Thursday, April 19, 2007

“In Times Like These” / Alan Price


Today, April 19th, is Alan Price's birthday -- either his 65th or his 66th, depending on which source you read. Either way, I hope it's a happy one, Alan!

There are those who say Between Today and Yesterday -- the 1974 follow-up to O Lucky Man! -- is Alan Price’s masterpiece, and I won’t argue. (I haven’t a shred of objectivity left on this subject anyway.) All I know is that, sitting in my US college dorm room, valiantly nursing the lonely flame of my Alan Price mania, I fell in love with “In Times Like These” on the very first listen. Look at my LP and you’ll see how the vinyl surface is scratched around the beginning of this track – that’s how often I set the needle down to play just this one goofy, glorious song.

The blaring horn intro starts us off in jazz mode, but cheerful old-fashioned Dixieland jazz, not the moody Miles Davis sort. “In times like these, it’s good to have a friend,” Alan begins, his voice warm and jovial, “in times like these / On whom you can depend on / For a helping hand.” That tenuous grammar suggests it’s not much to hope for, but then you'd have to be a fool to expect much in the first place. Though he’s never specific about what “times like these” he’s referring to – could be Depression-era Newcastle, could be Thatcher-era London – it’s understood that they’re grim times indeed. “When folks next door help you raise a smile / Makes you forget your troubles for a while / Now that’s what friends are for / I’ve told you before.” I always imagine him winking there, referring to his previous record and the line “If you have a friend on whom you can rely / You are a lucky man.”

But this song’s much less cynical than O Lucky Man!, full of rowdy fellowship and I’m-all-right-Jack goodwill. The light-hearted melody and skipalong rhythm, the cheery horns on that instrumental middle eight, come as a relief after the preceding three tracks, brooding and melancholy as they are. I love it when the back-up voices chime in on the bridge, echoing the lead: “And when the money doesn’t go far [go far] / We end up drinking out of jam jars [jam jars] / When there’s no meat on the table [table] / We live as well as we are able [able!].” Hey, friendship won’t solve everything, but at least it’s SOMETHING. When love, or family, or the church, or the government let you down, at least you’ve got your mates at the pub.

The entire first side of this album is a portrait of industrial northern England, a tremendously sympathetic look at working-class lives. Side 2 is more autobiographical and personal, but on Side 1 Alan Price takes on the role of social historian, and does a surprisingly good job of it. “You’ve heard no doubt of places where you sweat and work for pence...” “Breakfast at six for the boys with a job / Tired before they start…” And appropriately, the musical styles hark back to film soundtracks and music halls and pub singalongs, full of horns and strings instead of a rock & roll line-up.

The best-known track is the rabble-rousing “Jarrow Song,” a tribute to the monthlong 1936 Jarrow March when Geordie miners and shipbuilders marched to London to demand an end to unemployment. “And if they don’t give us a couple of bob / Won’t even give you a decent job / Then Geordie, with my blessings burn them down!” Eventually these songs became the basis for a BBC documentary about Alan Price, going back to Newcastle to revisit his roots. I’ve never seen it and I’d love to -- if anybody out there has a copy, please let me know. I'm still nursing that flame.


Richard Sambrook said...

I'll see if I can track down the doc for you (being inside the Beeb!)
O Lucky Man was a great movie - my favourite song from the soundtrack was Poor People tho...

Tony Concatelli said...

I just read your request for the BBC documentary on Alan Price and the 1936 Jarrow march. Well, if memory serves, I do have a VHS copy packed away in my extensive music and memorabilia collection. (I ran out of space years ago, and had to place some LPs, 45s, 78s, cassettes, VHS tapes, posters, magazines, sheet music, etc. etc. into safe storage.) However, if you contact me at the email address below, I'd be very happy to locate it and see about getting a VHS tape (or possibly a DVD) to you. Cheers! Tony C. -
P.S. Check out my Alan Price playlist on YouTube!

Gary said...

Wishing I had more than just three Alan Price records, I fell into reading your old posts about him. I remember seeing him sing this song, "In Times Like These," with Tom and Dick Smothers on their CBS variety show.

Holly A Hughes said...

Hmmm, Gary -- not likely, as that show went off the air in 1969 and this was released in 1974. I just went over the list of musical guests from their show (quite an impressive list, BTW) and I don't see Alan on there at all, not even singing another song. Perhaps they appeared together on some other show later? I love the idea of them doing a duet with Alan, though!

Gary said...

My memory of this is so strong that I was inspired to dig deeper. It turns out they sang this song on a later series they had, but without Price. See and scroll down to Jan. 27, 1975. I had such a clear mental image of Price standing right there with them! I do remember being happy to know that someone else was listening to this great record.

Holly A Hughes said...

Good piece of detective work! I wish now that I'd seen this show -- the jauntiness of this song would suit Tom and Dick's style very well, especially the chiming vocals. Price was standing there with them in spirit, I'm sure!