Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The Lilac Time: 'Street Corner'

When I was seven, the end of Elmdon Rd – around the corner from my parents’ chip shop – seemed like the end of the world. Beyond the very final houses, there was a clearing through which you would climb. And here, away from people, away from the gentle bustle of a Birmingham suburb – was the canal towpath where we would sometimes sit with cheap nets and old jam jars and catch sticklebacks which would invariably die after a couple of days in captivity. While my parents looked after the communal Acocks Green appetite, Elmdon Rd looked after me. When I wasn’t sitting by the canal, I would take a couple of Matchbox cars and Dinky toys and sit at the circular concrete planters that split the fresh new housing estate into four.

There I’d imagine all sorts of scenarios for my cars until, out of their windows, Peter Bradley or Robert Singleton would come out and join me. Soon a solitary pursuit would give way to something else. Hide and seek. British bulldog. Tig-off-the-ground. And because a day is proportionately a greater part of a child’s life than that of an adult, days would seem to last forever. Dusk alone, seemed an epic undertaking. Midlands dusks are the best dusks. In spring, smudged pinks pushed outwards into blue and caramel skies. Up above, everything seemed still and benign. Young eyes had no trouble charting the trajectory of a caser before you trapped it and thumped it against a nearby garage door. Night took forever to happen. Parents only worried if you failed to appear maybe an hour after the stars came out.

But it was from Birmingham – a Birmingham much like the one where I grew up – to the Malvern Hills that Stephen Duffy decamped when he decided to put some distance between the pop star persona that gave him a hit with Kiss Me and his new group. The Lilac Time got their name from a song in Nick Drake’s River Man. Nick Drake himself was more of a West Midlander than people seem to realise. But growing up in the bucolic Warwickshire enclave of Tanworth-In-Arden was different to growing up in suburban working-class Birmingham. What I love about The Lilac Time is that perfect sense of suspension between two different Midlands backdrops: sunsets over silhouetted industrial skylines; and the subsequent retreat to the hills of Malvern. Suddenly, the candyfloss clouds were within touching distance.

This is where the first The Lilac Time songs take place. Return To Yesterday was Duffy’s Adieu To Old England, where “the couturier weeps” for an age she knows will never return. You’ve Got To Love was the work of a Pied Piper trying to lead his people to the village green before the Daily Mail readers got there first. Now as it did then, Black Velvet sounds like a slow motion reconstruction of the epiphany that removed Duffy from the 1980s four years before the decade ended and into a more forgiving place. Street Corner wasn’t just the b-side to Black Velvet. You couldn’t get it on the seven-inch or the twelve-inch. It was the extra track that came with the CD single. As a result, prior to its eventual appearance on 2006’s Compendium anthology, there can’t have been more than a few hundred people who heard it. Duffy has a habit of demoting his best songs to b-sides – but Street Corner deserves special attention.

Street Corner is what it was like to grow up in the West Midlands in the 70s; and, actually, I think there’s enough here convey a sense of what most of our early years were like. The houses stay largely the same; the road signs rarely change from one decade to the next. Amid this scenery, lives coalesce. First drink. First cigarette. First love. “Old street lamps/Shine through seasons/Made us brighter/The world around seem darker” he sings. The subdued sepia beam of a harmonium sets the tone, but perhaps the real star is Duffy’s guitar playing. Here and – on other Lilac Time songs – A Dream That We All Share; Beauty In Your Body; Paper Boat – geography seems to form the shapes of the chords. One minute in, the electric guitar embarks on a parallel monologue to his “dreams of going somewhere”, deep into the waltz-time bridges which chronicle the song’s ultimately unrequited teenage tryst: “We never did more than kiss.”

Regret depends on the idea that things can be perfect. That relationship could have been the one. Instead it remains paused in the narrator’s memory. And that’s why Street Corner sounds as uplifting as it does melancholy. The final verse is actually a repeat of the first verse, but with all the band playing, regret morphs into resolution: Nostalgia isn’t what it purports to be. Hindsight is constantly remixing the past.

For all of that, I can see why Street Corner didn’t make it onto the album. It sounds like it’s the first time the band have played it all the way though. And that’s also part of its charm. The slightly overblown hammering of piano keys at the end suggests no-one thought this would be the final take. But this is where the alchemy happens. Amid “the old parklands, where our swans sang,” sky-wide ochres and pinks smoulder up above. Impossible to miss. Impossible to reach.

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