#708: Hey St. Peter by Flash And The Pan
Johannes Hendrikus Jacob van den Berg was born in the Netherlands in 1946. When he turned 13 he taught himself to play guitar in his family’s tenement home. He played guitar in a band called The Starfighters, based in The Hague. When he was seventeen his family moved to Australia in 1963. The following year, going by the anglicized name of Harry Vanda, he became the lead guitar player for a Sydney band called The Easybeats. A co-founder of the band was George Young. Also an immigrant to Australia, in his case from Glasgow, Scotland, George Redburn Young was a rhythm guitarist. After one of the coldest winters in Scotland on record in 1962, the Young family saw a Television ad from the Australian government promising travel assistance for families seeking a new start with a life in Australia. In 1964 The Easybeats often held band practices in a local laundromat. Vanda and Young became a songwriting duo and scored an international hit in 1966 titled “Friday On My Mind”. The song climbed to #9 in Vancouver, #1 in The Netherlands and Australia, #2 in New Zealand and #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the USA.
Inspired by the British Invasion in 1964, The Easybeats charted seven Top Ten hits in Australia between 1965 and 1970, including two #1 hits down under. After they split in 1970, Vanda and Young went on to produce recordings by AC/DC. The duo wrote a hit for John Paul Young called “Yesterday’s Hero” which went to #8 on the Australian pop chart in 1975.
In 1976 Harry Vanda and George Young formed as a duo billed as Flash And The Pan. Their first single release, “Hey St. Peter”, went to #5 in Australia in 1976. The song charted to #6 in Belgium and #7 in the Netherlands in the summer of 1977. In 1977 their song, “Love Is In The Air”, was recorded by John Paul Young which became an international Top Ten hit. “Hey St. Peter” was released in Flash And The Pan’s self-titled debut album in December 1978. By the fall of 1979 CFUN in Vancouver chose to give the disc a spin.
“Hey St. Peter” is a song about a visitor to New York City in the mid-70’s. The sun rises and tries to smile. Possibly the smog from air pollution prevented the sun getting any brighter. Air pollution was a front page headline in the 1970’s with many radio stations providing an air pollution index reading hourly. The lyrics refer to “Billy” being out of fashion. Of the Billy’s who are notable people listed in Wikipedia born in New York City, several were too young to be candidates for the song’s inspiration. Billy Crystal, for example only became a household name in 1977 when he starred in the TV sitcom, Soap. A more likely “Billy” who was out of fashion was Billy Whitlock. He was born in Manhattan in 1813 and started his entertainment career appearing blackface and playing the banjo at circuses and dime shows. By the early 1840’s Billy Whitlock was a household name in New York City. Whitlock asserted that his Negro impersonations were based on reality. In an obituary in the New York Clipper in April 1878, it was reported that Billy Whitlock used to “quietly steal off to some negro hut to hear the darkeys sing and see them dance, taking with him a jug of whiskey to make them all the merrier.”
Another song in the 1970’s that also lamented the decline of New York City was Greenfield’s “New York City Is Closed Tonight“. Elton John had a track from his album Honky Château titled “Mona Lisa’s And Mad Hatters”. Elton John sings about learning that actually there are no rose trees growing in New York City. In 1960 Ben E. King sang about a rose in “Spanish Harlem”. But in his case it was a rose that had never seen the sun, who had “eyes black as coal that looks down in my soul and starts a fire and then I lose control.” Ben E King’s “rose” was a female and not the plant. As for rose trees in New York City, a visitor would have to take the R subway train from Manhattan south to Brooklyn and get off at Bay Ridge Street to see roses blooming in the Narrows Botanical Garden.
In “Hey St. Peter” the singer sings that “Manhattan was years ago.” Manhattan is the name of one of the five boroughs in New York City. The other four are The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. Manhattan is an island that is just over 22 miles long. In the 1970’s Manhattan was under siege with stories of crime, a subway system littered with graffiti, pollution and economic troubles. In its heyday, Manhattan had been looked to for as a financial, cultural and political. The name Manhattan derives from the word Manna-hata, as written in the 1609 logbook of Robert Juet, an officer on Henry Hudson’s yacht Halve Maen. Although Manhattan and the other five boroughs that make up New York City went through a resurgence in fortune by the late 1980’s, the glory days of Manhattan in the mid-70’s were seen as being “long ago.” In the song the singer reports that visiting New York is like visiting “hell.”
