Tag Archives: Electric Eden

Streets of London – Ralph McTell

I was going to write a piece about a different song that came out of the British folk rock scene of the late sixties and early seventies, but in a digressive introduction, I found myself writing and thinking about Ralph McTell instead. So later for the original piece, I’m afraid.

Streets of London is such a fixture in British culture that we don’t notice it, may go years without thinking about it. I remember a teacher playing it to us one morning at assembly when I was primary school in the 1980s, twenty years after McTell had written the song and 15 years after it had been a hit. We were too young, too sheltered (most of us), to have encountered too much wretchedness first-hand. What I took from the song was its pretty tune and its bottomless melancholy.

Now, as an adult, I find that, away from the experience of listening to the song, I don’t actually agree with its sentiments all that much. It’s not of much help to most people struggling with depression, loneliness or isolation to simply remind them that others have it worse. There’s always someone who has it worse, but in the moment that doesn’t lessen real grief, real sorrow or real hurt. Emotions are impervious to appeals to reason.

Yet, I love Streets of London. More than just a pretty tune, some deft picking and a deathless chord sequence taken from Pachelbel’s Canon in D, it is full of compassion, empathy and wisdom. For its four-minute duration, McTell’s reminder that we should reserve our deepest sympathy for someone other than ourselves feels authoritative and common-sensical, even if most of the time I don’t feel it’s practical, or even possible.

Streets of London exists in its most perfect form wherever McTell happens to be playing it. It’s a song that doesn’t have a wholly satisfactory studio recording. Its original recording is found on his second album, released in 1969 and produced by Gus Dudgeon. It’s a spare reading of the song, recorded in one take, guitar and vocal alike. It’s an effective and affecting take, but when you listen to the 1974 re-recording that became a hit, it’s undeniable that his voice had become deeper and richer in a very pleasing way in the time between. But the 1974 arrangement is over-egged: the guitar is doubled (tightly but unnecessarily), a high and lonesome harmonica is present to no real effect, and the backing vocals that enter in the second verse, intended no doubt to evoke a folk club, sound cheesily showbiz.

The perfect version would be a simple live recording of the song sung by McTell alone, without the audience aping the 1974 version by joining in the choruses. I hope to hear one.

McTell has gotten something of a raw deal in music history as it is written down. A modest man, he lives in the shadow of his peers: the spell-weaving guitar players Bert Jansch and Davy Graham; the questing, visionary John Martyn, John Renbourn and Richard Thompson; the yeoman Martin Carthy; Nick Drake and Sandy Denny, with their romantic early deaths. Having a huge worldwide hit made him somehow other to them. He was left out of Rob Young’s Electric Eden, which deals comprehensively with the British folk revival of the 1960s and ’70s, yet he was indubitably there – busking in Paris, playing at Les Cousins, releasing records on Transatlantic – following the same paths as his more storied contemporaries and he wrote the songs to prove it. Streets of London is merely the most famous one.

by Brian Shuel, modern bromide print from an original negative, 1968
Ralph McTell, 1968 – the year he wrote Streets of London (Brian Shuel)

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Genesis Hall – Fairport Convention

Golly, it’s an early masterpiece of British folk-rock…

Early Fairport Convention is so wet you need to towel down after listening to it. It’s so green it gives you verdirgis. Their path to artistic maturity required them to toughen up and stop being so damn callow, which they never did entirely. Only Fairport could have put their excruciating version of Million Dollar Bash on the same LP as Genesis Hall (Richard Thompson), Who Knows Where the Time Goes (Sandy Denny) and their genuinely groundbreaking reading of A Sailor’s Life.

Unhalfbricking is the album in question. 1969. Two Thompson songs, two Denny songs, a trad/arr., and three Dylan songs, with two more emerging as outtakes on a reissue. Flawed as it is by the godawful Dylan covers (and no, I’m not going to give Si Tu Dois Partir a pass either – sorry, Fairport fans. I’m no Dylan diehard but I don’t hear any of the stuff that made Dylan and the Band’s version of these songs great in any of the Fairport versions), Unhalfbricking stands as their finest album of mostly original songs. Still, it seems strange, looking at the start of their careers and knowing the later songwriting accomplishments of Thompson and Denny, that they ever needed to lean so heavily on another writer’s songbook.

