Weirdly, I don’t think I’ve ever actually been to the circus. I’ve been to funfairs, I’ve seen clowns perform elsewhere, but even as a kid never set foot in a big top. I’ve seen them enough in film and on TV, mind, to know that maybe, just maybe, I’m not missing too much.
/Tuesday Ten/391/The Circus Is Leaving Town
Or am I? Am I missing a rush of adrenaline as I watch a tightrope walker inch across the high-wire, or the trapeze artist as they perform scarcely believable stunts? Maybe I should correct this one day.
Anyway, this week is songs about the circus, the carnival and clowns. I can’t remember where the inspiration came from for this one, but it was something I had in my head to ask before Christmas, and the response I got from the usual suggestion thread was a really interesting one, as it happens. 115 songs were suggested, with 104 unique songs and just two that have been used before. Songs were suggested by 60 different people, and thanks to all of you as usual for taking the time to contribute.
A quick explanation for new readers (hi there!): my Tuesday Ten series has been running since March 2007, and each month features at least ten new songs you should hear – and in between those monthly posts, I feature songs on a variety of subjects, with some of the songs featured coming from suggestion threads on Facebook.
Feel free to get involved with these – the more the merrier, and the breadth of suggestions that I get continues to astound. Otherwise, as usual, if you’ve got something you want me to hear, something I should be writing about, or even a gig I should be attending, e-mail me, or drop me a line on Facebook (details below).
/Your Funeral…My Trial
One of the key musical pieces in one of the greatest films of all, as far as I’m concerned (Wim Wender’s magical Wings of Desire), this woozy, unsettling song is in part the leitmotif for the tragic trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin), but also the grimy, ramshackle circus troupe that she has been travelling and performing with. The song details a vanishing circus performer, in a rain-soaked, desperate atmosphere, a world away from the shiny delights that Circuses have long sold themselves on – and the Circus Alekan in the film isn’t exactly the kind of circus I’d be keen to attend, either…
/Nellie The Elephant
/Dig That Groove Baby
Time for some lighter entertainment. The most surprising thing about writing this week’s post was finding out that this band are still active, still touring, and marked their fortieth anniversary last year. I must confess that I know little about them other than a handful of their fun punk covers, but most of all I know of them for this seemingly eternally popular take on an old children’s song – which itself dates from 1956 – but in the past decade or two has been best known to most of my friends as a key part of the 80s night in Whitby, where all kinds of dancefloor (moshpit) carnage results. The song, of course, is a fantastical tale of the titular elephant who decides to get away from the circus and to become a wild animal once again…
/Tunnel of Love (feat. The Carousel Waltz)
Dire Straits were one of those bands I grew up knowing almost all the songs (my dad was, and is, a big fan), although it probably took me a while longer to properly appreciate just how great they were. Making Movies remains one of their creative peaks (with the exception of the appallingly dated attitudes of Les Boys), and the first side of the album is basically peerless (Tunnel of Love, Romeo and Juliet and Skateaway). That first song winds through eight minutes that flash past, as Mark Knopfler ties in youthful memories at the Spanish City rides and amusements in his native Northumberland/Tyneside and the emotional rollercoaster of love, and even finds time to include part of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel Waltz along the way.
/Is That All There Is?
/The Devil’s Fairground
One of London’s more striking, unusual bands, their anarchic, bawdy cabaret-punk (or Brechtian Punk Cabaret, if you must) has now been turning heads for over thirty years, and last year they released the sprawling The Devil’s Fairground. Which at least in part felt like a rumination over quite how they got to where they are, and the final track on the album is an epic, punishing take on one of Peggy Lee‘s greatest songs. Amid the disappointment of the narrator experiencing apparently exciting, new things for the first time, one of those is a trip to the circus…and they are deeply underwhelmed. Clowns, elephants, dancing bears (remember this song was written in the sixties), even beautiful trapeze artists…and it’s just not enough. No pleasing some people, eh?
It is slightly mind-boggling to realise that this track was released as the opening track of EON:EON, which dates back to late 1998. Yes, this is twenty-one years old. Pitchfork’s darkwave, melodic electronic music was deeply enjoyable around this time (I’ve never been so much of a fan of their more recent releases, I must admit), and this track bounces along nicely, and if I’m not mistaken at least riffs on a Eurythmics track for a short moment. Quite what the carnival has to do with the scorched earth, apocalyptic imagery on show in the lyrics is not entirely clear, but I’ve always taken it to be a reference to the way that lavish entertainment (in this case the travelling carnival) can take us away from our day-to-day troubles and drudgery just for a short while.
/Dear Madam Barnum
Apparently originally intended for an Australian film called The Crossing, this song comes from the last XTC album on Virgin Records – which also contains the sublime single The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead. This song, though, takes on an unexpected subject – labour issues within the circus. The clown here has really, really had enough of being the butt of the jokes, of the cartoon violence, of the off-stage work. It must be a tough job – and one that isn’t all laughs, that’s for sure. Well worth reading on this subject is this Reddit thread where clowns talk about their experiences. The name Barnum, of course, references probably the best known showman of all, P. T. Barnum.
/The Day The Circus Fell Down
A woozy, circus-themed rhythm – complete with accordion, from what I can tell – permeates this song, a multi-vocal tale that takes in various characters as they recount a presumably fictional tale of circus disaster, and it is also a sound that owes a debt or two to at least one of the other artists in this list. But it is also an enjoyable, marvellously mad song that keeps you on your toes throughout. There are, of course, dangers inherent in the circus, from the days-of-old animals to the very structure that the events occur in, and most tragically in 1944 there was a huge fire at a circus in Hartford, Connecticut.
Of course, leave it to Tom Waits to make a circus sound like the most depressing event possible. One where, he concludes, that he wishes he “…had some whiskey and a gun“. The sound of a music box along with a scratchy microphone is pretty much the only accompaniment to Waits, as he recounts the bizarre characters in the circus that he sees, the exquisite detail contained in the relentless stream of circus acts being the main attraction here. One in particular I love: “…then there was Yodeling Elaine the queen of the air who wore a dollar sign medallion and she had a tiny bubble of spittle around her nostril and a little rusty tear, for she had lassoed and lost another tipsy sailor…”
Waits, a man with an uncanny ability to eke out the desperation and hopelessness of life, in just a short description.
This remarkable, near flawless song takes inspiration from an unexpected place – an opera. The concept of the song is basically the same as the opera Pagliacci, where a clown has to perform and smile despite being distraught after his wife has left him. The music here is the uplifting bit – that extraordinary, tiptoeing hook and huge, orchestral sound, complete with legions of backing vocalists – while Smokey Robinson puts in a vocal performance that doesn’t attempt to hide the despair of the character his has become. What I’d never realised until now is that Stevie Wonder wrote the music. What a dream team…
As we wrap up this week’s post, though, the coming of the circus to town is only a transient thing. Here in North London, the Circus usually comes to Finsbury Park a couple of times a year, takes up residence in the corner of the park for a week or so, and then moves on to wherever they are pitching next. Campbell and Lanegan take up the idea of the circus moving on, and turn it into a devastating ballad, led by Lanegan’s voice that always suggests that he has seen things that he doesn’t want to elaborate on. The circus has gone, /Tuesday Ten/391 has come to an end, and I’ll move on to another subject next week.