The Green Line by Gilroy Mere
(Clay Pipe Music, out now)
Review by John Grindrod
The Green Line bus service might seem an odd and minor thing to write music about. Founded in 1930, Green Line buses were originally designed to venture up to 30 miles from London, and later to reach the postwar New Towns of Harlow and Stevenage. The name lives on in a private coach fleet — not quite the utopian bus network of the welfare state era. This wistful album by Gilroy Mere is a nostalgic journey down those country roads. Gilroy Mere is a project from the restless imagination of Oliver Cherer, who says that ‘the pieces on this album represent sights, sounds and stops on a trip by a suburban English boy into the home counties. The entire record was conceived as a journey’. Like Cherer, I grew up on the edge of London’s green belt. From where I lived red buses took us into the town’s famously built up centre of Croydon, but the Green Line bus service (number 403, since you ask) took us out in the other direction, into the Kent and Surrey countryside beyond the city’s fringes.
‘Dunroamin’’, the album’s opening track, begins with the throaty chuckle of an old green line bus ignition (the RLH48 from the London Bus Museum, fact fans). It’s a wink to the opening of Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, just as 1994 bus-based action film Speed was a wonky homage to the breakneck car chase films of the day. The song’s ticking percussion perfectly orchestrates the rattling rivets and loose prefabricated panels of an ageing bus. It drives the song from eccentric chopsticks-style piano riff and blossoms into a rousing crescendo, evoking the anticipation and excitement at the start of a trip. Voices hymn the landmarks and house names of this out-of-town bus route, the music building into a heart-bursting affirmation of arcadian beauty. Those sung place markers remind me of ‘Sweet Arcadia’, the sinister last track on Saint Etienne’s most recent long player, Home Counties, a similarly ambitious concept album about the edges of London. The Green Line also sits beside the Magnetic North’s astonishing 2016 album Prospect of Skelmersdale as a precise and welcome record of English postwar place and optimism past.
The next track, ‘Cuckoo Waltz’, starts as a charming slice of Trumpton folk, as we are beguiled by this journey through the outskirts, but then becomes something woozier, more wild. RLH48 is the song of the bus itself, all pistons and shuffling mechanical percussion, all the while surrounded by a rather more mysterious melody, and the constantly evolving countryside.
We’re in Kent for the track ‘Hop Pickers’, a drunken whimsy of twangs, chimes and echoes. ‘A Lychgate’ feels more ancient: a slow, gentle piece with recorders and plucked strings evoking time moving at a medieval pace. ‘On Ditchling Beacon’ is a stranger thing, evoking one of the highest spots on the South Downs, with wind whistling on the hills, and the enchanted ghosts of the landscape looming up.
‘I Can See The Sea From Here’ feels more contemporary (well, a 1970s version of contemporary, at any rate), a rush of epic echoes and schools programme proggy synths conjuring up that sense of achievement on a journey where the vista opens up before you. Here there is bird song and even the music sounds distant. These are far off sounds for a quiet spot. This prog feeling takes flight in the title track, ‘The Green Line’, the most extraordinary piece on the album. Looped bleeps and dramatic piano chords express something modern and heroic. This leads us into the penultimate track, ‘Moss And Yew’, where Cherer imagines us sat in a country churchyard at the end of our journey. It’s one of my favourites on this fine, thoughtful album: a reflective and gently melancholy piece underscored with an unsettling feeling of having been abandoned.
But then, just before we become too chilled in the shade of the ancient yew, here comes a friendly sound: the bus to take us home. And then on ‘Just Turn For Home’ we reach the limit of our bus journey. In the driving acoustic guitar and strings there’s a sense of a weary, dogged attempt to get there, to the end of this trip. Half way through this extended piece the mood changes, as we disembark and the bus drives away. Because after all, this isn’t just the story of the countryside — it’s the tale of the places the bus could take us.
This is a gem of an album: melodic, warm, multi-layered, with a driven narrative and a message about what we once made possible. In writing music about such an overlooked and forgotten piece of our cultural history, Oliver Cherer has done something quietly remarkable. He has resurrected the spirit of the Green Line, and reminded us of extraordinary moments lost; everyday moments seldom captured in music, writing or film. You listen to it at home and it takes you on a journey. You listen to it outside and it heightens those moments. It’s a bus ride you want to keep taking.
John Grindrod is the author of Outskirts: Living Life on the Edge of the Green Belt.
The Green Line is out now on Clay Pipe Music.