An evergreen and a masterpiece of British orchestral studio work of the early 1960s; DOWTOWN epitomizes the post-war urban optimism and city life fascination, bringing long-lasting success to British performer Petula Clark.
British composer and producer Tony Hatch wrote the song for Petula Clark during a business trip to New York City. Hatch was at the time the successor of Alan A. Friedman as producer of the international British pop singer. He had not yet been able to secure a hit comparable to the Friedman production “Sailor”, which was Clark’s first #1 on the British chart.
According to Myers (2013), Hatch came up with the melody, when walking towards Time Square on the northwest corner of 48th Street, as the neon signs were turning on. He worked on the melody and on the lyrics during the trip. He introduced the song to Clark in Paris and she recorded it on 16 October 1964 in London. The song was first released as a single in the UK for Pye records and versions of the song in languages such as Italian, Spanish and French were also recorded and published. Released by Warner Bros in the US, the song climbed the charts, despite the unfavourable Christmas season, staying at #1 for two weeks in January 1965.
Late Adam Krims uses the song in Music and Urban Geography (2007) as an example of the 1960s ‘urban ethos’. The musicologist defines the urban ethos as “a distribution of possibilities” that “distils publicly disseminated notions of how cities are generally, even though it may be disproportionately shaped by the fate of certain particular cities” (Krims 2007:7). This means that DOWNTOWN epitomizes certain trends, discourses and phantasies about city living in the 1960s, which despite being inspired by NYC were felt as universal.
Industrialization and urbanization were at their most powerful in the 1960s and the post-war economic upswing seemed unstoppable. But the Downtown area did not became a new ‘utopia’, instead it turned to a place of racial segregation, fear and ghettoization only in the late 1960s (for instance in Detroit with the 1967 riots), losing its association to spectacle, leisure and entertainment.
DOWNTOWN is 3:19 long in its original version and has approximately 110 bpm. It starts with a piano playing a simple I – IV – V progression, followed by the voice of Petula Clark alone, a choir enters only to sustain the word “downtown” and the orchestra, dominated by a big beat on the drums, joins only through the second part of the verse and get full on when delivering the chorus.
According to Hatch himself, the song arrangement is an attempt to solve the dichotomy between classic post-war studio work with a full set of session musicians and the rising status of rock band settings. This is reflected for instance in a certain use of the drums and of guitars. Incidentally one of the session player hired by Hatch is future The Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin guitar hero Jimmy Page.
The song is also able to render the urban experience sonically, first of all thanks to the bridge, starting with “The lights are much brighter there…”. All the instrumentation seems to build up harmonic and rhythmic insecurities into a crescendo, before approaching the big dominant chord of the resolution. The sonic feel is paralleled in the lyrics, which talk about the lights being brighter “there”, where you can forget “troubles” and “cares”. All this creates the feel of walking around a corner, crossing a road, finding a route and finally realizing to be “downtown”.
Around the second minute, the song experiences a ‘gear change’ (the key moves one tone up) and an instrumental rendering of the verse.
The final jazz trumpet solo (with ‘improvised’ drum fills) also conveys the downtown sonically. The trumpet was the elected signifier of a certain city centre culture of modernity, leisure and entertainment and the improvised solo brings the listener inside a hip downtown jazz club.
The lyrics are carefully assembled around the repetition of the word “dowtown”, which appears both in the verse and in the refrain. Downtown becomes a panacea against loneliness and general troubles, where neon signs, lights, traffic, noises can only convey optimism and joi de vivre. Entertainment is the main attraction of the city centre: there are references to cinemas, to bossa nova dancing and to little places always open. The end of the song also reads anonymity as a chance for romantic encounters.
When it came out, the song had a moderate success around Europe, as Clark recorded it in several languages. It reached #2 on the British chart in 1964 and “Ciao Ciao” (the Italian version) won the Festivalbar song contest in 1965.
It is due to its success in US, where it was licensed to Warner Bros, that the song became an evergreen.
Petula Clark re-recorded the song in several occasions (including a disco version in 1976) and several bands covered it. Both Dolly Parton and Emma Bunton recorded successful versions of it, in 1984 and 2006 respectively.
Vocals: Petula Clark
Background Vocals: Breakaways vocal group
Guitar: Vic Flick, Jimmy Page, Jim Sullivan
Drums: Bobby Graham
Producer/Conductor/Arrangement: Tony Hatch
Recorded: 16 October 1964
Length: 3:01 min
- Petula Clark. “Downtown”, Downtown, 1964, Pye Records, 7N.15722, UK (Vinyl/Single).
- Petula Clark. “Downtown”, Downtown / You’d Better Love Me, 1964, Warner Bros. Records, 5494, US (Vinyl/Single).
- Petula Clark. “Downtown”, Downtown, 1965, Pye Records, NPL 18114, UK (LP/Album/Mono) .
- Krims, Adam: Music and Urban Geography. London: Routledge 2007.
- Myers, Mark: Going Back Downtown. In: The Wall Street Journal. 12 June (2013).
- Artist homepage: http://www.petulaclark.net/ [31.03.2015].
About the Author
All contributions by Giacomo Bottà
Giacomo Bottà: “Downtown (Petula Clark)”. In: Songlexikon. Encyclopedia of Songs. Ed. by Michael Fischer, Fernand Hörner and Christofer Jost, http://www.songlexikon.de/songs/downtownclark, 03/2015 [revised 09/2015].Print