Mint Juleps – Docklands
I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be a pop star, but I’ve probably wondered more about what it would be like to not quite make it – which is of course far more common. Imagine going to the trouble of making an album (two, if you’re Amelia Lily) only for it to remain unpromoted and unheard, or even worse – unreleased. The nearest equivalent in everyday life might be making a spectacular five course meal and then tipping the entire thing in the bin because someone was late to the party.
This is the sort of thing which happens with alarming regularity in the pop world – months of work doomed to sit in a record company vault because someone decided the timing wasn’t right, or your first single wasn’t a hit, or because all the people who signed and supported you left abruptly. Or, as was the case with the delightful Mint Juleps, because your label went tits up just as you were poised to ‘cross over’. The label in question was Stiff Records, one which seemed particularly well equipped to triumph in the first half of the 1980s and somehow much less so in the second, as pop entered one of its periodic polish ‘n’ production-line phases.
Frustratingly, if there’s one group who could have eased Stiff through this part of the decade it was the Mint Juleps. The bulk of what should have been their breakthrough album was produced by Trevor Horn, who was, as usual, ahead of his time. He crafted a sound for the six piece (made up of sisters Sandra, Debbie, Lizzie and Marcia Charles and their two best school pals Julie Isaac and Debbie Longworth) that blended the Jam & Lewis approach to R&B with a very London sensibility, full of scratches and sound effects not a million miles away from the theme for Channel 4’s ‘yoof’ programme Network 7. Indeed, if you listen to their single Girl to the Power of 6 now, you can hear all the elements that would make the Spice Girls a global phenomenon a decade later – and not just because it put the words ‘girl’ and ‘power’ together. Tick off that Wannabe checklist: every member introducing themself? Check. Message of strength through unity? Check. Brash but oddly charming confidence? Check. It’s all there. Just, as it turned out, nine years early.
The song we’re discussing today, however, is Docklands – and it’s one that first came to my attention in a version by its writer (and Into the Popvoid favourite) Betsy Cook on her 1992 album The Girl Who Ate Herself.
This is a song that I loved instantly and completely, and it has a rather Zelig-like tendency to crop up unexpectedly throughout pop history. Stevie Nicks covered it – fairly terribly, it has to be said – in 1994, but I’ve only recently discovered that it was originally written for the Mint Juleps. The full story of how it came to be can be heard on this brilliantly honest, hilarious interview made to promote its re-release for Record Store Day in 2013.
Aside from the gorgeous tune and ace production, the thing that grabbed me about Docklands was how it perfectly captured that feeling of big city loneliness that comes from being surrounded by millions of people with absolutely no interest in one another. “And all the people who roam the docklands / all the ships passing in the night / all the thousands of things that I have dreamed / are gone in the daylight / sometimes I feel like I’m in a foreign land / and there’s a mirror I’m looking through / lost in the place where I was born / without a hand to hold on to”. It’s perfect, and this might just be the best version of it – the solitary nature of the lyric is beautifully offset by the occasional moments – as at 2:21 – when the full vocal power of these six women (who started out as an acapella group, and it shows) is unleashed. It’s like a bolt of sunlight breaking through low hanging cloud. Heavenly, in fact.
If there had been a bit more time, a bit more money and a bit more luck, an alternate, and entirely different pop timeline might well have been created – though as it’s one where the need for the Spice Girls might never have arisen, we must be careful what we wish for. The big time never quite came for the Mint Juleps, although they seem to have handled it brilliantly, as this interview quote demonstrates:
“I miss sitting in our minibus with those five other people, because we used to laugh ’til we cried”.
Somehow that makes it all seem worth it.
Who could sing this today and have a hit? I’m always wondering where Docklands might pop up next, and I can’t help but think that Adele could bat this one straight into the top ten.