Friday, 31 July 2009

Sunday Morning Camden Town

“Sunday morning Camden Town. Perfect time to hang around in London ...” A day out in London. To start this sequence Louis Philippe is back to suggest we start out in Camden Town. Thankfully he doesn’t mention the market in his song Sunday Morning Camden Town. And he wins us over with the closing couplet: “I make a poor Romeo. Forget my lines and let you go. Cutting your way through the crowd ...” Among the many things Louis has done since is arrange the strings on God Save The Clientele. The video for the big hit from that record, Bookshop Casanova, features just about all you need to know about the finer things about London life. Bookshops, cafes, music, dancing, romance. And maybe, just maybe, the bookshop in question could be the sadly missed Compendium bookshop in Camden High Street, where eyes would furtively meet over the expensive Kerouac import editions, searching, appraising, hoping. As for cafes. Well, I bet there are people reading this who even know which cafe it was filmed in. I hope so.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Postman's Holiday

“West ‘Am, Wanstead, Woolwich, Walthamstow. We reached the spot they call St Mary’s Cray, and then I says to ma, now you musn’t go too far ...” Gus Elen was one of the great Cockney characters or coster singers of the Music Hall era. In Sweet Saturday Night Colin MacInnes writes: “I hope the reader will not yet be minding all the praises I lavish on Gus Elen, and would excuse myself for this infatuation by admitting he is my favourite Music Hall artist – in part, of course, because I was able to see him, but even more because his temperament, sturdy, laconic, tolerant and robust – so perfectly reflected in his harsh, friendly, sardonic, forthright voice – have exactly the qualities I most admire in Londoners, and miss most when I am not among them. He had also a sure taste in his choice of songs – even the greatest artists often come up with some dreadful numbers, but Elen never.” This song, The Postman’s Holiday, chosen and provided by Andy Hitchcock, sees Elen’s character getting a rare day off and taking the family for a day out and a bit of country air, but of course nothing is straight forward. “We got weary on our pins, lost the bloomin’ twins ...” The recording dates from the early ‘30s when Elen returned to the stage, as does this remarkable piece of rare footage ...

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Cockney Translation

"The translation of cockney to understand is easy. So long as you ain't deaf and you listen me keenly. You should pick it up like a youth who find some money. Go tell it to your friends and also your family. No matter if a English or a Yardy ..." Another smash from the Fashion label, Smiley Culture's Cockney Translation pitched the old against the new, helpfully detailing English like what it is spoken. It was even a minor hit in the mid 1980s when the UK reggae scene generally and the Saxon Sound System specifically produced a number of talented DJs who were talking about daily life in London with considerable wit and wisdom. "Sweet as a nut.... just level vibes seen?"

Domestic Science

"With much less lolly in our pop, still we don't stop. 'Coz we find resource turn water into wine every time ..." says Wildflower on Domestic Science by Skitz. While this is not likely to be the 12" Earl Zinger was rushing 'round London to get hold of, it is the standout track from the Skitz Country Man LP. Out of 23 Skidoo's Ronin stable, DJ/producer Skitz is one of many unsung heroes of UK hip hop. On Domestic Science he got together three of the most promising MCs on the London scene, and seizing the opportunity Wildflower, Tempa and Estelle give their side of daily travails, with a London accent, "whether it's rapping or working on the checkouts at Asda." If you want to know more about how the media and music business works it's worth investigating what happened subsequently to all the particpants in Domestic Science. It's quite a lesson. There is a better quality cut of this video, if you need it here ...

