Planet of sound: The best musical journeys and places

Planet of sound: The best musical journeys and places

Travel inspiration


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Some of the best songs ever released have been inspired by travel – here’s some of our favourites

Popular music has always been inspired by travel and moving on from place to place. There have been trains – the 1870s standard The Ballad of John Henry, Leadbelly’s rendition of Midnight Special and a whole host of other blues songs; cars, naturally – Fun, Fun, Fun by the Beach Boys and Radar Love by Golden Earring are two that immediately spring to mind; and planes – Leaving on a Jet Plane, of course, to the more obscure, such as British Sea Power’s Spirit of St. Louis. So here we’re going to look at both the journeys and the destinations that have inspired songwriters over the years.

The Journeys

On The Road Again by Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson's On The Road Again is about going where the wind takes you – Shutterstock musicalWillie Nelson’s On The Road Again is about going where the wind takes you – Shutterstock

Capturing the very reasons most people love travel while simultaneously paying tribute to the (slightly romanticised) Depression-era idea of the blues musician travelling from place to place playing music, this little ditty was written on the spur of the moment on an aeroplane sick bag! Nelson was about to star in his first film, Honeysuckle Rose, about a touring musician.

He quickly needed to come up with a theme song, and this is what he produced. The use of the train beat on the drums (a feature of a lot of Johnny Cash songs) gives the feeling of always moving forward, and the lyrics (“Goin’ places that I’ve never been, seein’ things that I may never see again”) speak simply to the listener about the joys of aimlessly heading where the wind takes you.

Down Under by Men At Work

Men At Work's Down under is about a boorish Australian's journey to the UK – Shutterstock musicalMen At Work’s Down under is about a boorish Australian’s journey to the UK – Shutterstock

Although seen by many Australians as the unofficial national anthem, songwriter Colin Hay says it’s less of a celebration, more of a stereotype of how the rest of the world sees Aussies. It was apparently inspired by the cartoon character of Barry McKenzie, an Australian who moves to the UK and is loud, boorish and often drunk.

But it also embodied many traits to be proud of – he was friendly, honest (occasionally too honest) and “a good bloke”. This was taken further with the song’s story of an Aussie backpacker travelling the world and being recognised everywhere for displaying these characteristics – as well as his love of Vegemite, something which this particular writer doesn’t understand in the slightest!

Homeward Bound by Simon and Garfunkel

Homeward Bound was written in Liverpool – Shutterstock musicalHomeward Bound was written in Liverpool – Shutterstock

This wistful, resigned little beauty of a song was written by Paul Simon in Liverpool, England. He had come to England to escape the folk scene of New York City, and had been living in Brentwood, Essex.

There, he had met a girl named Kathy Chitty, and they both fell for each other. After playing at a club one night in Liverpool, Simon was sitting on the platform of Widnes railway station, waiting for the early morning train back to London. The song reflects his feelings towards touring and his own work (“Tonight I’ll sing my songs again, I’ll play the game and pretend”) and, possibly, his desire to get back to his own country, as he laments that “each town looks the same to me”. Kathy, however, would be a more continuous fixture. She appears again in both America and Kathy’s Song.

The Destinations

Istanbul (Not Constantinople) by They Might Be Giants

Istanbul (Not Constantinople) was esoterically inspired by the Ottoman invasion of the city – Shutterstock musicalIstanbul (Not Constantinople) was esoterically inspired by the Ottoman invasion of the city – Shutterstock

Originally written for a Canadian vocal group called The Four Lads, it was released in 1953 – the 500th anniversary of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire. A swing-style record, it refers to the renaming of the city to Istanbul, which took place in 1930.

Brooklyn alt-rockers They Might Be Giants scored a hit in the US with a faster, wilder version of the song in 1990, which has become the definitive version. Written in minor fifths, both versions possess their own take on typical Middle-Eastern musical arrangements, and refer not only to the renaming of Constantinople, but also to the renaming of New Amsterdam as New York in 1664. In the song, it’s claimed that “Why they changed it, I can’t say; people just liked it better that way”, whereas in reality it was named such when the English took control of the territory from the Dutch, and King Charles II granted the land to his brother, the Duke of York.

Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle by Nirvana

Frances Farmer was a movie star hounded by the American press – Shutterstock musicalFrances Farmer was a movie star hounded by the American press – Shutterstock

An unusual choice, I grant you, but bear with me. After reading the biography of actress and fellow Seattleite Frances Farmer, Kurt Cobain sympathised with her persecution by the press. Born in 1913, and an unusually precocious youth, at the age of 18 Farmer won a writing contest with her essay God Dies, having been influenced by reading Nietzsche from her early teens.

This brought her to the attention of a leftist newspaper who rewarded her with a trip to the Soviet Union. Upon returning, she attempted to carve out a career in theatre, but the assumption she was both an atheist and a Communist held her back. This was until Paramount, spurred on by her looks, offered her work in films.

She took her chance, but her outspoken character and increasing drinking made her unreliable and volatile. After a series of legal wrangles, her behaviour became increasingly erratic and eventually she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and hospitalised. After treatment, she made a comeback as a host on local TV, but more problems with alcohol and mental illness ended in a car crash and another hospitalisation. She died of cancer in 1970, with rumours flying round of Framer receiving an unnecessary lobotomy. It’s a grim tale all round. So let’s finish with something much more life-affirming, shall we?

Waterloo Sunset by the Kinks

A Waterloo sunset in London – Shutterstock musicalA Waterloo sunset in London – Shutterstock

One of the sixties’ most important British bands – Paul Weller of the Jam and Blur’s Damon Albarn, among others, have cited them as a major influence – the Kinks were unwilling to embrace the Americanisation of music as demonstrated by their contemporaries such as the Rolling Stones.

Songwriter Ray Davies retreated into his own private Daviesland where everyone wore bowler hats, carried umbrellas, watched football on a Saturday afternoon then went home for tea. Waterloo Sunset is a floating, dreamy paean to London, as the narrator traces the moods of the city, from the Thames flowing forever out to sea, the taxis buzzing around the warmth and lights of the centre, and Terry and Julie, a couple living in the centre of their own world, and yet surrounded by millions of others. For a songwriter who was only 23 at the time, it’s an astonishingly mature piece of work.

So there you have it. This really is the most minimal overview possible of the amount of wonderful songs and stories that have sprung from exploring new places; some wonderful, some disturbing, some simple and some delving into as-yet-unknowns. Yet all of them fill in at least a tiny part of the mystery of what makes people curious about other people and other places. Whether it’s the journey, the destination, or the people you meet along the way, everything is a story.

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