Friday, September 23, 2011

Man and Wife: Manfred Mann: "Semi-Detached Suburban Mr. James"

And so the 60s sit, perched, as it seems from here, to break into two not-so-clean pieces - the one that, raunchy as it is, still wears matching suits (as we have seen) and the more rebellious types who wear whatever they want and have more ambivalent feelings about what 'normal' people do. This song stands clearly on that side, the one that asks, effectively (decades before Lloyd Cole) "Are you ready to be heartbroken?" Not in the dumped way, but in the way that cozy security and regular routines can fetter those free spirits who aren't quite ready for domesticity. Is the woman here, newly engaged, able to see her future? Does she know what awaits her, out there in the new town? There are two possible answers: yes, and no. This song wouldn't have much point if it's the first answer, because then the Manfreds would be patronizing, right?

Or maybe...not. Even those with something of a clue of what is ahead cannot see everything which is to come; but the subtleties of that are more for the introspective 70s, not now. Clearly this is about a girl who is about to see her life change and probably not for the better. "Semi-detached" refers to a kind of house, but you can imagine Mr. James is a lawyer or physician or someone who works in The City and will not have much time for his Gidget-type girl, who will become - so the singer believes - something of a bored drudge, listening to pirate radio* (maybe) to keep whatever is still vital and sparkling from being smothered completely. The 60s were the 60s, but there was still an expectation that women - no matter how wildly they danced or how short their skirts or radical their views - would eventually settle down (both connotations apply here). Is the girl in this jaunty song ready to do this? Can she do it without becoming depressed, numb or just bored? Manfred Mann don't think so, and the next year will see them proved right.

The chart at this time is ablaze with many emotions, from joy to loneliness, desperation to liberation; whimsy, even. That better-have-a-drink-before-I-sing-this schlock was in the mix was fine, too; but the divide is about to become greater as the year comes to a close, though the swinging 60s aren't going to disappear once the church bells start ringing. Those who want to conform and be "square" and those who marry into that life will sit and be - annoyed, bemused or baffled - by those who refuse to join in. Now seems like the last time the two sides will even talk to each other, let alone contemplate marriage.

*Pirate stations only employed men as they were supposed to be substitutes for husbands for any wives listening. I may have mentioned this before, but I still think it's worth noting.


tommymack said...

This, like The Specials' Too Much Too Young, always sounds to me like the singer (Mike D'Abo, rather than Paul Jones here, right?) got dumped in favour of the safe option salaryman and is wishing boredom and suffocation down on the girl who threw him over. It's a curse not a warning: she's already made her choice, all he can do is hope it's the wrong one.

Lena said...

It may well be a curse, but the way the song is sung it sounds as if he still cares about her in a way - "So you FINALLY..." makes me think that he (Mike D'Abo, yep) tried his best to convince her that he was the right one, and she hemmed and hawed more than he would have liked. So maybe she is marrying the other guy because of some outward pressures - family, society - that that push her towards the safe option. If she just jumped at the other guy without a second glance, I can imagine this as a curse, but that pause makes me think it's a little more complex than that.