Film In 2014, my Mother bought me this Rogers & Hammerstein boxed set for Christmas and that's when I first saw Oklahoma! As with most musicals of that period it was impossible to watch without knowing some of the songs. You might like to correct me but I have a strong memory of Roy Castle singing O What A Beautiful Mornin' either on Record Breakers or a variety show probably All Star Record Breakers. I knew every lyric to The Surrey with the Fringe on Top right up until Harry's ex-wife Helen and Ira interrupt he and Sally whilst conducting a karaoke incident in a department store ("Six years later you find yourself singing "Surrey with a fringe on top" in front of Ira!"). What I especially love about the musicals of that period is how the shots always hold on the performers for much of the length of the song, which is especially notable in Oklahoma due to all the location filming.
But of course, being from Liverpool, the song with the greatest resonance is You'll Never Walk Alone which I think is played in every local hospital during the maternity process because we seem to know the words during what we think is our first listen even before we know that it's from a musical, even before we know it was recorded by Gerry Marsden. Post-Hillsborough too, it's become near possible to hear so synonymous has it become connected with the tragedy. It was on deep rotation between emergency messages and dedications on Radio City in 1989, I think, along with Eternal Flame by The Bangles. That's also still a difficult listen in its original form. That's why the pop version by Atomic Kitten always seemed like an interesting choice. Did they know?
One of the reasons the song, You'll Never Walk Alone, I mean, still runs through me is because about three years later in the middle of my A-Levels, I spent three nights at Liverpool Cathedral as part of a mass choir of local schools singing that and a range of other hymns, a thousand voices. I've mentioned this before, notably in 2007 when memories of that night bubbled up again after hearing three of the songs on a recently bought compilation which had been put together to cash in on Euro 96. Our school, the Blue Coat was there, along with many others. We were told at the time these would become the radio gold standard, but apart from the cassette of the recording which I've stored somewhere, I'd heard nothing in twelve years. Now here we are on a cd released four years later. Not that I was expecting royalties.
Not having thought about it for years, it was quite a surprise to have the sound, the epic sound, filling the space around my head through the headphones I bought for that year's Proms. All kinds of details I'd forgotten, like the fact that we had to redo You'll Never Walk Alone many times because we were naturally singing the Gerry Marsden version when they'd licensed the Rogers and Hammerstein original which has slightly different notes around 'the sweet silver song of a lark' which on hear in I noticed we still didn't get quite right with half of everyone singing one version and everyone else singing the other. On reflection, to have a choir of school children that large singing in any kind of a comprehensible way and largely behaving themselves was an incredible achievement. But as one of these photographs shows, it wasn't the first time a thousand voices attended the church.
There was teenage angst too. I had a very quick, but very deep crush on a girl called Claire from St Julie's School, who was sitting in front of me because she'd been cross with someone from my school because they'd been picking on me. I liked her so much. Painfully shy, I didn't really get to speak to her until the last night (having walked around the cathedral outside for ages trying to pluck up the courage to ask for her phone number) and then we only really talked for a few minutes because my parents came and picked me up. I got her phone number, but never did call her because that would have been an even greater effort for someone who'd spent his puberty in a boy's school with teachers and family members as his only female contact. Years later I was sat in the passenger seat of a car in a garage forecourt and saw her with some friends heading into the shop, her face illuminated briefly in some headlights. Would have been a bit weird if I'd said hello.
Since this event I’ve been to concerts and events in which thousands upon thousands have piled into an enclosed space together, sometimes singing. I expect there were close to that many in a typical school assembly. Except on those occasions I hadn't really thought about it and hadn't been given a number. Eight hundred. It seemed like a lot and as we worked our way through Take Five of The Old Rugged Cross, in that massive space it sounded like it too. Perhaps that's why, during the Proms every year I can imagine the power of the organ and the BBC Singers despite not having been in the Royal Albert Hall.
Imagine my surprise then whilst thinking about writing this piece in finding the original album we recorded on Spotify. Perhaps my favourite thing about it is you can tell these children are from Liverpool and the surround areas. The accent is unmistakable. But also the passion with which we sing You'll Never Walk Alone, just those three years on from Hillsborough, none of us unaffected by those events, the words bursting out of our chests. As I listen again now, I remember that I cried. Was that why I was picked on? Was that why Claire defended me? I don't know, I don't remember that. But the atmosphere, I'll never forget the atmosphere. Oh and having to do several retakes of The Old Rugged Cross because the alarm on someone's digital watch kept going off and the microphones were sensitive enough to pick it up even in a cathedral sized recording studio.