The main purpose – or at least one of the main purposes – of this blog is an educational one. There are vast areas of UK culture that I don’t know or understand, and by writing about the number two singles I am at least patiently chipping away at my ignorance about popular music. I have lived here long enough to notice, however, that this isn’t just a condition of outsiders like me, but natives as well.
This blog is entering what I can only think of as The Void, a weird area that sees most chart hits being hits at the time but being more or less forgotten ever since, only played on the radio during chart countdown shows. I suppose some of these songs also fit in the dreaded ‘guilty pleasures’ category, but only some. Most songs in The Void are left to those who heard them in the first place, and are all but unknown to anyone now, for all sorts of reasons.
“The Banner Man” is one such song. Blue Mink were a group of studio musicians (co-writer Roger Cook and Madeline Bell among them; they also sing here, I believe) who figured they were good enough to become an actual band; and so in the late 60s they formed, having a hit with “Melting Pot” and then a second hit with “Good Morning Freedom.” Those titles reflect a certain early 70s optimism, that special kind of righteousness that launched the 70s, a feeling – noted more ironically with The Rolling Stones – that anything can happen, and that this is a good thing, more or less…
But now here we are, in late June of 1971, and already the decade is in a lull; something clearly is going to happen, but no one quite knows what this is yet. Times like this call for leaders, or at least someone charismatic; someone who can seem “ten feet tall” and inspire others, convert them if you will, to a cause. If the previous songs were about general chaos, revenge and certain death, this song is about a joyous, loud parade up a hill, led by the banner man himself, who then saves a few souls and then goes back down the hill again, coronets and drums playing once again as he proudly marches on, the children (this song is written from a child’s perspective) watching in awe and joy.
If this song belongs to The Void it is due to its overwhelmingly quaint nature. I am not sure just what the banner reads here, nor what is being preached, but would anyone hearing this song now under a certain age have any idea what it was about? I do not know if the songwriters (Cook, Roger Greenaway and Herbie Flowers) saw the Salvation Army bands marching and preaching; the closest I’ve come to any Salvation Army sounds is the large hand bell rung at Christmastime by a member raising money for their cause. This is what it is about, I suppose, but there’s another march that I have seen – a relatively small one, all things considered – that comes to mind.
It was a rather hot and humid day in July, ’90 or ’91 perhaps, and I was walking through Queen’s Park in Toronto, en route to where I forget; I heard it before I saw it, the green lush trees obscuring my sight at first. It was a marching band, a smallish one, all older men mostly. I looked at the calendar once I got home and figured out it was the Old Order Orange march; Orangemen helped to found Toronto and there were still lodges here and there across the city, though their power and influence had waned in the last 60 years or so. I don’t recall any spectators, besides me; they seemed to be marching as it was the done thing, and it was a reminder of times past. And yes, there was someone holding a banner, perhaps even two people.
I cannot ignore the fact that this was a hit (an NME #2) during marching season; that is one factor in its success, its celebration of the “glory, glory, glory” of the band and the message it brings. That it is a simple, upbeat song sung from a child’s point of view also means kids bought it, too (just as kids would have bought “The Pushbike Song” for instance)*. That this is a song that saves the world is just the sort of savior-is-here message needed at a time like this; the trouble (Troubles?) with saviors, however, is that they cannot do what they do alone. For every person that might be convertible, there are those who are, for whatever reason, against conversion**.
That this sounds like a product of a studio and not a live band doesn’t matter so much at this time (one when the song, not the singer(s), is the important thing) but the subject matter does. The very things that made it successful then mark it for The Void now, including its religious element, its child’s angle, and its in-build old-fashioned four-square aura of a time that in ’71 – never mind now – would conjure up the Troubles and marching seasons that always cause trouble as opposed to a jolly little march to save souls in a town. It is an innocent oompah-oompah of a song, done as professionally as you’d expect, but somehow it’s hard to hear it that way now, and may have even struck some as unpleasant then. And so it has more or less disappeared…
Next up: where the wild things (still) are.
*At this time the singles charts were dominated by songs either bought by kids or those definitely into adulthood, grandparents included; anyone who considered themselves at all "cool" were buying albums, not singles.
**An Australian born around this time, now currently holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy, could say a lot about this.