It’s an idealised location of magnificence and beauty with Chinese origins described in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, and a 1980 film starring Olivia Newton-John and song performed with ELO, but where else does it appear in lyrics?
In Kubla Khan, also titled A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment, supposedly emanating from an opium-fuelled dream, was completed by the poet in 1797 but not published until 1816 after some private readings and then encouragement from Lord Byron. It was inspired by the summer palace, as legend has it, built by the Mongolian Emperor of China, and it remains, also called Shangdu, the term for summer capital of Kubla Khan's Yuan empire, but is also the name of many beach resorts and night clubs around the world, video games, various fictional characters, and a bright area on the surface of Saturn's moon, Titan. Anecdotally Coleridge had up to 300 lines written in his head, and sat down immediately to scribble out those that still exist, and it remains one of his most famous, if fantastical, and exclamation mark-filled Romantic works. Unfortunately, or not, depending on literary perspective as to whether this work would have benefited from being longer, he forgot the rest when suddenly visited and interrupted by a someone on business – “a person from Porlock”. The poem is a classic example of writer’s block and memory loss.
The night before writing it, Coleridge had fallen asleep reading Relations of the World and Religions Observed in All Ages and Places Discovered, from the Creation to the Present, by the English clergyman and geographer Samuel Purchas, published in 1613. It included observations by the Venetian explorer Marco Polo, with a description of the palace not unlike Coleridge’s famous lines.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
Xanadu is also the name of 1953 musical based on the life of Marco Polo, a ballet, and the fictional mansion of the lead character in the 1941 film Citizen Kane. But in music, it’s best known for the 1980 fantasy film starring Olivia Newton-John, and a final appearance from Gene Kelly, including Greek gods and muses, and a very over the top plot and production. Jeff Lynne’s song, however, did win an Ivor Novello award, and it’s very much of the Electric Light Orchestra ilk, or indeed in the style of Abba hits of the time.
A place where nobody dared to go
The love that we came to know
They call it Xanadu
And now, open your eyes and see what we have made is real
We are in Xanadu
A million lights are dancing and you are, a shooting star
An everlasting world and you're here with me, eternally
But who else slipped Xanadu, a paradise (or parody of) in their songs. You can’t get more of a contrast than with Mark E Smith and The Fall and The Legend of Xanadu:
You cannot legislate against wrongful encouragement
You'll hear my words
On the winds 'cross the sand
If you should return
To that black barren land that bears the name of Xanadu
First without hope was our love
Then I saw it was lost from the start
It was the jewel that was nestling in the heart of Xanadu
And the footprints leave their traces
Only shadows move in places where we used to go
And the buildings open to the sky
All echo to the sky as if to show
Our love was for a day
And soon to pass away in Xanadu
This was in fact a cover of that Spanish guitar and trumpt-filled, whip-cracking 1968 hit by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich:
You'll hear my voice
On the wind cross the sand
If you should return
To that black, barren land
That bears the name of Xanadu
Cursed without hope
Was the love that I sought
Lost from the start
Was the duel that was fought
To win a heart in Xanadu
Taking more direct inspiration from Coleridge, though, is the epic prog-rock 1977 song by Rush:
To seek the sacred river Alph
To walk the caves of ice
To break my fast on honey dew
And drink the milk of paradise
I had heard the whispered tales
The deepest mystery
From an ancient book, I took a clue
I scaled the frozen mountaintops
Of eastern lands unknown
Time and man alone
Searching for the lost, Xanadu
So is Xanadu really a paradise, or something else? We’re always looking for a utopia, but how does it really turn out? Feel free to add more suggestions in song, film, theatre, or any other references below.
Want to suggest other examples of this word in song lyrics, or other unusual words or contexts? Does this song make you think of something else? Then feel free to comment below, on the contact page, or on social media: Song Bar Twitter, Song Bar Facebook. Song Bar YouTube. Please subscribe, follow and share.
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