THE SODA MAN
A song that was featured at every Bad Pennies’ concert throughout the ’90’s, and at the odd Jez Lowe solo gig as well, The Soda Man was described by US Radio DJ Steve Meadows as “the archetypal Jez Lowe song”, a jaunty melody, a catchy chorus, a neat little guitar figure, and an underlying touch of social comment that creeps up on you unawares! Written for the BRIEFLY ON THE STREET album, the debut recording of the original Bad Pennies, there seems to be a certain amount of “tailoring” involved from the outset, in that the song was obviously constructed to give Bev Sanders a lead vocal on the chorus, while Jez was to handle the main verse of the song.
Keyboard player Rob Kay’s arrangement on the instrumental riff was typically inventive, echoing rather than sticking to the guitar part, and giving just the right amount of suggestion of the “ice-cream van” melody without overplaying the allusion. On the surface the song can be seen to be another aspect of life in Northern England that Jez Lowe has taken and viewed from a more intimate and closely scrutinized angle – that the Soda Man was more than just a merchant, but a symbol of joy and freedom that had stayed with the writer all his life and was now being celebrated in song. Indeed, that is what the character becomes in this story, and there’s a universality in that – for although the Soda Man never came down OUR street, perhaps one day he will!
According to the sleeve notes of the Jez Lowe Songbook, however, the whole crux of the song was a mere fiction on Jez’s part – there never was a “Soda Man” selling pop and soft-drinks from a van around the streets. It was all just made up by the writer, for the sole purpose, worthy in itself, of setting up the story of the young girl looking after her siblings and longing for the chance to play in the sunshine, drink her pop and skip along the pavement, juxtaposed with the reality of her parents spending all their time and money drinking in the pubs and bars ’til all all hours of the night. There is also the sinister image of her father’s shaking hands coming towards her as she lies in bed, a memory that won’t go away… Its a poignant contrast that seems to perfectly suit the song – the happy-go-lucky children’s rhyme (again, purely something that the writer invented), set against the bleak desperation of the reality of family life.
No doubt there are memories and allusions from childhood throughout the song, but the specifics are purely part of the Jez Lowe imagination, as he gleefully admitted from the start. Even his onstage introduction was carefully worded to claim no authenticity, while at the same time suggesting exactly that! We can glean some further information about how the song was recorded from those involved. For example, the idea for the extraneous voices on the fade out came from hearing an album by the Italian singer Fabrizio de Andre (the album is called “Creuza de Ma”), where street sounds are used to cross-fade the opening tracks. For the Bad Pennies’ track, Jez recorded Bev’s three children actually playing hopscotch and chanting the chorus of the song; this was then dubbed on to the track at Fellside studios, as was a similar recording of Jez’s father shouting a Soda Man’s slogan in the backstreet outside his house in County Durham.
On the LP version of the album (this was to be the only Fellside album to be released in all three formats, LP, CD and cassette), this closed the first side. Over the ten years that the song stayed in the band’s repertoire, it underwent several changes in arrangement, culminating in the version that appears on the “Live at the Davy Lamp” album. Jez also featured the song on his solo gigs in Australia last year, encouraging the audience to do the chorus part. The song then seems to have slipped out of favour and is no longer in the “live” repertoire. Hopefully the fact that The Soda Man was revealed as a fictional character, rather than a significant memory of days gone by in County Durham, will not lessen it’s appeal or detract from it’s effectiveness. You might wonder why Jez chose to reveal this, when he could easily have maintained the complete fiction that this was somehow all based on fact. Well, herein lies the twist to the tale. Some time after the song was written, and the album released, Jez and Bev were in a bookshop in Lancashire and were looking at a book of old photographs from the 1800’s (the sort of thing one might see in tourist centres or in the Bygone Times chain of UK stores), and to their amazement came across a faded print of a white-bearded man standing next to a horse-drawn wagon in a cobbled street, a jug in one hand and a bottle in the other. The caption read “The Soda Man – circa 1860”.