But what is great about Unhalfbricking is great indeed. Undeniably great. All-time great. Who Knows Where the Time Goes was voted the best song ever by Radio 2-listening folk fans, and I’m of no mind to disagree. It’s plainly wonderful. A Sailor’s Life is perhaps the most important performance in the whole of British folk-rock, in which, writes Rob Young in Electric Eden, ‘All the elements that we might associate with English electric folk are switched on.’ Fairport would continue to explore this new sound on Liege & Lief, but nothing is ever as exciting the second time around.

But, for listeners, probably the first time they heard Fairport sound genuinely confident and muscular was not on A Sailor’s Life. It was on album opener Genesis Hall, Richard Thompson’s first masterpiece.

Thompson has explained that the song is about a Drury Lane squat and how his policeman father was one of the squad sent in to evict the squatters. Thompson, seeing ‘both sides of the quarrel’ but naturally sympathising with the squatters, and being appalled at the level of violence used by the police, wrote Genesis Hall in response. A taut waltz, played with vigorous force by drummer Martin Lamble, it’s as chill as a November morning; Denny’s performance of Thompson’s passionate, if somewhat dramatic lyric, achieves its force through its icy calmness.

Lamble was in fantastic form all over Unhalfbricking, and if Who Knows Where the Time Goes was his most emotional performance and A Sailor’s Life his most exploratory (it’s a cliché, but his cymbal washes really are incredibly evocative of the ocean spray), Genesis Hall finds him at his most authoritative. His shocking death in a van accident on the M1 after a show in Birmingham denied us the opportunity to hear him on the Liege & Lief material; his death was a musical as well as personal tragedy for the band. His replacement, the inimitable Dave Mattcks, is himself a fabulous drummer, but he sounds to me like a player who tends to sit back and respond to the dynamics of the rest of the band, whereas Lamble tended to lead them. Certainly no one who’s played Genesis Hall as the drummer in Fairport (a roll-call that also includes Gerry Conway, who I’ve raved about before here) have grabbed the song by the scruff of the neck like Lamble, with his triplet tom-rolls and crisp snare flams. Far more than any song they’d recorded up to 1969, Genesis Hall put the rock into folk-rock.

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Fairport convene on the lawn, probably not during autumn

Can I trouble you to listen to my new EP, Last Swallow?

River Man – Nick Drake

The rain is bouncing off the flat roof outside my window as I write this. Yep, it’s definitely autumn now. Let’s get into what may be the finest – and most autumnal – song of the British folk-rock revival

When I was sixteen or seventeen and began hearing about Nick Drake and reading about him in music magazines (younger readers note: this was in the late 1990s, and at that point – in the UK at least – the majority of homes didn’t yet have an internet connection so hearing new music was not as simple as it is now, and frequently involved parting with hard currency), the consensus seemed to be that the album to begin with was Bryter Layter. It’s indisputably a fine record, and my life would be much the poorer for not having heard Hazey Jane II, At the Chime of a City Clock and Northern Sky, yet once I was familiar with all three of his completed albums, I connected most deeply with Pink Moon (in its entirety – it’s a short album, with nothing that you could excise without harming the whole) and a few tracks of his debut, Five Leaves Left (Three Hours, Cello Song, Saturday Sun and of course River Man).

If pushed, I’d have to judge FFL the weakest of Drake’s albums. There are tracks that are precious or bombastic (Way to Blue, Fruit Tree) in a way that he grew out of, and one that breaks the twee-o-meter (Man in a Shed). Yet when Drake gets it right on his debut, he produces the music that is somehow most characteristic of himself, that seems to come from deepest within him; if someone were to ask me to play them one song that epitomised the sound and mood of Nick Drake’s music, it might well be Cello Song.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that while Bryter Layter may have become the canonical favourite of those who like their Nick Drake cosmopolitan and baroque, and Pink Moon is the pick of those who like their Drake uncanny and skeletal, nothing in his slim but important body of work can match River Man.

