assassination, but I do clearly remember the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which took place on 21st August, a week before the release of ‘Those Were The Days’. In the week it left the British charts, Jan Palach (a Czech student) famously set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square. The burns specialist who treated him wrote of his motivation for doing so :

“”It was not so much in opposition to the Soviet occupation, but the demoralization which was setting in, that people were not only giving up, but giving in. And he wanted to stop that demoralization. I think the people in the street, the multitude of people in the street, silent, with sad eyes, serious faces, which when you looked at those people you understood that everyone understands, that all the decent people were on the verge of making compromises.”

I am not, I think, suggesting that post-revolutionary tristesse was solely responsible for the song’s popularity ; a pretty girl (or a selection of pretty girls) singing a hummable tune always went down well in those days.  Some older people may have felt that ‘those days’ were the peaceful ones before students began rioting and listening to loud rock music.  No doubt most active soixante-huitards would have preferred to work off their frustrations by listening to Les Rolling Stones or Les Doors.  In North America, the song was often interpreted as an expression of nostalgia for the heyday of the pre-electric folkies.

Nonetheless, I can imagine it permeating the air of mainland Europe in much the same way that it seemed to seep, uninvited, into my small world on its North-Western fringes (particularly given that those were the days before people took to piping music directly into their heads via earphones) ; creeping out from jukeboxes into the cafés where the soixante-huitards smoked and plotted their revolutions, puzzling the Czechs twisting the dials on their old radios in search of accurate news from the West (perhaps even locating the mysterious ‘Hilversum’), providing a mocking counterpoint to their hopes with its pretty, kitschy, resignation.  And what effect, I wonder, would it have had on the Russians, as they entered Prague, some of them, perhaps, under the sincere impression that they would be greeted as liberators, to hear their own dear ‘Dorogoi Dlinnoyu’, with its troikas and sleigh bells, being trilled back at them in several unfamiliar languages by strange young women in mini-skirts?

As for my gypsies, my Tziganes, who may or not be real, I wonder whether they are playing ‘Those Were the Days‘, ‘Le Temps des Fleurs‘ or ‘Dorogoi Dlinnoyu‘ ; an imitation of an imitation, or an imitation of an imitation of an imitation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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