Monday, 27 July 2009

Saturday Morning Rush

"Er, yeah, yeah, I know it's your sister's wedding. No, of course, I'm not going up west to buy records. Yeah, I'll be back by 12.30. Yeah. Later ..." One of the great traditions of the West End and Soho is shopping for records. Names change. Shops come and go. But the need remains. Even now. In these troubled times. But how many songs are there about the act itself? Earl Zinger's Saturday Morning Rush captures perfectly that illicit trip, the race against time, the oh so necessary excursion to go get a certain record. The one time Mr Galliano sets off from home in Hackney, heads up to the West End searching for that elusive Skitz 12". The sense of movement is perfect, the detail extraordinary, and it's as funny as hell. It's also another song that mentions getting a number 73 bus.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Six O'Clock

"The streets are dark and empty. And Soho's closed its doors. The late night bus has been and gone. And I've drunk till I can't drink no more ..." Sunday morning coming down. That sort of feeling. Neatly captured in Six O'Clock by The Tyrrel Corporation. Early '90s duo of John Watson and Tony Barry. Conscious House. Uplifting sounds and a bit of socio-realism in the words. The Style Council meets Ten City. Cruelly neglected. Their two LPs well worth investigating. Six O'Clock is one of their finest moments though. The song ends: "There's huddled shapes along the river as the sun begins to rise. Maybe things ain't all that bad when you look thru someone else's eyes ..." Amen.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Last Night in Soho

"I never told you of some things I've done I'm so ashamed of. I thought my foolish past was over and done. I felt sure I'd make a new start. I tried with all of my heart. I had dreams and broke them in two. I'm just not worth of you! For last night in Soho I let my life go ..." A classic piece of songwriting from the team of Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley, and a controversial hit in 1968 for Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich. It's pure Night And The City drama in a three minute pop song. It's got everything. Someone trying to go straight. Got 'imself a good girl now. But he can't escape his past. The ties that bind us. One more job and he'll be free. The protection rackets. The darker side of Soho.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Life begins at Oxford Circus

"By heavens, Sid, if it wasn't for Saturday night I'd go bonkers." "Yeah, marvelous isn't it. Oh I can't wait to get into my pointed two-tones and off down the high street. You feel like a king. A clean shirt on, new Peckham, a pair of luminous almond rocks, a new whistle, a nice crease in my strides, the barnet greased up, flashing the Hampstead Heath to all the bona palones ..." Galton & Simpson knew what was what. The eternal redemption offered to workers by the weekend. As expressed in 1935 by the Jack Hylton Orchestra. "We don't care how hard they work us just as long as we have fun". Originally from a Crazy Gang revue, Life Begins At Oxford Circus, goes like this ...

Thursday, 23 July 2009


“Let’s go down to the old West End where we used to go when you were my girlfriend. Take a 73 to the city. You sitting there looking so pretty ...” 1979. Just kids. With Red Bus Rovers. The freedom of London’s buses for the day. Up to Blackheath and change on to the 53. Off to the West End. Oxford Street for the latest independent innovations on 7”. And Soho Market for the fanzines. Safe As Milk. Damaged Goods. Jamming! Maximum Speed. If you were lucky Shane McGowan would be working on the stall. Or Shane O’Hooligan, as he was then. The singer with The Nips. Later that year their single Gabrielle would be the coolest London anthem. A sweet, sweet song, which would lead irresistibly to other older r ‘n’ b records by the likes of Them and the Downliners Sect. The lines from The Nips’ Gabrielle about: “And though you never once gave it away I can still remember those crazy days. We’d dance all night and sleep all day. In the old West End everybody was dancing ...” would lead inevitably to the Pretty Things’ Midnight To Six ...

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Gerrard Street

"Another thing I could not realise why they all had dark glasses on their eyes ..." King Timothy's Gerrard Street is a lovely calypsonian tribute to the live be-bop and modern jazz being played in Soho clubs of the early '50s. It appears on the essential Honest Jons compilation London Is The Place For Me 2, which is exquisitely packaged thanks to Will Bankhead's spot-on design work. The beautiful accompanying booklet features photos by Val Wilmer which speak volumes, and complement perfectly her own book Mama Told Me There'd Be Days Like These with itperspective on the Soho clubs and jazz world of the '50s into the '60s and the way things evolved. And while this clip is from the mid-'60s it does feature London jazz legend Tubby Hayes with his big band performing an eminently appropriate number ...