This does seem to be becoming the prevailing critical consensus. In his 1999 Mojo piece on Drake, the late Ian MacDonald devoted more time to River Man (‘one of the sky-high classics of post-war popular music’) than any other song, and in Electric Eden, Wire editor Rob Young, like MacDonald (to whom he may be indebted) spends time unpacking the song’s metaphysics, declaring ‘There’s nothing on Five Leaves Left to match River Man, which finds Drake at his most transcendent.’ Of Drake’s oeuvre, only Bryter Layter’s Northern Sky gets anything like the time and analysis that Young dedicates to River Man (merely an observation, not a complaint – the task Young set himself with Electric Eden was huge, and to have discussed every notable song in depth would have resulted in a book several thousand pages long, rather than 500). The point is that the two most noteworthy critics who have in recent years turned their gaze on British folk music and its 1960s revival lighted upon River Man as the supreme example of Nick Drake’s genius. It may not be entirely characteristic of Drake (principally because its magisterial string arrangement is by Harry ‘Lord Rockingham’ Robinson, not by Robert Kirby, Drake’s usual collaborator), but if there’s one Nick Drake song I’d like readers to go and seek out if they’ve never heard it before, River Man is it.

Harry Robinson’s work may be most familiar to readers from the many Hammer films he scored, and the music is frequently the best thing about those movies. But curiously, unlike Drake himself, Robinson had known chart success: as Lord Rockingham, in 1958 (with the deathless number-one single Hoots Mon), and had been a fixture of the British pop scene for years before ever working with an Island Records folkie (as well as Drake, Robinson worked with Sandy Denny and John Martyn). Like all good pros, then, he was adept at tailoring his gifts to the situation while producing fully evolved, emotionally engaging (and engaged) music rather than mere hackwork. The difference, to be blunt, between someone like Jim Keltner on the one hand, and Anton Fig or Kenny Aronoff on the other.

Any songwriter would feel blessed to have an arranger such as Harry Robinson on their team, and I wish Drake had used him more. As it is, we have River Man, and its spine-tingling second-verse string part. Drake used Robinson after Kirby tried and failed to write anything satisfactory, defeated by the circularity of the chord progression and the five/four time signature. Kirby’s analysis of Robinson’s work is acute:

I could not for the life of me work out how to write a piece of music that didn’t stagger along like a spider missing a leg, how you crossed over and missed the bar lines. But Harry’s string arrangement is scarcely in 5/4 – it goes along like a limpid river all the way, moving regularly and crossing over all the beats and the 5/4 with it.

So a technical and formal triumph, but an emotional one too. Robinson got the song, got the metaphor. His music alternates between static block chords in the ‘Gonna see the River Man’ sections, and the drama of the second verse and coda, where the strings surge and draw back, hold heavy-vibrato chords and clash rhythmically with themselves: this is the song’s moment of crisis, when Betty, the song’s subject, reported on by Drake’s narrator, gets a glimpse of the world beyond the river and, overwhelmed by it, rejects it, returning to the world of mundane sense experience:

Betty said she prayed today
For the sky to blow away
Or maybe stay
She wasn’t sure

For when she thought of summer rain
Calling for her mind again
She lost the pain
And stayed for more.

The coda of River Man, where Drake repeats the line ‘Oh, how they come and go’ (as MacDonald points out, recalling McCartney’s ‘Ah, look at all the lonely people’ from Eleanor Rigby) and the strings once again rise and fall and hold tremulous chords, is the deepest and most moving passage of any of Drake’s songs. It’s a masterpiece that drew next-level contributions from everyone who worked on it. If you don’t already know it, go listen now.

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Nick Drake, 1971 (Keith Morris)

For anyone who’s interested in hearing some contemporary acoustic folk rock with double bass, here’s a link to a recent song of mine: