By The Landlord
“The best time I ever had with Joan Crawford was when I pushed her down the stairs in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” – Bette Davis
“Life's full of tricky snakes and ladders.” – Morrissey
“Americans have different ways of saying things. They say 'elevator', we say 'lift'... they say 'President', we say 'stupid psychopathic git’”. – Alexei Sayle
"It's not the destination, it's the journey," comes that old saying, and unless you’re in a hurry, trying to escape out of a busy underground station, or running late, or have phobias about small spaces, or physical problems, there is something rather elevated about using staircases, steps or elevators. When built well, they represent a rather splendid form of moving from one level to another, whether steep and winding, or wide and sweeping, timelessly made of stone, wood or metal, classic or colourful, and a with whole variety of styles can capture eras, architecture, and society’s movement in one fell swoop.
I do love a spiral staircase, for example – it’s something that combines elegance and economy of space. LIfts, or elevators, can also have their own, cosy, or otherwise charm. They offer a strangely intimate, quiet neutral zone of social awkwardness and social convention where we should stare straight ahead and say nothing. And definitely not fart. But how do all of these mini modes of transport, including also ladders, inspire, or are reflected in song? They are often used in metaphor, but lyrically also as small locations for a chance rendezvous, or a planned moment of intimacy, where they can perfectly frame and enhance a moment of longing, passion, or conflict. A lift is a little box of society. It can contain awkward or chatty officer workers. It can contain singing, swearing miners going down to up back from the pit. Or it can contain Beyonce’s sister Solange Knowles famously seen punching and kicking Jay-Z.
Because stairs, ladders and elevators are mostly all about going up or down, they are also the perfect expression of life’s undulations. But this topic introduction is just the first rung, step or floor of this topic. I’m just here to press the button and send you to the floor of inspiration.
Flitting between all of these, let’s start small, and tread gingerly into the world of cat ladders. I am the proud designer and builder of one myself. We live on the top two floors of a four-story house, and the cats venture out the cat-flap at the kitchen back window, and down a jungle run made of green pvc-coated chicken wire and light roofing material, through bushes and trees to the top of the fence down in the garden and beyond. It starts 25 feet up and is more than 40 feet long. They use it all the time and no other cat in the neighbourhood dares follow them.
Cat ladders come in all designs. I’ll try and post a picture of mine at some point this week. It’s not nearly as dangerous or extreme as this, for example:
But it’s not half as sophisticated as this mini glass elevator, entirely operated by the cat, at a house in Sweden.
Of course elevator convention is also down to technology. Gone are the days of the lift operator in many public buildings, large stores or offices. Some have even replaced push buttons for floors with voice recognition technology. It’s not always a good idea:
Elevators in films generally lead up to the villainous boss at the top (see Brazil for example, and you definitely don't want to ever get stuck in an elevator with Bruce Willis (Die Hard, Die Harder etc), or any other cops, villains.
Or indeed aliens or any other violent beings are a very bad idea in a small four-well swinging metal space, and especially not in the absurd multiple monster moving glass box world of The Tower of Terror. Perhaps, by contrast the best one would be Willy Wonka’s glass elevator, taking you up, up and away through the ceiling to the ‘world of your imagination’.
But ladders, elevators and stairs can also bring out extraordinary phobias and fears in people. Former Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl has dropped in to the Bar for a beer to explain: “I have crazy claustrophobic dreams, weird elevator dreams where the elevator closes in and all of a sudden I am lying down - oh my God, it's a casket. Just freaky stuff like that.”
And Norman Cook aka Fatboy Slim, is also here, He’s just checked out our toilets, and says: “I'm very superstitious... I never shout at magpies, walk under ladders or put my shoes on the table.”
Some people have far worse fears. Jimmy Stewart fell foul of heights, and romance, twice in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Mind you step, Kim Novak. And he’s too old for you.
So how do you face that fear? Well, my childhood hero, John Noakes of Blue Peter, just got stuck in when it came to going up Nelson's Column. This still “gives me the willies” as they call it.
Perhaps we could all learn a bit from the great old steeplejack, Fred Dibnah. By ‘eck, it’s nippy up ‘ere.
By contrast, many of us wouldn’t even want to climb a Stairmaster, especially not on a 4-minute exercise advert on the QVC channel. But let’s elevate our minds now with some more splendid examples. Patti Smith is here, and describes the thrill of walking up the steps to play at one of her favourite venues, this being in San Francisco: “I love playing the Fillmore. I love the walk from the hotel and climbing up those old, iron stairs that lead to the stage. I imagine Jerry Garcia, Jimi Hendrix and the Doors and all those other great bands climbing those same stairs.”
And so let us make our entrance on some greatest and most stairs in the world. Want just loads of stairs and elevators in a futuristic kind of way? This Marriott Marquis Hotel, Peachtree Center Avenue, Atlanta, Georgia was the setting for one of The Hunger Games movies.
Or if you want old-school elegance, here's a cross-section of the Momo Staircase, also called the Snail Staircase or Simonetti Staircase at the Vatican Museums.
Fancy climbing something modern, striking, and very clever that goes everywhere and nowhere? What about the Munich's Umschreibung, which means “transcription” or “rewriting,” by Danish sculptor and installation artist Olafur Eliasson. It's shaped like a double helix.
Want to elevate your mind in a different way. Then there's the gloriously winding red staircase at the Livraria Lello bookshop in Porto:
Want to go back in time? Chand Baori is a stepwell built in the 9th century in the Abhaneri village of Rajasthan. Its 3,500 symmetrical steps are perhaps all about life's ups and downs.
But where is all of this really leading? Hopefully to a musical heaven. Could it be like that shown the extraordinary Powell and Pressburger film, A Matter of Life and Death, starring David Niven? Let's hope so.
And so then I hand over the keys to the lift door and the stairs entrance to this week's guru, the adventurous attwilightlarks! Take the relatively simple step of placing your relevant song nominations in comments below in time for deadline on Monday 11pm UK time, for playlists published on Wednesday. We hope you enjoy the journey as much as the arrival.
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Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.