Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Marching Into History: Blue Mink: "The Banner Man"

The main purpose – or at least one of the main purposes – of this blog is an educational one.  There are vast areas of UK culture that I don’t know or understand, and by writing about the number two singles I am at least patiently chipping away at my ignorance about popular music.  I have lived here long enough to notice, however, that this isn’t just a condition of outsiders like me, but natives as well. 

This blog is entering what I can only think of as The Void, a weird area that sees most chart hits being hits at the time but being more or less forgotten ever since, only played on the radio during chart countdown shows.  I suppose some of these songs also fit in the dreaded ‘guilty pleasures’ category, but only some.  Most songs in The Void are left to those who heard them in the first place, and are all but unknown to anyone now, for all sorts of reasons. 

“The Banner Man” is one such song.  Blue Mink were a group of studio musicians (co-writer Roger Cook and Madeline Bell among them; they also sing here, I believe) who figured they were good enough to become an actual band; and so in the late 60s they formed, having a hit with “Melting Pot” and then a second hit with “Good Morning Freedom.”  Those titles reflect a certain early 70s optimism, that special kind of righteousness that launched the 70s, a feeling – noted more ironically with The Rolling Stones – that anything can happen, and that this is a good thing, more or less…

But now here we are, in late June of 1971, and already the decade is in a lull; something clearly is going to happen, but no one quite knows what this is yet.  Times like this call for leaders, or at least someone charismatic; someone who can seem “ten feet tall” and inspire others, convert them if you will, to a cause.  If the previous songs were about general chaos, revenge and certain death, this song is about a joyous, loud parade up a hill, led by the banner man himself, who then saves a few souls and then goes back down the hill again, coronets and drums playing once again as he proudly marches on, the children (this song is written from a child’s perspective) watching in awe and joy.

If this song belongs to The Void it is due to its overwhelmingly quaint nature.  I am not sure just what the banner reads here, nor what is being preached, but would anyone hearing this song now under a certain age have any idea what it was about?  I do not know if the songwriters (Cook, Roger Greenaway and Herbie Flowers) saw the Salvation Army bands marching and preaching; the closest I’ve come to any Salvation Army sounds is the large hand bell rung at Christmastime by a member raising money for their cause.  This is what it is about, I suppose, but there’s another march that I have seen – a relatively small one, all things considered – that comes to mind. 

It was a rather hot and humid day in July, ’90 or ’91 perhaps, and I was walking through Queen’s Park in Toronto, en route to where I forget; I heard it before I saw it, the green lush trees obscuring my sight at first.  It was a marching band, a smallish one, all older men mostly.  I looked at the calendar once I got home and figured out it was the Old Order Orange march; Orangemen helped to found Toronto and there were still lodges here and there across the city, though their power and influence had waned in the last 60 years or so.  I don’t recall any spectators, besides me; they seemed to be marching as it was the done thing, and it was a reminder of times past.  And yes, there was someone holding a banner, perhaps even two people. 

I cannot ignore the fact that this was a hit (an NME #2) during marching season; that is one factor in its success, its celebration of the “glory, glory, glory” of the band and the message it brings.  That it is a simple, upbeat song sung from a child’s point of view also means kids bought it, too (just as kids would have bought “The Pushbike Song” for instance)*.  That this is a song that saves the world is just the sort of savior-is-here message needed at a time like this; the trouble (Troubles?) with saviors, however, is that they cannot do what they do alone.  For every person that might be convertible, there are those who are, for whatever reason, against conversion**. 

That this sounds like a product of a studio and not a live band doesn’t matter so much at this time (one when the song, not the singer(s), is the important thing) but the subject matter does.  The very things that made it successful then mark it for The Void now, including its religious element, its child’s angle, and its in-build old-fashioned four-square aura of a time that in ’71 – never mind now – would conjure up the Troubles and marching seasons that always cause trouble as opposed to a jolly little march to save souls in a town.  It is an innocent oompah-oompah of a song, done as professionally as you’d expect, but somehow it’s hard to hear it that way now, and may have even struck some as unpleasant then.  And so it has more or less disappeared…

Next up:  where the wild things (still) are.

