You’re never truly alone in the city. Just look at any population density map – there’s hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people breathing the same air as you, who have the same favorite sandwich at the same corner bodega. The downside is the impersonal nature of urban living, a blend of efficiency (too many encounters for elaborate rituals of etiquette) and an attempt to contrive some semblance of privacy within a packed train or a thin-walled studio apartment. But the sheer number of people, from every conceivable background or forward trajectory, also means there are more opportunities for things to do and strangers to meet. Sometimes you don’t even need to talk to these people. Sometimes just watching a movie as part of an audience, or having a drink in a crowded café, or passing pedestrians milling about on a sidewalk is enough to remind you that there’s a whole world outside of yourself. And no place in a city is more joyous than downtown at night: by definition, these are people coming together to have a good time. Their positivity is infectious. The bright lights are a natural mood lifter. How can you lose?
It’s this urban exhilaration that “Downtown” gets. As with anything sincere and optimistic and bright and polished, it’s been appropriated as ironic kitsch or dismissed as fluff. But anyone who cares to actually listen to the song, anyone who has ever felt depressed and alone and decided to change their circumstances, will recognize themselves. “It’s either the happiest sad song ever recorded, or it’s the saddest happy song ever recorded,” Chuck Klosterman called it in Killing Yourself to Live. “Downtown” is cheerful by force of will, in a way that can only come from someone who understands isolation and depression. Of course, “Downtown” doesn’t linger on the darkness. To do so would be counterproductive. “Downtown” is meant to make you “forget all your troubles, forget all your cares,” by pointing you in a clear direction: downtown. It’s a very postwar mentality: think positively, maybe spend a little money, and you can pull yourself out of your slump. Never mind if those problems will still be there when you step off the bus and turn the key to your apartment door. Do what you can to forget them, if only for a little while.
The verses start off tentatively, almost monotone and mechanical, like one gray day after another, the bore of negative thoughts pounding into your brain, making you forget there’s anything happy in the world. But then, a few extra notes start creeping in – “ma-KING you lone-LY” – gathering momentum – “al-WAYS go” – till, at last, the only word that matters: “DOWN-town.” Then the orchestra kicks in, sweeping you up in the bustle and thrills of urban life: “Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city / Linger on the sidewalk where the neon lights are pretty.” If the song slips back into hesitant stuttering for a couple of lines – “The LIGHTS are much bright-TER there” – it’s only to be blasted away moments later: “go DOWN-TOWN! / THINGS’LL BE GREAT.”
“Downtown” might have come out in the wake of the British Invasion, but it’s a record that would have been a hit here regardless. At 32, Petula Clark was only a few years older than her counterparts in the British Invasion, but she clearly identified with the “real singers” of the old guard. “Downtown” may have a bit of a beat influence to it, but it’s still more easy listening than rock and roll. Clark’s voice and stage presence were polished as only someone who’s been trained to be a professional entertainer from childhood. There was something maternal in her voice, clear and assured from years of practiced technique, that puts its arm around you and guides you to a place of understanding. “She sounds both young and wise at once,” wrote Mark Doty in Firebird: A Memoir, “but when she appears on The Ed Sullivan Show … you can see she’s been around enough to earn the right to give advice.”
Clark’s intermediate place in the pop firmament – young but not a kid, adjacent to the British Invasion but not really part of it, just modern enough to goose the traditionalists without popping any monocles – is reflected by the very moderation of the record’s message. “Downtown” promises freedom, but it’s a temporary, limited sort. As the Sixties progressed, calls for freedom would become more radicalized and explicit, both lyrically and musically. But in “Downtown,” it’s still cautious, temperate, individualized. Within a few years, the bustling Times Square that inspired Tony Hatch to write “Downtown” would degenerate into a haven for hard drugs and porno houses, and the timid charms of “Downtown” itself would seem quaint against a backdrop of social and cultural upheaval. But “Downtown” has endured long after the revolution came and went, precisely because the song’s micro scale promises achievable results. When you’re alone and life is making you lonely, you can always go downtown. 7
Hit #1 on January 23, 1965; total of 2 weeks at #1
126 of 1001 #1’s reviewed; 12.59% through the Hot 100