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Soho a go go

"We have a report of a disturbance outside the Flamingo nightclub ..."
While The Members' Soho A Go Go may lack the historical incisiveness of the fantastic Nickel In The Machine's account of the knife fight at The Flamingo between Johnny Edgecombe and 'Lucky' Gordon and its role in relation to the Christine Keeler affair, Nicky Tesco and co did have a winning way with spinning a yarn. This tale of getting on in the Met and policing the Soho beat could creep straight out of a Colin MacInnes or Jake Arnott novel. You can practically see the palms being greased and smell the ambition. For more on The Flamingo itself in the modernist era it's worth paying a visit to Jack That Cat Was Clean. And as our Capital is in the grip of a financial crisis this seems an entirely appropriate Members number too ...

Mack The Knife

“On a beautiful blue Sunday see a corpse stretched in the Strand. See a man dodge round the corner ... Mackie’s friends will understand”. For a while back there it seemed knife crime dominated the headlines. Outraged editorials bemoaning the collapse of family values in the Capital. Then the guardians of our moral welfare would go on Desert Island Discs and say how they don’t write songs like Mack The Knife anymore or put together novels like Oliver Twist. Well, we know what Dickens thought of Victorian family values in old London. Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera was similarly based in a Victorian Soho, but the opening ballad has become so much a part of pop’s wallpaper that we sometimes forget its sinister subject matter. So many people have sung variations on its theme. Nick Cave’s interpretation, for example, was theatrically faithful, as befits a man who knows a thing or two about six inch gold blades. But Louis Armstrong sang the first pop version, and here appropriately in the same year he sings it in London during that historic visit ...

Sunday, 19 July 2009

West One (Shine On Me)

"Out in the dark and on my own. I'm stranded here with no way home ..." This picture of Ruts singer Malcolm Owen with his mum was published a short while before his tragic, wasteful early death. The song West One (Shine On Me) would be completed after Malcolm had passed away, and would be the group's final hit. As with a lot of The Ruts' material, beneath the bluster and gruff exterior, there was in this song a strong streak of vulnerability and helplessness. The dark side of London's West End with people perhaps trying too hard to enjoy themselves. The Ruts themselves were like the West End full of contradictions. Punk revisionists perhaps take The Ruts' roar at face value, but John King's tribute paints a contrary picture.

Saturday, 18 July 2009


"Mayfair faces clean and nice. But beauty here is cold as ice ..." Mayfair is known for being exclusive and expensive. But like any part of the West End it's a right old mixture. Playboys and heiresses pass by the shop girls and office juniors sitting eating their lunches, dreaming away. A strange place according to Nick Drake's Mayfair, here sung with far more verve by Millie. And yes you can imagine civil servants straight out of a Graham Greene or Stevie Smith novel sitting on a bench in one of Mayfair's squares, plotting mischief. The most famous of these is captured in the standard A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square. You might imagine that number to be excluded. And yet the opening lines, written by Eric Maschwitz, are so often left unsung. "When true lovers meet in Mayfair, so the legends tell, song birds sing, winter turns to spring. Every winding street in Mayfair falls beneath the spell ..." Vera Lynn's early version is one of the complete renditions. The song itself was first sung by Jane Birkin's mother Judy Campbell in the 1940 revue New Faces.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Goodbye (West End Theatres)

"Under the umbrella there walks a lonely man. Buys a copy of The Stage from a kiosk in The Strand ..." Up West, London's West End, is also the heart of London's theatreland. And its streets and cafes offer sanctuary for struggling thespians, looking for a lucky break, hoping for the audition that will change everything and get their names up in lights. In the meantime, they'll haunt their agents and scour the pages of The Stage as per the lovely vignette that is Goodbye by Poly Styrene from her gorgeous 1980 set Translucence. Poly was, of course, one of the great London punk figures, as captured perfectly in this promo video for Identity ...

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Maid of Bond Street

"This girl is made of lipstick, powder and paint. Sees the pictures of herself. Every magazine on every shelf. This girl is Maid of Bond Street. Hailing cabs, lunches with executives. Gleaming teeth sip aperitifs. This girl is a lonely girl ..." In Maid of Bond Street David Bowie hints at the hollowness at the heart of the swinging London scene. She's got everything and nothing. A familiar theme in films of the time. This song of course dates from from Bowie's brilliant mid '60s Newley phase. And that provides the perfect cue for this clip of the great man himself introducing Lucille Ball to the pleasures of London's vaudeville traditions. The Scala Theatre, incidentally, was on Charlotte Street, off the Tottenham Court Road, and was destroyed by fire a few years after this clip was filmed ...

