Development Control: the musical

Matthew Chatfield
Latest posts by Matthew Chatfield (see all)

Driving to a tedious meeting about planning applications today The Ranger pumped up the stereo, and up popped one of his old favourites, (Nothing But) Flowers by Talking Heads, from their 1988 album Naked.

In a moment of epiphany, he realised that this old foot-tappin’ tune was in fact all about the Town and Country Planning Acts, or at least whatever passes for that in America. It seemed almost unbelievable, but could he have stumbled upon the only known example of a song about planning? The lyrics, in typical Talking heads fashion, are a little enigmatic, and subject to a number of interpretations.

…Once there were parking lots Now it’s a peaceful oasis you got it, you got it This was a Pizza Hut Now it’s all covered with daisies you got it, you got it I miss the honky tonks, Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens you got it, you got it And as things fell apart Nobody paid much attention you got it, you got it…

Clearly a musical discussion of the merits of greenfield sites versus light industrial (B1) and retail (A1 and A3) usage. On the face of it, it’s a simple song in praise of modern civilisation and the developments that have raised us from our agricultural ancestors. One reviewer who took this view said

It’s denouncing the “hippy” or nature freak lifestyle. Sounds great at first, but you end up missing the creature comforts…

It doesn’t take too much further analysis to realise that this is probably not the song’s true message. What that is, is less clear. Is it suggesting that we should go back to a natural way of living? Is it pointing out the folly of looking back nostalgically at a mythical bucolic past? Or does it just invite us to reflect on what we have given up, and what we have gained in return? Probably some of all these things and more. The insight that The Ranger had on the road to Cowes today, whilst singing along lustily, was that (Nothing But) Flowers could be seen as a satire on the faux-rustic trappings we like to adorn our high-tech lives with. Perhaps it’s appropriate that it takes a Virtual Ranger to notice this. Do this exercise if you want to understand. Swap all the ‘urban’ sentiments with ‘rural’ ones and vice versa; and you get a very unoriginal country ballad bemoaning the loss of the countryside and the encroachment of the urban sprawl. David Byrne sings “[when] I was an angry young man/ I’d pretend/ That I was a billboard/ Standing tall/ By the side of the road/ I fell in love/ With a beautiful highway…“. Surely he is parodying the way a child might pretend to be a tree, and fall in love with the countryside? When applied in that more usual way these sentiments seem utterly unremarkable to us. Remarking ‘I remember when all this was fields‘ has become a jocular indicator of rambling reminiscences, so commonplace is that feeling. But what if things were reversed? What if there were no more urban sprawl and roadside takeaways? Would we miss them? What would our reminiscences sound like then? Perhaps (Nothing But) Flowers is trying to show us.

Matthew Chatfield

Uncooperative crusty. Unofficial Isle of Wight cultural ambassador. Conservation, countryside and the environment, with extra stuff about spiders.

4 thoughts on “Development Control: the musical

  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
    Permalink

    On the subject of highway sightlines and roadside signage, Ogden Nash wrote:

    I think that I will never see
    A billboard lovely as a tree.
    In fact, unless the billboards fall,
    I may never see a tree at all…

    Reply
  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
    Permalink

    You can tell I’m trying to avoid housework…

    And how about:

    Little Boxes
    by Malvina Reynolds
    Little boxes on the hillside, Little boxes made of tickytacky
    Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same
    There’s a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow one
    And they’re all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.

    Clearly brownfield site usage.

    Reply
  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
    Permalink

    Interesting commentary on David Byrne’s lyrics, which are rarely straightforward.

    I was going to draw comparison with Joni’s song but I see that Ms W Gardener has beaten me to it.

    Re planning etc, The Genius Programme last night (6.30 R4) had a suggestion that the Isle of Wight be made symetrical, by chipping simply moving part of the bottom right bit (i.e. Ventnor) up a little.

    As the island clearly tries to be a diamond, this is a commendable idea (shame the head of planning apparently lives in Ventnor).

    The Ranger responds:
    I believe Ventnor is managing to chip itself off very effectively without help!

    Reply
  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
    Permalink

    Sir! I pick up your gauntlet once more!
    Surely another song about planning is Joni Mitchell’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi’:

    They took all the trees
    And put them in a tree museum
    And they charged all the people
    A dollar and a half to see ’em
    Don’t it always seem to go
    That you don’t know what you’ve got
    Till it’s gone
    They paved paradise
    And they put up a parking lot

    Not as oblique as M Byrne’s, but definitely a planning song.

    The Ranger responds: just so, well spotted. Now that’s an example of a straightforward message, and paradoxically David Byrne manages to convey the same message by saying exactly the opposite.

    Reply

Leave a Reply to Steve Coates Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.