*At this time the singles charts were dominated by songs either bought by kids or those definitely into adulthood, grandparents included; anyone who considered themselves at all "cool" were buying albums, not singles.       

**An Australian born around this time, now currently holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy, could say a lot about this.


MikeMCSG said...

Yeah I think you're right about The Void. You don't hear too much early 70s chart music on the radio - Bowie, Maggie May, perhaps a bit of Bolan - but generally the idea that it all went a bit quiet for a few years after the Beatles split up has been very pervasive. Of course you'll soon be coming to a guy who doesn't get played on the radio for quite another reason...

Anonymous said...

I always thought it was a Salvation Army parade, but your Orange interpretation makes sense. The supporters of Linfield, a Belfast football team who have the most fervently Loyalist fans in Northern Ireland, have a terrace song based on the chorus of The Banner Man, so probably some Orange supporters did adopt the song as being about them.

Robin Carmody said...

Absolutely the case that, whereas other songs of this period herald (there's an irony in my use of that word) the world that exists today, the world where UKIP represent the ultimate extreme of an economic flame then being tentatively, nervously half-lit in an environment fundamentally not made for quiet revolutions aligned to a cultural position ("Brown Sugar") which would then have been considered almost Trotskyist, shockingly libertarian and anti-hierarchical, this song marks the final act of another world, a world where communities of interest (that great hate-phrase of the New Old Left) cannot be imagined or conceived.

It's absolutely the case that this is a world which cannot be understood; in many ways it seems eerier, stranger, to those born and brought up here than to those seeing it from abroad, where the distinction between it and the world that exists today (all that Dorset is any more, for example, is a global suburb) may in some cases be less keen than it is to those of us who know it more than perhaps we wish we did. I know it better than the vast majority of people my age, and it still seems ... harder to talk about than it once was; where once it was I Love-ified, now it is Sandbrookised, or else it is genuinely creepy and chilling; perhaps this village is in North Wales, perhaps very real children are having their lives permanently stunted in the background (while others begin to seek to justify such ends for the means of liberation and self-expression), perhaps Savile actually went to this Whitsun fair, the closest this place could get to celebrity, which it doesn't understand but knows it must embrace or die. These songs can't now be what Dale Winton thought they were.

All this stuff gets us further and further away from the core, the original listening and feeling experience; no wonder I can listen to DJ Edu's show, as I'm doing now, and feel I - one of the first people who really tried to reimagine it, subtly and quietly for the Left - never *want* to go there again.

I must admit I've never thought of Northern Ireland on hearing this song (not thinking of Northern Ireland was, of course, the petals-in-ears-next-to-the-Somme *reason* for pop retreating into such a Void; how typical it is of the nature of Voids, of organised retreats (should this village have a capital V?) that they should actually draw us closer to what they're avoiding). For me, it's always been a world that exists purely on scratched, washed-out 16mm film; it could never be real life, a world of actually existing human relationships (and that is why the catalogue of institutional abuse is so shocking; it brings to the most horrible form of life something that seemed so faded as to contain no life at all). The fair's still going on, but nobody really has their heart in it; everyone knows that in ten years it will be forgotten. A community of *uninterest* - everything in it is a ritual, no longer felt or believed. There are still working horses, ancient and decayed and dying (c.f. Follyfoot) and everyone knows the gypsies will be in brick next year. A young couple up the road - maybe the first, but your youngish plumber is considering it - has already switched from the Mirror to the Sun.

The new town up the road is encroaching. Bolan's birthing 2014. And that is where we leave it, and maybe we can't (shouldn't, mustn't) go back there. This song is where pop says goodbye to the world that existed before it, with half an eye on the world it will create, where the economic Right and the cultural Left - both chilling and frightening phantoms to all those marching as here (as to war?) - exist as if nothing else ever has, or could.

Myrddin Janus said...

I think they were singing the song ironically. Most of their songs were about inclusion, hope, bringing the world together, but the underlying message of Banner Man is more of a warning. The Banner Man and the brass band in the song are almost certainly a Protestant Orange march - and this was at a time when the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland were coming to a head. The message of the song is how a young boy is naively inspired by a Nationalistic display of religious righteousness - the complete opposite of Blue Mink's usual message.