Tag Archives: Les Cousins

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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Turnham Green – Colorama

I should acknowledge upfront that I would never have heard this song if it hadn’t been written about by Pete Paphides in the Beside the B-Side blog he and Bob Stanley wrote very sporadically between 2010 and 2012. Possibly it’s not dead and just sleeping. I hope one day it comes back.

Woodwind, percussion, a sitar drone. When it starts, Colorama’s Turnham Green sounds cut from the same cloth as the Portico Quartet’s Life Mask, which I think I’ve written about here before. But the moody, free-time intro is actually an 80-second fake-out. When the song begins, it has two obvious precursors: in mood, it strongly recalls the sun-drenched psychedelia of Donovan in his Sunny Goodge Street phase, a whimsical, light psychedelia with just the merest hint of late-afternoon shadows; while in rhythmic feel (and in its chords too), it’s a dead ringer for Tim Buckley’s Strange Feelin’.

This sort of bucolic English acousticism – and for all that Turnham Green is self-evidently set at the point where inner London starts to bleed into Outer London, it is a bucolic song, and for all that Carwyn Ellis is self-evidently Welsh, it is an English song – was a staple of 1970s progressive/alternative music. EMI’s Harvest Records imprint, home to such artists as Kevin Ayers and Barclay James Harvest, was its ground zero, and Witchseason (Joe Boyd’s management/production stable) an important forerunner. This kind of music is somehow durable. It might disappear for a few years (the coked-up 1990s were an inhospitable decade for it), but it always seems to return, with a faraway look in its eye and a joint in its pocket.

I like the idea that there’s a form of music just floating out there on the breeze, ready to be plucked out of the air by any songwriter who reaches for it. Indeed, Turnham Green is not all that indicative of Colorama’s usual style, which is as likely to feature vintage monophonic synths as jazzy piano and strummed acoustic guitar. Sometimes Ellis’s work recalls the smashed and slightly scary Beach Boys of Smiley Smile. Sometimes Ellis is a Les Cousins troubadour. Sometimes he’s a Super Furry Doppelganger. Turnham Green, such a perfect little moment, sounds as if he just reached out his hand and found it resting there. And if it’s not quite of the same mood and feel as the rest of the band’s debut album (Cookie Zoo), I don’t think it says anything negative about Ellis to say that, at least early in Colorama’s journey, he didn’t quite know what he wanted to be. Stylistic consistency is overrated, anyway: the last refuge of the unimaginative.

Carwyn Ellis
Carwyn Ellis of Colorama, live in 2009