Monday, April 30, 2007

ROCKIN' through rock history in the charabancs

Sept. 11, 1967. Paul waits for the Magical Mystery Tour's film staff to show. (above)
Paul and John, aboard. (above)

Paul and friend, the week of Sept. 10, 1967 (above)
off the bus, briefly, to record "I Am the Walrus" (above) stuck on a narrow English countryside bridge during filming (above)
Modern-day Liverpool, with a re-created excursion coach. "Here, at the stop just 'round the corner from Forthlin Road. This was where Paul used to catch his regular bus to school. He first got talking to George Harrison on the bus as they were both carrying guitars." (above) Note: a similar-painted bus, said to be the orignal from the film, now resides with the Hard Rock Cafe in Orlando, FL.
A "char-a-banc" at Dunsapie Loch, Holyrood Park, near Edinburgh, 1926 (above)
a charabank outing from Caernarfon, 1925 (above)

I was listening to Graham Parker's furiously rockin' 1976 Howlin' Wind album this weekend and in particular to the fine song "Gypsy Blood." Therein, Parker makes reference to the English excursion bus known as the charabanc.
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"Now don't you try to sell your wares, little babe
'Cause I'll buy everything, just about everything you got
Pots and pans, and charabancs,
Jet black curls all tied right up in a knot
'Cause she got red hot, hey hey, gypsy blood, hmm hmm"
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This was Parker's famous debut, rambunctious British pub rock at its finest, backed by The Rumour. Parker was labeled by his associations with punk and new-wave, owing to his connections with Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, and Stiff Records honcho Dave Robinson. But, Parker (as noted in an Amazon.com review) really was an angry white, red-eyed soul brother, his work exemplified by searing rages like "Back to Schooldays" and "Hey Lord, Don't Ask Me Questions," and "Howlin' Wind" itself. "Gypsy Blood" was as romantic as it got on that LP.
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But I got to thinking. Were there other uses of the term "charabanc" in English or other rock?
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There was Jethro Tull's "Wond'ring Again."
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"Incestuous ancestry's charabanc ride
Spawning new millions, throws the world on its side
Supporting their far-flung illusion, the national curse,
And those with no sandwiches, please get off the bus."
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And the Decemberists, in 2003, made reference in their song "The Legionnaire's Lament" off the Castaways and Cutouts album:
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"On the old left bank
My baby in a charabanc
Riding up the width and length
of the Champs Elysees"
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The charabanc was an early form of bus, used typically for sightseeing trips. The term came from the French char-a-bancs, a "carriage with benches." Lord Byron mentioned it in his journal in September, 1816, when he rode aboard a horse-drawn conveyance. British speakers usually said it as sharra-bang. The heyday of the charabanc in Britain was between the First and Second World Wars. Sometimes it had a roof, but almost always the sides were open to the elements. According to www.worldwidewords.org, "it was a conveyance mainly for the holidaymaking proletariat, who were disparagingly referred to by their social superiors as trippers. To such critics, the charabanc wasn't so much a vehicle as a noisy self-propelled pub that conveyed a drunken rabble who threw bottles and bellowed bawdy songs. This was a huge exaggeration of course, since most charabanc excursions were quite sober." Charabancs were especially popular for "works outings" to the country or seaside that businesses would hold for their employees once a year. A typical charabanc is shown at left, a 1929 Dennis, which still today departs daily from the Bandstand in Whitby (near the fish docks).
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The charabanc tour is also the premise for the Beatles' 1967 television film Magical Mystery Tour, in which a group of characters (including 'oddities', 'lovelies,' and the Beatles themselves) toured Southern England in a mix of music hall tunes, comedy, contemporary psychedelia, and musical set pieces by the Fab Four themselves (such as "I am the Walrus" -- shown above).
-]
When the Beatles formed Apple, their first business endeavor would be this project, spearheaded by Paul McCartney: a charabanc-inspired excursion. According to www.maccafan.net/Gallery/MagicalMisteryTour/Mystery.htm, "During a trip to the US in April, 1967, just after the Sgt. Pepper sessions, McCartney dreamed up an hourlong television film. The Beatles would hire a bus, fill it with actors and extras, and tour around England with a camera crew. Each of the bandmembers would write short episodes, with plenty of room for improvisation. And of course some of the film would be devoted to performances of their latest songs. His original notes, jotted on the plane trip back to England, were quite detailed. He'd already settled on Magical Mystery Tour as the title, and had the theme song written by the time he presented the idea to others on April 25th. His notes also specified a scene with a stripper, a sequence at an army recruiting station, a marathon, and a laboratory scene. His cast list included a courier, a driver, a busy hostess, a fat woman, and a small man. In the end, nearly all these things were included in the film."
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MMT initially aired on BBC-TV on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) in 1967, initially in black-and-white, then in colour a few days later. It was poorly received by critics and audiences, but is now approaching something of a cult classic. Indeed, there was no overriding script and the project proceeded on the basis of a collection of ideas, sketches, and situations which McCartney called the "Scrupt." The basic plot was that during the course of the tour, "strange things would begin to happen" at the whim of the four musicians, possibly in the manner of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters and their bus (see pages 144 - 145 in ROCKIN'). Many "ordinary people" (including John Lennon's uncle Charlie) were to be included on the charabanc. Much of the project was filmed in September, 1967 in the disused WWII aircraft hangers and on the surrounding airfield runways and taxi aprons at RAF West Malling in Kent.
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The hoped-for "magical" adventures never really happend. During the filming, an ever-greater number of cars followed the bus, hoping to see what its passengers were up to, until a running traffic jam developed. The spectacle ended after Lennon finally tore the lettering panels off the sides of the bus.
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The movie's soundtrack was far more favorably received, as it included the avant-garde "I am the Walrus," the wistful "Fool on the Hill," and the iconic "Strawberry Field Forever" and "Penny Lane." It concluded with "All You Need is Love," which would eventually bring home the animated movie that followed, Yellow Submarine.
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