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Piccadilly - A Music 'all Interlude

"Spending his cash like a silly, out with some Mabel or Milly, winking at girls down the 'dilly. Where is mama's darling boy?" There's quite a tradition of Piccadilly turning up in Music Hall songs. Like Herbert Campbell's Mamma's Darling Boy. And Frank H Fox's Drop Me In Piccadilly where our hero offers some suggestions to the local constabulary. And best of all (with special thanks to Andy Hitchcock) there's Hetty King singing Piccadily: "In the daytime Grandad's searching for truth but at night time he's searching for his youth ..." Hetty was one of the top male impersonators of the Music Hall era, and miraculously there is surviving film footage of her in character in her prime ...

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

The Piccadilly Trail

"I hear the whispers in the Soho cafes. The poison gossip of the 10p arcades ..." What is it with songs about the 'Dilly? We could have Ram John Holder's Piccadilly Circus Blues. Or Tracey Thorn's By Piccadilly Station I Sat Down And Wept. And of course It's A Long Way To Tipperary. But instead let's go for a lost Style Council flipside The Piccadilly Trail. Paul rather nicely turns Piccadilly trail into Cockney rhyming slang for betrayal. He would resurrect the song in the early days of the Paul Weller Movement during one of his better coiffure phases.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Goodbye Piccadilly

"Postcard London I have grown to hate. Brings back memories from years ago. Like spending New Year's Eve on the steps of the Tate without a friend in the whole wide world." Edward Ball gives a whole new meaning to swinging London on The Times' Goodbye Piccadilly. It's interesting. For all the Television Personalities/Times fascination with having a smashing time helping Patrick McGoohan escape from Syd Barrett's garden party there was always a very dark heart beating. This was particularly evident on The Times' This Is London LP. The title track of which went like this ...

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Up West

Up West. Enduring shorthand for bright lights big city. Doesn't matter which direction you're coming from it's always Up West. Like all the trains to London are up trains regardless of origin. Up West. Three minutes of perfection. Library music from the De Wolfe catalogue. Made to measure to suit a particular mood. And this piece exquisitely captures that whole wide eyed innocent heading up to London's West End. Gazing around in awe. Ready for whatever adventures come along. Neon lights flashing. Traffic roaring. From Vocal Patterns. By the Roger Webb Sound. With the Barbara Moore Singers. Up West.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Bus number 13

"Bus number 13. Destination Leicester Place." Heading Up West. A lovely song from Louis Philippe. I wonder how many people have rushed out to buy a Louis Philippe record after seeing his words used by Jonathan Coe as an epigraph for What A Carve Up! Some years after that book was published Louis and Jonathan would get to make a record together for Bertrand Burgalat's Tricatel imprint. Jonathan would write about how he "stumbled upon el records. Britain's great musical secret of the 1980s, home to Bid and Marden Hill and The King of Luxembourg and a cluster of other acts who proved that pop songs could still be written with style and feeling and classical elegance." Classical elegance is a phrase that certainly fits Louis' work. And it just so happens he's written some great songs about London, including the melancholy Bus number 13.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Transport of delight

"When you are lost in London, and you don't know where you are, you'll hear my voice a-calling, 'Move further down the car!'. And very soon you'll find yourself inside the terminus, in a London transport, diesel engine, ninety-seven horsepower omnibus."

