Behind the Song: Petula Clark, “Downtown”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

When bomber Anthony Warner set off an explosion on Christmas morning in an area of downtown Nashville that is a combination of tourist haunts, corporate offices and urban residences, the RV that housed the explosives that shook Music City had been equipped with speakers that were playing the 1964 Petula Clark hit “Downtown.” Clark, now 88, posted a message on her Facebook page that indicated how sincerely rattled she was by this strange use of her song, and sent her love to the people of Nashville.

“I feel the need to express my shock and disbelief at the Christmas Day explosion in our beloved Music City. I love Nashville and its people.

Why this violent act – leaving behind it such devastation?

A few hours later – I was told that the music in the background of that strange announcement – was me – singing “Downtown”! Of all the thousands of songs – why this one?

Of course, the opening lyric is “When you’re alone and life is making you lonely you can always go Downtown”. But millions of people all over the world have been uplifted by this joyful song. Perhaps you can read something else into these words – depending on your state of mind. It’s possible.

I would like to wrap my arms around Nashville – give you all a hug – and wish you Love, a Happy and Healthy New Year – and, as we sometimes say in the U.K., steady the Buffs! (Look it up!)

Love, – Petula”

“Downtown,” which reached number one on the American charts in 1965, was probably Clark’s most famous hit in the United States, and was written by a young British composer named Tony Hatch who was on his way up as a songwriter, producer, and major contributor to both television and musical theatre in England. Clark continued to work with Hatch on a string of charting singles, including “Don’t Sleep in the Subway.” In 2007, Hatch, speaking to the Digger website, explained how he came to write the song.

“’Downtown’ was written on the occasion of my first visit to New York. I was staying at a hotel on Central Park and I wandered down to Broadway and to Times Square and, naively, I thought I was downtown. Forgetting that in New York especially downtown is a lot further downtown getting on towards Battery Park. I loved the whole atmosphere there and the song came to me very, very quickly. When I came back to London I sat in the recording studio waiting for something to happen as happened a lot in those days. Largely because the technology was still not that advanced and when you made a record you then had to re-patch the desk to mix it down so there was always a good half an hour while I waited for the engineer to do things. And that was when I used to write a lot of my songs, just waiting in the studio for something else to happen. And ‘Don’t Sleep In The Subway’ was also an adult theme and had a strong story to it. People say about ‘Downtown’ that it’s a mini musical, that it’s a Broadway show in three minutes. I like that compliment.” 

“I know that there are thousands of performances a year of ‘Downtown’ in America. Especially because the word ‘downtown’ is so associated with the centre of entertainment in American cities and towns and not just as I envisaged it as being Times Square, which felt like downtown to me. Wherever you go in America they all have their downtown areas – some of them are not very attractive but some have been beautifully developed with malls, restaurants, movie theatres and clubs and that’s good business for the town. And they usually adopt ‘Downtown’ as their song.”

It may never be known exactly why Warner set off the explosion in Nashville, nor why he chose to play “Downtown” in the minutes leading up to the bombing. Hatch, like Clark, is still living, and was named Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2020 for his for services to music and charity. By the way, “Steady the buffs” basically means to “Keep Calm.” It’ll probably be on a t-shirt soon.

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