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Saturday, 28 March 2009

Written in granite: This Man Is A Cathedral

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The first time I became aware that the world contained a song entitled I Am A Cathedral I knew this was going to be for me. I've a feeling I heard it on the radio one night in about 1982, some disc jockey said, and now we have a song called I Am A Cathedral and it wasn't going to matter WHO it was by, nothing was going to spoil it for me. The next words were a little puzzling... "by Peter Sarstedt." Everyone knows one record by Peter Sarstedt, or certainly everyone did then. That record was (and indeed is) Where Do You Go To My Lovely? It was one of those records I'd heard so many times on the radio that I'd... well, I'd stopped hearing it, I suppose. Familiarity can do that and occasionally you need something to jolt you out of it. We'll come to Lovely in a moment... Anyway, on came Cathedral, acoustic guitar lightly strumming, a voice even lighter proclaiming that the singer was a cathedral, stained-glass windows and all. What on earth was he on about? I had no idea but it sounded intriguing. Shortly afterwards I picked up a very cheap compilation album called... Oh go on, take a wild guess. As well as the ubiquitous title track, it featured Cathedral and a number of other tracks which, as I now know, were mostly drawn from Mr Sarstedt's eponymous debut album. I must admit that at the time it didn't really sink in, I adored Cathedral, yes, and I gradually started to appreciate the genius of Lovely... but much of the rest of it went over my head.

Let's go back to Where Do You Go To My Lovely for a moment, shall we? And let's just admire the achievement here... Because this was a huge, huge hit – reaching number one in more than a dozen countries - and a certified "classic", i.e. a track that someone like me, who'd been five or six years old when it came out, had known all my life, there'd never to my knowledge been a time when I wasn't aware of it. And yet, when you actually look at it, well, it's an odd one, isn't it? For a start it's really rather long... Five-and-a-half-minute singles were fairly rare even in the late seventies but in 1969 they were even fewer and further between... However this was no proto-prog epic with full band and orchestra, in fact musically it's one of the sparsest things you'll hear. Other than its jaunty "in-case-you-were-in-any-doubt-that-we're-in-Paris" accordion intro and the briefest hint of strings for a few bars and a reprise of said jaunty Gallic accordion over the outro, the instrumentation is just an acoustic guitar, bashing out a single four-chord sequence for the entire duration, and voice. So how did this become such a huge hit? Simple, it's got a truly brilliant lyric. There aren't many lyrics in pop music which can carry a whole song at all for two minutes, let alone five and a half. This one is sardonic, witty, superbly constructed and it has a great pay-off, none the less effective for being telegraphed from the start. Oh and it features some wonderfully cheeky rhymes.

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I must admit that, as I failed to come across any more of his records for 20 or so years, Mr Sarstedt's work drifted to the back of my memory – very much my loss. However 5-6 years ago I came across a 2CD set of his first two albums, the eponymous one featuring the aforementioned two classics, and As Though It Were A Movie. This latter is the only album title I can think of off the top of my head to contain a use of the subjunctive tense and it gains its author immense credit in my eyes. Perhaps we'll have a closer look in a later Written In Granite... The only other Sarstedt album I have is the recently released The Lost Album, which I downloaded (legally and for a consideration, I should add) recently and whose acquaintance I'm still making. Let's return to the first album, though. Side one opens with Cathedral and side two with Lovely. The former still sends shivers up and down my spine, it's a thing of such beautiful construction that you can't help believing that yes, he is a cathedral. He sounds like one, anyway. When we were driving up to Liverpool for the sessions which led to Tomorrow morning, 3 a.m., we were listening to a cassette, as for some reason fate wanted us to hear something specific and my iPod kept cutting out, so we scuttled back to earlier technology. The tape in question was of a compilation of songs culled from Tim Hardin's first two Verve albums. Now Hardin's songs tend to be very short so the whole album lasted barely 25 minutes or something. And at the end of it, after Tribute To Hank Williams had finished, suddenly there was that gently strummed acoustic guitar and on came I Am A Cathedral. I'm not of a terribly mystical persuasion but I do know when I'm being told something, so when we went into the studio I made sure I played the musicians the track and said "let's go for this kind of feel... Only as long as Where Do You Go To My Lovely..." I think our single has come out with something of Cathedral in its make-up. Perhaps it's in the way it's the rhythm of the acoustic guitar allied with that of the words that holds the whole thing together, although that's perhaps actually closer in execution to Lovely, in sheer verbiage, but perhaps it's also in some of the more baroque touches, the ornate pieces put in to set off or indeed sometimes to illustrate the words. Or perhaps not.

The rest of Peter Sarstedt is terrific too, although perhaps something of an acquired taste to modern ears... It's so utterly English. The Wikipedia entry on Peter Sarstedt describes him and his brothers as "Anglo-Indian" – for this is another odd thing. No fewer than three Sarstedt brothers made hit records in the sixties and seventies, aside from Peter himself, there was also Richard, who recorded under the name of "Eden Kane" and Clive whose stage name, rather bizarrely, was "Robin Sarstedt" and I do remember his arch My Resistance Is Low being a hit in the mid-seventies. To give you a flavour of the album here are some of the song titles: The Sons Of Cain Are Abel (terrific title, eh?), No More Lollipops, Sayonara, Blagged, My Daddy Is A Millionaire and Many-Coloured Semi-Precious Plastic Easter Egg... Those are all on the first album. Musically the LP covers an awful lot of ground, from some really gorgeous material every bit as out-there statuesque as anything Scott Walker was attempting that same year (1969), some folkier material and then some stuff that's actually rather vaudevillian. However throughout it's the lyrics which hold the attention, the music is always designed, in most cases to devastating effect, to set off the lyrics and they're brilliantly written.

Mention should also be made of the moustache sported by Mr Sarstedt. It takes a very special talent to carry upper lip furniture of such magnitude off with such aplomb. In any case The Granite Shore definitely owe a debt to that first album and also to whatever force it was that brought I Am A Cathedral wafting through the air of our car unexpectedly during the drive up to Liverpool to record the single. On such moments of serendipity do weighty matters turn...





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