I never thought of myself as a Petula girl. Dusty Springfield, maybe (never realizing she was just re-packaging the Motown sound); or maybe waifish Cilla Black, with her Beatle connections. I could only aspire to being elegant enough for Sandie Shaw.
But Petula? That red bubble hairdo looked too mainstream for me, and her arrangements had too many horns and strings. (Rockers hadn't yet "discovered" horns and strings.) All the same, I did own the single of "Downtown," and I now realize I can still sing just about every word of all her big hits -- "My Love," "Colour My World," "A Sign of the Times," "Don't Sleep in the Subway." (Underground train American usage, not underground passageway, British usage. Go figure.) If you listened to AM radio at the time -- and I did, on my little transistor, for hours at a time -- Petula Clark's songs were ubiquitous. And yeah, overexposed -- which means they're now ripe for a fresh listen.
What I didn't get at the time -- which British fans would have understood -- was that Petula wasn't a bona fide British Beat artist. She was a good ten years older than the Beatles and Stones, and she'd been singing on the BBC since she was a kid ("Britain's Shirley Temple," they billed her). By 1964, Petula had been living in France for years -- was in fact a bigger star in France than in the UK -- and her career revived only when composer-arranger Tony Hatch sold her on a song inspired by a recent trip to New York City. Come on, when you hear "Downtown," don't you picture Times Square rather than Piccadilly Circus? Lucky Petula's radio-ready singles slipstreamed over the Atlantic on the British Invasion wave, and we dumb Americans never knew the difference.
Still, Tony and Petula had a winning formula, cranking out effervescent pop tunes charged up with urban energy. They worked that vein like nobody's business. I'm reminded of the Glen Campbell / Jimmy Webb partnership: a gifted singer working with a crack songwriter whose talents merge seamlessly, song after song.
And of all Petula's hits, this is the one that still gets me dancing:
This is not the music of rebellion -- no "We Gotta Get Out of This Place." It's music written for office-workers and shopkeepers who like to relax after work. They don't hate their jobs; in fact they are responsible citizens who take life seriously ("just get away where your worries won't find you . . . don't let the day get the better of you"). But everybody needs a spot of fun sometime.
Sex? There's only a whisper of it, in the chorus: "I know a place where the music is fine / And the lights are always low." Petula gives the word "low" an extra meaningful thrill, just in case you're looking for a club where you can make out. But sex isn't the point of this song, though it IS the point of so many other British Invasion songs.
Tony Hatch's commercial instincts were spot-on. Yes, this song recycles the urban theme of "Downtown" (which he'd use again in "Don't Sleep in the Subway") and its chord changes and melodic phrasing would appear again, almost intact, in "My Love." You could probably slip a verse of one song into the other and no one would notice. But he also upped the rock elements this time around, with more backbeat rhythms, more drums, a electric piano riff . . . well, until the razzle-dazzle of the bridge, at least.
And most significantly, he gave this song a unique hook: It's really about the nightclub she's inviting her friend (workmate? girlfriend? lover?) to go to, with its great beat and cool denizens. "All around there are girls and boys / It's a swingin' place, a cellarful of noise" -- and with that last phrase, Hatch nails his zinger. Because everyone in 1965 -- even me -- knew that "cellarful of noise" referred to Liverpool's Cavern Club, where the Beatles had been discovered. Cellarful of Noise was the title of Beatles manager Brian Epstein's glossy autobiography. (Yes, of course I own a copy.)
And with that sly Beatles reference, Petula once again scrambled onto the British Invasion bandwagon, climbing to #3 on the US charts (the Brits weren't quite so taken in, only getting her to #17.) "I Know a Place" even won her a female vocalist Grammy, and I'd say it was well-earned. Hatch knew how to write for Pet's voice, showcasing her rich timbre, wide range, and flawless ear -- those syncopated interval jumps really take a pro to execute. I love how he alternates those low, confiding verses with brassy upper-register choruses. And yeah, let's top that with a sassy key change too. Pet can knock those out of the park.
Compared to, say, "Summer in the City" -- a song howling with pent-up frustrations -- this is so much more upbeat. It's a toe-tapper, plain and simple. But what's so wrong about that?