When I was growing up, my parents used to play us a vinyl 45 of this elderly gentleman reciting his poetry to music; crackling clicks of the record against the slightly eccentric English whimsical tones, set against clarinets and bands that sounded like something out of Wind of the Willows. There was a resonance with The Beatles' Yellow Submarine-type of pieces. Whatever the comparisons, it was bizarre. Utterly strange. And yet also rather alluring and admittedly, catchy.
The 45 my parents enjoyed playing us so much was the single release of "A Shropshire Lad", by John Betjeman. Already a fan of his poetry, this particular poem (and single) was all about the place where my mother grew up, somewhere that rarely got any kind of limelight. For my mother, it was like Justin Bieber singing about his greatest fan's home street in the middle of nowhere.
In 1974 the poet laureate Betjeman released an album of his poems accompanied by music called Banana Blush. The well-loved poet of a specific English quaintness; his poems are humorous, touching. They are reflections of a by-gone age. When reading Betjeman's work or indeed, listening to him perform them, it seems almost incredible to ever connect Betjeman with, essentially, a form of rap music.
And yet, it very much works, if not for everyone's taste.
The idea behind Banana Blush belonged to Hugh Murphy, the producer who would later bring us Gerry Raftery's Baker Street. Murphy had already made a record of poetry to music and sought out Betjeman for his next project. The music was written by Jim Parker, who now writes music for TV shows (Midsummer Murders included).
A Shropshire Lad both enthused and unnerved me. The catchy tune and pace was enjoyable for a kid, very much in the same way I enjoyed on Sgt Pepper at the same time. The crackling of the vinyl and odd accent bellowing about ghosts also made me a little spooked. There was an eerie tone to the record as he recited the poem against the clash of cymbals, making me think of ghouls in the personal place which I knew so well, and yet most people didn't; where my Nan lived, and in a place which I was already oddly convinced was haunted.
Moreover, I wondered when my parents might play me a record that involved Kylie or Madonna, but I was already accepting they didn't do things like this. Unless Philip Larkin was going to be remixed to a Jason Donovan number.
That these Betjeman albums have been forgotten about by the mainstream is intriguing. Poetry struggles to be seen as cool by the younger generations, whatever the exaggerated Hollywood films involving Michelle Pfieffer may lead you to believe. And yet the same generations submerge themselves amongst rap music, which has never been more popular.
In 2006, the Guardian reported the Betjeman music albums had resurfaced and become popular with DJs, including the tracks in mixes. The vinyls are apparently highly sought after on ebay for their "dope bass action". Aptly enough, Betjeman's own grandson is a DJ, and he played his grandfather's albums at a set at Glastonbury in 2004. The set went down a storm.
Betjeman's 'rap' efforts have also inspired a range of musical artists such as Suggs and even the great Nick Cave. An unlikely fan you would think but the legendary Cave described them in the Guardian as "beautiful, fantastic stuff. You have these blissed out memories of Betjeman's youth over wah-wah guitar. It's odd and brilliant..."
Odd and brilliant. Absolutely. With emphasis on the brilliant. Perhaps my parents were cooler than I ever gave them credit for, just a little before their time.