It Was 50 Years Ago Today: Petula Clark Elevates the British Invasion With “Don’t Sleep in the Subway”

July 19, 1967
“Don’t Sleep in the Subway” by Petula Clark
#1 on the Billboard Easy Listening Singles chart, July 15 – August 4, 1967

Although nominally part of the British Invasion, Petula Clark’s age and pre-rock career history gave her a different perspective from the beat groups and girl singers who emerged in the early-to-mid ’60s.

She had first captured the public’s attention in World War II, singing and acting as the UK’s answer to Shirley Temple. One of the rare child stars to continue succeeding into adulthood, she branched out into French-language songs in the late ’50s, developing a parallel career on both sides of the English Channel.

The British half of Clark’s career began slowing down in the early ’60s, however, around the time she hit her thirtieth birthday. She was only a few years older than the rockers coming up behind her, but she symbolized a different generation. Clark had represented a light in the dark days of the war and the years of rebuilding and rationing afterward. Now, to the youth of booming Britain, who scarcely remembered the ’40s, she no longer seemed as relevant.

That changed one day in 1964 when Clark discovered the song that would rejuvenate her sound. Tony Hatch, a songwriter and producer with whom she sometimes collaborated, played her a composition he had started, inspired by a trip to New York City.

Clark was immediately taken with it, and presciently so: “Downtown” became a worldwide #1 hit, including in places like America where she had never made much of an impression before. Clark’s age, which had threatened to be a liability, became an asset. She offered a taste of the trendy and exotic British Invasion for listeners not quite ready for rock ‘n’ roll, while still being fresh-faced and modern.

Unlike the heightened emotions of most youth-oriented pop, Clark’s best ’60s singles are decidedly human in scale, dealing with ordinary adult challenges like stressful jobs, limited prospects, and domestic discord. Her voice is gentle but robust, sympathetic but encouraging.

Because she frankly acknowledges the difficulty of these problems, her entreaties to keep your chin up and make your own happiness carry real weight. The choruses of these songs brim with a sense of relief that feels earned, rather than forced: a victory all the more significant because of its impermanence.

Clark’s 1967 hit “Don’t Sleep in the Subway” is the epitome of this sort of celebration of small successes. Clark inhabits the role of a woman who, inadvertently or not, bruised her partner’s ego and now has to persuade him not to leave. There’s no outsized dramatics — she’s not pleading with him, or immolating herself before him, or trying to win him over through sheer vocal willpower. There’s even a touch of humor in Clark’s voice as if she is recognizing the ridiculousness of her partner’s huffy threats to spend the night riding the rails like an urban hobo. Clark has truly “heard it all a million times before,” and knows that she can put everything right with her warm voice and sensible outlook.

Hatch wrote “Don’t Sleep in the Subway” with Jackie Trent, a singer/songwriter whom he wed the same year Clark recorded the song. Clark herself had been married for several years to Claude Wolff, a French music executive. This intimate understanding of domestic dust-ups — how a couple can withstand a rough night without falling apart — gives “Don’t Sleep in the Subway” its ring of truth.

At the same time, however, there’s a playfulness to the record that keeps it feeling youthful. Hatch was clearly inspired by the Beach Boys’ experimental teenage symphonies, both in terms of the immaculate, yearning melody (the chorus hints at “God Only Knows”) and the affinity for crossing rock with orchestral music.

In the bridge, where the arrangement swells and Clark threatens to raise her voice (“take off your coat, my love, and close the door”), the chorus abruptly cuts in, Clark’s near-whisper standing out against the instrumental hush. Not only does the cut-and-paste production sound modern, it’s also a clever reversal of the youthful songs of passion and heartache that explode into catharsis at the chorus. After all, both the narrator of “Don’t Sleep in the Subway” and her partner are ultimately reasonable adults — there’s no need to get too carried away.

It Was 50 Years Ago Today examines a song, album, movie, or book that was #1 on the charts exactly half a century ago.

About Sally O'Rourke 205 Articles
Sally O’Rourke works in an office and sometimes writes about music. She blogs about every song to ever top the Billboard Hot 100 (in order) at No Hard Chords. She has also contributed to The Singles Jukebox, One Week // One Band, and PopMatters. Special interests include girl groups, soul pop, and over-analyzing chord changes and lyrics as if deciphering a secret code. She was born in Baton Rouge and lives in Manhattan. Her favorite Nugget is “Liar, Liar” by The Castaways.