St. Peter was originally a Jewish fisherman named Simeon. He was called to be a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Simeon received from Jesus the name Cephas from Aramaic Kepa, meaning “Rock.” The English name Peter comes from the Greek name Petros, which is a Greek translation of the Aramaic word Kepa. Peter became the leading figure in the Jerusalem church up to the time of his departure from Jerusalem after his imprisonment by King Herod and his subsequent release in the New Testament, described in the book of Acts 12:1–17. There are two scriptures written in the New Testament credited to Peter: the First Epistle of Peter and the Second Epistle of Peter. An epistle is a letter. From these letters people in the early centuries of the Christian church believed that Peter was the Bishop of Rome and Bishop of Antioch between 30 A.D. and 68 A.D. Peter was also said to have led missionary journeys to Asia Minor where he spread the good news that Jesus had taught. The Second Letter of Peter 1:13-14 indicates that the letter was written near the end of Peter’s life, as he anticipated his life would end in the near future. Christian tradition teaches that Peter was martyred in Rome in either 64 A.D. or 68 A.D.
In the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox churches June 29th is celebrated as the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. Starting in the the 13th century, in Great Britain Midsummer was celebrated on Midsummer Eve (St. John’s Eve, June 23) and St. Peter’s Eve (June 28) with the lighting of bonfires, feasting and merrymaking. In 1626 the The Papal Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican was consecrated. It had been under construction since 1506. The Basilica replaced the Old St. Peter’s Basilica, a construction project that began in 318 A.D. by Emperor Constantine I. A church and place of worship, the Basilica is also said to be the place where St. Peter is buried. Outside the Basilica is St. Peter’s Square. Both the Old St. Peter’s Basilica and the new St. Peter’s Basilica have been the settings for many papal coronations over the centuries.
St. Peter has been represented in iconography, sculpture and paintings since the 4th Century. So, when the singer in “Hey St. Peter” lets the saint know that visiting New York (in the 1970’s) is like visiting hell, the singer is appealing to a spiritual figure. The deteriorating condition of New York City in this song is, then, a spiritual matter. The loss of New York City’s grandeur is a loss more broadly felt, a stain on America and a problem in need of fixing. The resolve to fix the problems of crime and decay in New York City brought political figures like Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg to prominence.
John Paul Young told an Australian reporter in 2016 more about the inspiration for the song “Hey St. Peter”. “George was in New York chatting to the hotel doorman about the weather and the African American guy says ‘Oh well, man, when my time comes, I am going to say to St Peter “You can’t send me to hell, I have done my time in hell in New York!”‘ George just picked up things you and I would say and turn them into songs.”
“Hey St. Peter” climbed to #9 in Vancouver in October 1979. It climbed to #1 in Ottawa and made the Top 20 in Buffalo and Boston.
In 1981 the B-side of “Hey St. Peter” was recorded by Grace Jones who included “Walking In The Rain” in her album Nightclubbing. In 1983, Young and Vanda recorded “Waiting For A Train” which went to #7 in the UK. In 1996 Meatloaf had a Top 30 single with the Vande-Young composition “Runnin’ for the Red Light (I Gotta Life)”. In 2005 Harry Vanda established Flashpoint Music which opened a recording studio. Vanda has been a producer for many decades including indie rock back British India. In 2017 George Young died at the age of 70.
In 2016 John Paul Young performed in several Australian cities the Vanda and Young Songbook. In an interview it was reported that the Easybeats songs were simplest to perform. But, “Young said the Flash and the Pan songs were the most challenging to perform because of George’s “talk singing”, which approximated an early form of rap or the very least, spoken word. “Walking In The Rain, which was covered by Grace Jones, has me a little scared because it’s just such a moody, performance piece with George’s talking. George never, ever liked his voice.”
December 24, 2018
C-FUN-TASTIC FIFTY, 1410 AM CFUN, January 21, 1967.
Andrew Stafford, George Young Should be Remembered as the Sonic Architect of Australian Rock Music, Guardian, October 24, 2017.
David Fricke, The Easybeats: Where Are They Now?: Catching up with the band behind ‘Friday on My Mind’, Rolling Stone, September 11, 1986.
Michael Dwyer, Legends Pay Tribute to Vanda and Young, Sydney Morning Herald, December 7, 2013.
Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz, Harry Vanda & George Young, The Monthly, Carlton, Victoria, Australia, December 2010 – January 2011.
Ken Emerson, Doo-Dah!: Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture. Da Capo Press, 1997.
Hans Rouw Interviewt Harry Vanda (Easybeats) in Zwarte Ruiter in Den Haag, YouTube.com, May 13, 2012.
Raymond E. Brown, Introduction to the New Testament, Anchor Bible, 1997, p. 767.
St. Peter, Wikipedia.org.
Kelly McCabe, John Paul Young Spotlights the Brilliant Career of Vanda and Young Hitmakers in his New Show, New Corp Australia, January 31, 2016.
“Narrows Botanical Garden,” Timeout.com.
For more song reviews visit the Countdown.