The funfair, as distinct from the carnival and circus, has provided a rich seam of material for songwriters. Surprisingly, a colleague noted, neither Ray Davies nor Ronnie Lane appears to have drawn upon the imagery of bearded ladies, halls of mirrors et al, although Ronnie did tour under a big top with a mixture of music, jugglers and fire-eaters he called The Passing Show.
Here’s my selection of 20 fairground favourites. If the final four songs in the Bubbling Under section strike some readers as among the finest songs listed, I wouldn’t disagree. But the fairs to which they refer are not, I believe, the kind which the brief required. They were still too good to omit completely.
Palisades Park: Freddy Cannon
The definitive fairground song, an uptempo teen romance inspired by the amusement park which once thrived on top of New Jersey Palisades Cliffs. This 1962 hit by the former Frederick Picariello Jr references the loop-de-loop, ferris wheel, merry-go-round, rollercoaster and hot-dog stand, adding excited screams and hurdy-gurdy organ. The Beach Boys and Ramones made charmless covers.
Wall of Death: Richard & Linda Thompson
‘You can waste your time on the other rides,’ Richard and Linda sing, ‘but this is the nearest to being alive.’ From the brilliant ‘break-up album’ Shoot Out the Lights, the song uses the feeling of defying gravity by circling a wooden silo on motorbike as a metaphor for intense, if anguished, feelings.
The Comedians: Roy Orbison
Elvis Costello adapted his 1984 song to suit Orbison’s majestic ballad style. The Big O is stuck high on the ferris wheel, forlornly watching as the object of his desire whispers to the man working the lever that could get him down. ‘The lights go out, it’s closing time, I see you take his hand and walk away.’
The Ferris Wheel: Everly Brothers
Costello’s weepie owes a debt, thematically, to Don and Phil’s 1964 hit. They like the spider, diving bell, tilt-o-whirl, rock-o-plane and bumper cars, they tell us, but not the wheel of misfortune. From their lofty (disad)vantage point, they look down in despair to see ‘someone steal a kiss from her’.
Fortune Teller: Benny Spellman
From Allen Toussaint’s treasure trove, this great ‘story’ song was the B-side of New Orleans-based Spellman’s 1961 single Lipstick Traces. It was covered by the Rolling Stones, Hollies, Who, Merseybeats and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, as well as being popular in Northern Soul circles.
The Skeleton And The Roundabout: The Idle Race
Before he joined The Move and ELO, Jeff Lynne wrote, sang and produced Beatles-esque psych pop with The Idle Race. This 1968 single, championed by John Peel and Kenny Everett, is a whimsical period piece about a roundabout operator as thin as a ‘skelington’ who defects to the ghost train.
Tunnel of Love: Dire Straits
Mark Knopfler used Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel Waltz as the intro to this 1980 rocker. From the first line ‘Getting crazy on the waltzers’ to the ‘carousels and carnival arcades’ of Spanish City, a funfair in his native North-east, the lyric is brimming with nostalgia for ‘when we were kids’.
Scholarship Is The Enemy Of Romance: Billy Bragg
‘Take me to the fair and hold me close as we fly through the air,’ croons the Bard of Barking, only for his dreams to come crashing down in the next line. Like his reworking of Walk Away Renee, the song is simultaneously desolate and beautiful. Amazingly, it was originally buried away on a 1985 B-side.
Big Dipper: Jethro Tull
From the 1976 album Too Old To Rock ‘n’ Roll, Too Young To Die comes a homage to the weekend rampage in Blackpool. ‘Big dipper riding, we’ll give the local lads a hiding,’ boasts Ian Anderson in between flights of flute fancy and tales of B&B landladies, the Pleasure Beach and Tower Ballroom.
Fairground Blues: The Walkabouts
Featuring the fairground as murder scene as Seattle’s Walkabouts channel Alfred Hitchcock’s film of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers On A Train. The narrator separates from his brother, finding him at the burlesque show. ‘Four cops’ guard the drunken brother, who says: ‘You missed the fun in there.’
Helter Skelter: The Beatles
Tunnel Of Love: Bruce Springsteen
On A Carousel: The Hollies
Rollercoaster: The Jesus & Mary Chain
Tattooed Lady: Rory Gallagher
Been Too Long At The Fair: Bonnie Raitt
50 Years After The Fair: Aimee Mann
She Moves Through The Fair: Fairport Convention
Renaissance Fair: The Byrds