I remember walking down Putney High Street back in 1968. It was summer and I had time to kill. In the late sixties Putney was a rather dull part of south west London; it probably still is. After so many years I can only guess why I was there. It was where my dad worked and it must have been when I had a temporary job at the insurance company where he was a claims assessor. My role was purely administrative – form filling, filing, running errands – and it was the most stultifying occupation that could ever have been devised for a teenager’s summer holiday.¹ I was there for four weeks, but it seemed like years.
There wasn’t quite enough time in my lunch break to walk to Putney bridge where the wide grey Thames flowed steadily towards central London and on out to the sea. In any case, it wasn’t the most attractive of river scenes and even the famous London skyline was too far away to be appreciated from there. So, on that day, I just wandered past the anonymous shops grateful for the warmth and the sunshine. As I passed a clothing shop piped music spilled out onto the street. I recognised it immediately.
This Wheel’s On Fire by Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and the Trinity had been on the radio all summer and I loved it. There had been nothing like it on the radio since the pirate radio stations shut down the year before and this record, more than any other, held out hope that the creative energy of the sixties would live on in the sparser, more regulated world of pop music. As the sixties rolled into the seventies that hope was cruelly dashed by a rash of excruciatingly superficial pop and glam rock singles but back then, in 1968, I didn’t know that. Hope was alive and well and lifting my heart outside a fashion shop in down-town Putney.
I paused there in the street to listen to the song. A tinkling piano leads into a driving organ and bass backing track. Julie Driscoll’s clear confident voice delivers an intriguing first line and the listener is instantly hooked. What message does she bring? What tale will she tell? What is she reminding us of with those first few imploring words?
If your mem’ry serves you well
We were goin’ to meet again and wait …
The first verse ends without answers but when the chorus comes the organ swells to a menacing crescendo and a desperate voice warns us of an impending catastrophe.
This wheel’s on fire,
Rolling down the road.
Best notify my next of kin,
This wheel shall explode.
A wheel? Are we talking about a bicycle wheel, a cartwheel, a ferris wheel? A Catherine wheel? Or is it an abstract idea: a wheel of fortune or a metaphor for the cycle of life and death? The singer does not say but, clearly, the consequences will be dire if we don’t do something about it.
The organ, bass and piano roll inexorably into another verse. The story is beginning to take shape.
If your mem’ry serves you well
I was goin’ to confiscate your lace
And wrap it up in a sailor’s knot
And hide it in your case.
We must have made a pact with the singer, a promise that is as yet unfulfilled. But the language is odd and it raises as many questions as it answers. Meanwhile, the organ rolls relentlessly on down the road with the bass bumping and jumping over the humps and the potholes.
In verse three the singer tells us that “you’re the one who called on me to call on them to get you your favors done”. I guess she carried out her side of the bargain and it’s time for us to perform ours. If we don’t do it the wheel she’s been telling us about emphatically shall explode. Perhaps that mysterious wheel is the barrel of a revolver and someone is going to be shot. But still she doesn’t spell it out.
The juggernaut bass keeps on pounding along while a jazzy improvised keyboard solo urges us to remember our pledge and underneath it all a single droning organ note rises up and up and up as we roll on towards our uncertain fate. That droning note is still rising as the song fades out, leaving our ultimate destiny unresolved.
It says something about the song, I think, that I always associate it with that otherwise humdrum day when I heard it outside a shop in Putney. There have been many other versions², although I’ve only heard a few of them. It was, of course, a Bob Dylan song and there are versions both by Dylan himself (on The Basement Tapes) and by The Band (on their Music From Big Pink album). Strangely, I find Bob Dylan’s version rather slow and uninspiring. There’s nothing much wrong with The Band‘s version and there’s a nice cover by The Byrds but, for me, the Julie Driscoll et. al. version knocks them all into a cocked hat. It’s just a shame the technology of the sixties couldn’t capture a more detailed and vibrant recording.
- Actually, I’m exaggerating here. One lad I knew told me of his summer job in a glass factory. He was shovelling spilt molten glass away from the bottom of the furnace for several weeks at the height of a hot English summer. It sounded like the job of the under-stoker on the eternal steam engines of Hell. But without the cooling breeze as the train sped along the tracks through the fire and brimstone.
- There’s one very recent version by Kylie Minogue who completely fails to get across the mystery, the passion and the menace that makes the song. It is a much better recording, though, and it does have a beat that the youth of today seems to demand. It may well be more successful than any of the earlier versions but Crotchety Man definitely does not recommend it.