Song of the Week: “Downtown” by Petula Clark

by Douglas Cowie on 12 January 2018

Each Friday I pick a song–new, old, borrowed, blue–that’s been on my mind and in my ears, and write a short post about it.

This is “Downtown” by Petula Clark:

“Downtown” pops into my head now and again, usually while I’m riding my bicycle, for some reason. It happened earlier this week while I was unlocking my bike and I started wondering about the writing of it, because I was pretty sure it was written by an Englishman (it was: Tony Hatch), and obviously the original version was recorded by Petula Clark, also English. The thing is, here in London, and in the UK generally, nobody talks about “downtown”; they talk about “the city centre” [sic]. If you make a quick sing through of “Downtown” but replace the title word with “city centre” you quickly find it’s a lousy song (it doesn’t work with “city center” either). So there I was, putting my bike lock in my bag, wondering whether this was just some English songwriter trying to sound American. This explanation–some guy in London or wherever trying to sound American–didn’t really satisfy me because the song doesn’t sound fake or faked in that way, either musically or lyrically.  It turns out that Wikipedia has a really good entry on “Downtown”, and the section on its composition quotes from an interview with Tony Hatch that solves my idle dilemma: “I was staying at a hotel on Central Park and I wandered down to Broadway and to Times Square and, naively, I thought I was downtown.” There’s a little more that follows from there, but anyway, I’m charmed by this part of the story behind the song.  I also learned from reading Wikipedia that one of the guitar players on “Downtown” is Jimmy Page.

One of the things that makes “Downtown” a good song is that it seems to be a showtune trying its hardest to be a rock ‘n’ roll number. I guess maybe it sounds as charming as the anecdote behind it. Also, I like that little harmon-muted trumpet solo that plays the song out.

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