New Cross is also known for its bus garage. Once it was a home for trams. The last of the old London trams ran into there in 1952. A sad occasion for some. But people can get passionate about the strangest of things. And a lot of people get het up about London's buses. Like Flanders and Swann. We almost all know some Flanders and Swann songs by osmosis. They certainly had a way with words. As Transport of Delight demonstrates. The Muppets did a nice version, in the same episode that Animal and Buddy Rich had their drum battle.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

New Cross Fire

A sense of injustice? Like the New Cross Fire, for starters. 13 kids killed in January 1981 when fire tore through a building in the New Cross Road, south London, where a birthday celebration was taking place. Accident or arson? Revenge or racism? The verdict remains open. But at the time there was a real sense of anger among the local black community about the response from the Police and other authorities, and a real feeling that concerns were not being taken seriously. When an Action Committee was formed and voices raised in protest press coverage was particularly negative. The tragedy generated a number of songs by artists including LKJ, UB40, Benjamin Zephaniah, and Johnny Osbourne's 13 Dead And Nothing Said. And on the short-lived London reggae label KG Imperial there was this number by Roy Rankin and Raymond Naptali. If you're left with a need to hear more then there is an excellent mix posted at Dancecrasher of KG Imperial DJ cuts ...

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Up against the wall

Just whose side are you on? Look out. Listen. Can you hear it? Panic in the County Hall. Whitehall up against the wall. Sense of social injustice? There was a time when if you needed a cause supported Tom Robinson would be there for you. Predictably punk revisionism has been less than gracious about the role of the Tom Robinson Band. At best TRB brio and Kustow gusto has been damned with faint praise, but they took some thorny topics and weighty words into the heart of the charts and had the kids singin' along.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

You're nicked

Evening all. Left, right, what 'ave we 'ere? Well, if you go around dodging fares you run the risk of a tap on the shoulder and hearing those immortal words: "You're nicked". At the end of 1982 Battersea DJs Laurel & Hardy exploded onto the reggae scene with this cautionary tale about the "wicked police system", a touchy subject at the time. It created quite a stir, generating an article in The Face and a major label chase. The Face article suggested the duo were influenced by Lenny Henry, Norman Wisdom, Benny Hill, Dick Emery and Chas & Dave rather than Michigan and Smiley or Clint Eastwood and General Saint who were saying the same old thing. Nevertheless, Laurel & Hardy's You're Nicked was a strikingly serious debut, issued as a 10" on Fashion. The major label follow up, Clunk Click, was a minor hit ...

Fare dodger

Any more fares please? You've got to be joking mate. So there you are in London without much in the way of chatty coinage. What can you do? Well, if you're Papa Benjie you'll turn to a life of petty crime and wreak revenge 'pon London Transport by travelling around our fair city without paying them a penny or a pound. The guy had good reason. Fair's fair, after all.

I'm ashamed to say I know absolutely nothing about Papa Benjie, except that this gem of a track appeared on a classic compilation called Great British MC's (we won't get into the issue of apostrophes 'ere) which came out in the early '80s on the Fashion label, which I believe was related to the Dub Vendor shop. Papa Benjie's Fare Dodger was one of the highlights of this set, and a great example of a London perspective on the Jamaican toasting/MC tradition. I would love to hear more ...

Saturday, 4 July 2009

The myth of the north south divide

Oh those soft southerners. Streets paved with gold. Living off the fat of the land. People can still have strange notions about Londoners and the lives they live. Hence this song by McCarthy about the myth of the North South divide. A genuine greater London group. Active in the late '80s. And a singer in Malcolm Eden who had a real way with words. He knew a thing or two about the art of irony. And not having much money in the most expensive city in Britain.

It's a bit of a tenuous link but this video clip of another McCarthy song, The Well of Loneliness, has been allowed by the censors because it seems to have been put together on their home patch of Barking in 1987. It introduces a theme that may be picked up later about the changing landscape and fashions of London.

Friday, 3 July 2009


Certain artists have a bit of a reputation for writing and recording London songs. You know the names. You won't hear them here. Not unless it really fits the story and it's a song that's not over familiar. There are other artists who have recorded some really important, really wonderful London songs, but never really get any credit for it. Like Shut Up And Dance. One of the most vital forces in UK music but one totally impossible to pin down. Reggae sound system, ragga, UK hip hop, rave, hardcore, jungle, breakbeat. All of that and more. Defiantly independent. And outspoken. Great label too. