Pill, Pill

Thursday, 17 March 2011
Ah, my other current-favourite Wurzels track, another one by Adge and on the surface, an ode to a small ferry, which used to run from the small village of Pill in North Somerset, across the River Avon. The track was first recorded at the Royal Oak session in 1966, and included on the EP Scrumpy and Western, released in February 1967.

Clearly, a tribute to a small but vital line of transport in the early 1960s.

..or is it?

Here's a photograph of the Pill ferry. Isn't it lovely and rural and quaint?

Now, replace that image with:

And suddenly all becomes clear.

This song is a shocking description of drug issues in rural communities, comparable to Lou Reed's Perfect Day and Bob Dylan's Hey, Mr Tambourine Man.

Let's look a little closer, shall we?

When the nights are dark and stormy
And the bitter north wind blows
Cross the fields from Shirehampton
Where the muddy Avon flows
Where the Pillites gaily ride
Over on the ferry from the other side
The boat starts swingin'
You'll hear them singin'
Float in on the tide.

Stock image for teh win!
A dark and stormy night, apparently - or is it simply dark and stormy in the narrators head? In the grip of depression, the hapless man is forced to 'ride the Pill ferry' (A little like 'chasing the dragon') over the muddy waters of his mental state to the 'other side'. Across the 'other side' of this metaphorical river, of course, is a safe, warm place, where everyone is happy and singing - suggesting this particular Pill 'ferry' is Ecstasy.

Despite the desperate need for a quick fix, the narrator knows his habit is unhealthy - indeed, as he waits for the effects of the drug to kick in, he laments: "Pill, Pill, I love thee still/Even though I'm leaving" - a cry heard from addicts all over, that this is one last drink, one last fix, and then they will kick the habit. Despite his intentions, the  "rain down pours/the thunder roars/The lightnin' flashes bright" - another insight into the mind of this depressed individual, who admits that the lesser of two evils - a night down the pub - would probably be better for him: "I'll be better by far in The Duke or The Star/Than on the Old Pill Ferry tonight".
Although, while alcohol is, of course, legal, unlike the 'Pill ferry' - it's worth remembering that the number of alcohol-related deaths in the UK has increased since the early 1990s. On average each person in the UK drinks an average of 8.4 litres of alcohol a year. Just say no, kids.

Take me where it's warm and cosy
Down there with those happy boys
Where the cheeks are red and rosy
Cobblers, hobblers, hobbledehoys
When the stinging winter sleet
Creeps along the riverside and chills your feet
For miles around, you'll hear this sound
Comin' down Pill Street

Waiting for his fix to kick in, he begs "Take me where it's warm and cosy/Down there with those happy boys/". He lists the terrifying side-effects of Ecstasy, including constriction of blood to the extremities* "When the stinging winter sleet/Creeps along the riverside and chills your feet", and yet, despite the dangers, despite the side effects, all he can hear is the call of the drug: "For miles around/you'll hear this sound/Comin' down Pill Street".
Drug users often get cold feet and have to wear slippers*

On the seven seas I've wandered 
Back to Pill I shall return
When the hard earned cash is squandered
For the local girls I yearn
Captain, Captain, carry me
Steamer of the channel past Portbury
Head her south through Avonmouth
Happy I shall be.

As the drug finally takes effect and the 'ferry' carries him on his journey, he finally admits the depth of his problem, ruefully admitting that no matter how many times he tries to 'leave' his habit behind, he knows he is doomed to return to it during the darkest times of his life:  "Oh the seven seas I've wandered/Back to Pill I shall return/When the hard earned cash is squandered/For the village lads I yearn"

He reaches to the drug, now the captain of his 'ship' - a metaphor for the soul - as it takes him on his short, chemically-enabled journey to happiness: "Captain, Captain, carry me/Steamer of the channel past Portbury/Head her south through Avonmouth/Happy I shall be."
Well, he seems happy enough
This, of course, echoes to Lou Reed's heart-breaking "I thought I was someone else - someone good" in Perfect Day, hinting at the lonliness, self-loathing and desperation that helps to turn people to drugs. As with Perfect Day, in Pill, Pill the object of the singer's affections transforms him - but the change is temporary.

Regardless of the setting, drug represent a serious problem in our communtities - rural youths are particularly at risk for developing substance abuse disorders, as prevention programs and treatment initiatives tend to be in shorter supply in rural areas than in urban settings.

As with Perfect Day, Pill, Pill's subject lurks in the subtext, the lair of the interpreter. Of course, decoding song lyrics carries the danger of  over-interpretation, but with a name like Pill, Pill, sometime the subtext, is quite simply...the text.
If you've been effected by any of the issues in today's Blog entry, you might want to talk to Frank.

*This may not be factually accurate, as I made it up.


Anonymous said...

what a pile of rubbish.
THere's no undertone to this song!

Laura said...

Ah. Yes. I see what you've done there.

You've actually taken this blog seriously. I suppose /someone/ had to.

Anonymous said...

That's my grandad in the top photo, he was the ferry man, as his dad was before him too.

Anonymous said...

I've just moved to Pill, and I'm looking for a decent history of the village (either a book or a website ideally). Can anyone point me in the right direction?

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