Poetry lovers will recognise the reference to the famous Robert Browning poem (although Browning stylised it “Home-Thoughts, From Abroad”). Sadly Clifford T. Ward’s song lives on today only in the memories of those of us old enough to remember listening to the radio in the mid-1970s.
“Home Thoughts From Abroad” was a radio hit, but in chart terms it was only the B-Side to Clifford T. Ward’s 1973 Top Ten hit “Gaye”. While that’s a perfectly decent song, I much prefer the B-Side.
And time has been much kinder to “Home Thoughts From Abroad” than it has been to “Gaye” which, despite being a million-selling record, I haven’t heard for years.
Robert Browning’s poem was very different to the song. It was one of those poems, beloved in Victorian times, which waxed lyrical about what a wonderful place England was (as opposed, say, to the hot countries English colonialists were obliged to live in while they plundered the natural resources of the lands they had conquered from their native populations)…
Oh, to be in England
Now that April’s there…
The poem goes on to talk about the buds forming on the trees and the animals coming back to England after wintering in warmer climes. I don’t want to be too dismissive of Browning’s poem, though. While it’s a bit of a period piece, it’s nicely done.
And I suppose Clifford T. Ward’s song is now a bit of a period piece too. A barely remembered fragment of five decades ago.
Whereas Robert Browning was thinking of being in England while stuck somewhere overseas and unable to get home, “Home Thoughts From Abroad”, the song, was about a missing a person stuck at home while its singer was far away.
This was inspired by Clifford T. Ward’s own experiences in the late 1960s when he toured across Europe in various bands, trying to make it in the music industry, far away from home.
Toward the end of the 1960s he gave up on his dreams of being a pop star and became an English teacher instead. However he kept writing songs and was eventually signed by a label co-owned by the legendary John Peel although that label went out of business soon thereafter.
Thankfully he was quickly picked up by Charisma Records for whom he recorded the million-selling “Gaye”, backed by “Home Thoughts From Abroad”.
Probably having been put off touring by his thankless slogging around Europe in the 1960s, Clifford T. Ward did very little promotion for “Gaye” or the “Home Thoughts” album it came from. So his time in the limelight was brief, although he continued to write and record right through to just before his untimely passing in 2001.
I still wonder if he might have had greater longevity in the recording industry if “Gaye” and “Home Thoughts From Abroad” had been two A-sides, instead of an A-side and a B-side. But, to be fair, I don’t suppose any record company in 1973 would have immediately thought a record inspired by a piece of Victorian poetry had “hit potential” written all over it.
From the perspective of a 1973 A&R person, it got worse. Not only was there an oblique poetic reference in the title…which would probably pass un-noticed by the majority of record buyers at the time…the lyrics themselves were full of arty-farty intellectual references…
I’ve been reading Browning, Keats and William Wordsworth
And they all seem to be saying the same thing to me
Well I like the words they use, and I like the way they use them
You know, Home Thoughts From Abroad is such a beautiful poem
Nowadays this would probably be seen as sufficiently hipster-ish and retro to be perfectly acceptable. But 1973 was a different time…UK hits that year included “My Ding-a-Ling” by Chuck Berry, which as far as I know was not inspired by a Victorian poem, “Gudbuy T’ Jane” by Slade and “The Laughing Gnome” by David Bowie. All charming in their own way, of course, but hardly at the intellectual forefront of popular music.
And, to be fair, I didn’t get “Home Thoughts From Abroad” at the time either. It was my sister who turned the radio up every time it came on. I thought it was far too icky and soppy and couldn’t wait for The Sweet or Elton John to come on instead.
But as time has passed, I appreciate “Home Thoughts From Abroad” a good deal more than I did back then. For me, it’s perhaps “home thoughts from a more innocent time”, a time when I was still in short trousers and the world was simpler.
My wistful memories of those times are no less powerful than Robert Browning’s memories of the springtime in England he couldn’t experience while stuck overseas, far away from the land he loved, or Clifford T. Ward’s memories of the childhood sweetheart he had left at home to criss-cross Europe in search of fame and fortune.
Looking back, it makes me think about those times…
And I know how Robert Browning must have felt
’Cause I’m feeling the same way about you
Wondering what you’re doing and if you need some help
Do I still occupy your mind? Am I being so unkind?
Do you find it very lonely, or have you found someone to laugh with?
Oh, and by the way, are you laughing now?
’Cause I’m not, I miss you
I miss you, I really do
I only wish I had been mature enough in the mid-1970s to appreciate Clifford T. Ward’s sweet, gentle, wistful song instead of shouting at my sister to turn the radio down.
Nowadays, every time “Home Thoughts From Abroad” comes on the radio, I turn it up, just like she used to do. But, then, she always was smarter than me.
And, just in case you’re interested, here’s the A-side…