Tag Archives: Pentangle

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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Medley: The Battle of Aughram/Five In A Line – The John Renbourn Group

John Mayer (the composer, not the skeezy American singer-guitarist) founded Indo-Jazz Fusions in the early 1960s with the aim of blending Indian and Western classical music with jazz improvisation. While there was a significant crossover between Anglo and Indian musical traditions in the 1960s (John Coltrane, who studied with Ravi Shankar; George Harrison, who did likewise and brought the sound Indian music to the Beatles’ vast audience; the Mahavishnu Orchestra, etc.), Mayer’s work was fundamentally different. Born to an Indian mother and Anglo-Indian father, he came at the fusion from an Indian cultural starting point, not a Western one like Coltrane or later Harrison. His thinking was influenced by his studies with Matyas Sether at the Royal Academy in London, who encouraged him to combine the techniques of Indian and Western music in serial composition,

Mayer was a first-rate violinist, and worked to support himself by playing with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (where his parallel career as a composer led to tension with the management), and later the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, where he found a happier home, having been personally asked to join by Thomas Beecham.

He stayed there until 1964, when he was approached by Dennis Preston from EMI. Preston asked him if he had anything that could be used to complete an album he was working on. It needed to be brief, and jazz-based. Mayer, spotting an opportunity, told Preston he had just the thing for him. Preston was excited, and suggested they record it the next day, forcing Mayer to stay up all night to write the piece.

Six months later, Preston contacted Mayer to tell him he’d played the piece to Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, who’d liked what he’d heard and suggested that Mayer write music for a whole album fusing Indian music and jazz. Ertegun’s idea was to combine Mayer’s quintet of Indian musicians with a jazz quintet led by alto saxophonist Joe Harriott. Indo-Jazz Fusions was recorded by this group, known at first as the Joe Harriott and John Mayer Double Quintet, in two days in 1966. The album sold well and the group changed its name to Indo-Jazz Fusions, taking on the name of its now-famous work.

Indo-Jazz Fusions included tabla player Keshav Sathe who, after the death of Harriott and the band’s subsequent demise, went on to play in the 5-piece John Renbourn Group in the late 1970s (which also featured Pentangle singer Jacqui McShee, fiddler Sue Draheim and flautist Tony Roberts). The band’s first record, A Maid in Bedlam, continued the two-decades-old work of with melding Indian and Western musical traditions, this time by combing Sathe’s Indian rhythms with traditional British folk songs. The playing, as you would imagine, is stellar, and Sathe’s tablas work beautifully with Renbourn’s guitar.

Pentangle, with Terry Cox on drums, had been an intensely rhythmic group, but this is something else again; Sathe’s patterns are at once more organised and less free-form than the loose, jazzy ones played by Cox, but also harder to get a handle on, at least to me, with my unschooled Western ears. What first sound like improvised bar-by-bar variations on a theme instead turn out to be long intricate patterns of many different strokes (there are six gharānā, or traditions, of tabla playing, and they all have different strokes that characterise them, at least nine or 10 per school) that play out over four or eight bars, rather than the one or two we’re used to hearing in Western pop drumming. It’s a complex but addictive sound that you can get lost in, and it’s a shame that Renbourn only made two records with Sathe (fortunately, Sathe also popped up on John Martyn’s Inside Out, one of my very favourite albums).

John Renbourn grou

Sathe, Roberts, Draheim, Renbourn, McShee

John Renbourn died on 26 March 2015