Al Bowlly’s in Heaven, by Richard Thompson

Life was not easy for British troops returning home after World War II. The demobilization plan (demob for short) put together by the British government to handle the return of its army to civilian life was rudimentary at best. Over 3 million men and women served at the British army at the end of the war and the demob plan that was supposed to handle their return to ‘civvy street’ completely ignored their mental state and hardly solved their practical needs. The country was in shambles at the time, weakened by 6 years of unrelenting battles that left its economy depleted and many of its institutes barely functioning. A common running joke was the demob suit, a set of civilian clothes given to demobbed men. Shortage of supplies and faulty distribution resulted in men receiving odd sizes and mismatching sets, clearly marking them in public as they left the supply depots. More serious was the fate of folks who suffered from post-war physical or mental conditions. Finding work was difficult, and coming back to a family that found its own cohesion sans the enlisted during the fighting years was an even mightier task. Many simply did not find their way back into the family unit and ended up separating from it. The divorce rate in the years following the war was the highest the country has ever seen, and was not matched until 1970. The story of this unpopular chapter in British history is documented well in Alan Allport’s book Demobbed: Coming Home After the Second World War.

Richard Thompson found inspiration in this somber piece of history to tell the tale of one unfortunate demobbed man, on crutches with no home and no job, spending his life on the streets and reminiscing over his youth dancing to the music of Al Bowlly. The lyrics to the song mention a few staples of the protagonist’s life such as the aforementioned suit, the soup lines and St Mungo, a homeless shelter founded in 1969. Richard Thompson on the song: “this is a song that really deals with the wartime generation, and it follows a disabled war veteran from the ’40s through the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, up to Mrs. Thatcher’s uncaring brood. And it’s a song about what happens to veterans. You know, veterans get discarded by their government. They get forgotten. Patients get cut. Once they’ve outlived their usefulness, often they’re kind of thrown on the scrap heap. It happens in many countries. So I suppose I was drawing attention to that, talking about the generations, and what shaped the generation of my parents.”

Key to the lyrics of the song is of course Al Bowlly, who embodies everything that was once good in the poor man’s life, but is now in heaven, leaving the man in limbo. Albert Alick ‘Al’ Bowlly was a popular jazz crooner during the 30s in Britain, when dance bands were all the rage. Bowlly recorded hundreds of songs before WW2 and in 1941 recorded the hit song “The Very Thought of You” with the Ray Noble Orchestra.

On an April night in 1941 Luftwaffe planes flew over for their nightly visit to their favorite town of London to drop their latest weapon – the parachute mine, a bomb packed with high explosives designed to explode in mid-air and cause a great loss of lives. Al Bowlly was returning home from a gig that night when the bomb exploded above Jermyn Street, where he lived. The bomb destroyed several buildings including his apartment block called Duke’s Court. He was killed instantly.

All Bowlly was immortalized in film viewers’ memory in one of the most chilling scenes in movie history. The movie is The Shining, Stanley Kubrik’s adaptation of the Stephan King sinister tale of an aspiring writer (Jack Nicholson) going insane in a secluded Colorado hotel during winter where he took a seasonal caretaker job. After trying to murder his family the caretaker freezes to death inside a maze as he chases his son. In the last scene the camera zooms slowly into a wall of framed photographs. As it nears the wall and focuses on one of the photographs, we see Jack Nicholson, who plays the role of a life time in the film as Jack Torrance, smiling amid celebrating folks. The camera pans down to reveal the label of the photograph, Overlook Hotel July 4th Ball, 1921. That scene closes the loop on the repeating theme of past ghosts that are at the heart of the story. The background music to this scene is Al Bowlly and Ray Noble & His Orchestra’s “Midnight, The Stars and You”, a song that despite its romantic lyrics will forever be associated with horror.

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The Shining Ballroom Photograph

Al Bowl’s in Heaven is a ballad in the old jazz lounge style, featuring Thompson’s signature melancholic voice and, as expected, a great acoustic guitar solo. Mitchell Froom, who produced Daring Adventures, the album from which the song comes from, is responsible for bringing in the brass band that adds a nice color to the arrangement. Froom says: “We brought in what’s known as a silver band for the horn section. In Northern England all the factories have bands, so we brought one to London and wrote out a chart for them.” Drum legend Jim Keltner is also on board and plays sensitive brush work on the snare drum. Froom and Keltner worked together earlier the same year as part of Elvis Costello’s The Confederates band, who recorded with Costello his great take on Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, originally written for Nina Simone.

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Elvis Costello and the Confederates, 1986 Back row, L-R: Jim Keltner, Jerry Scheff, Elvis costello, James Button, Mitchell Froom. Front Row: David Hidalgo, T Bone Burnett

Well we were heroes then, and the girls were all pretty
And a uniform was a lucky charm, bought you the key to the city
We used to dance the whole night through
While Al Bowlly sang “The Very Thought Of You”
Now Bowlly’s in heaven and I’m in limbo now

Well I gave my youth to king and country
But what’s my country done for me but sentenced me to misery
I traded my helmet and my parachute
For a pair of crutches and a demob suit
Al Bowlly’s in heaven and I’m in limbo now

Hard times, hard hard times
Hostels and missions and dosser’s soup lines
Can’t close me eyes on a bench or a bed
For the sound of some battle raging in my head

Old friends, you lose so many
You get run around, all over town
The wear and the tear, oh it just drives you down
St Mungo’s with its dirty old sheets
Beats standing all day down on Scarborough Street
Al Bowlly’s in heaven and I’m in limbo now

Can’t stay here, you got to foot-slog
Once in a blue moon you might find a job
Sleep in the rain, you sleep in the snow
When the beds are all taken you’ve got nowhere to go

Well I can see me now, I’m back there on the dance floor
Oh with a blonde on me arm, red-head to spare
Spit on my shoes and shine in me hair
And there’s Al Bowlly, he’s up on a stand
Oh that was a voice and that was a band
Al Bowlly’s in heaven and I’m in limbo now

Categories: Songs

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6 replies »

  1. Wow Hayim. I know and admire the song. But I just Learned so much in reading this blog. I did not know who Al Bowley was. I did not know Shining connection though Stacey And I poked our head into Libby of hotel where Filmed in Estes Park CO this summer on ourRicky Mounts Nat Park vac. Did not know Keltner had played with RT nor Elvis. Your vast knowledge continues to inform and enrich. B.

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  2. Happy to quench your thirst for knowledge, Bruce. I have seen Mr Thompson perform this song a number of times live and its always one of the highlights of his shows. Not as sizzling as 1952 Vincent Black Lightning maybe, but mesmerizing in its own way.

  3. A second to Bruce’s appreciation of Hayim’s elucidation of this song, which has eluded me for years despite being very familiar with RT’s music. Thank you for sharing your deep knowledge of so many musical genre’s.

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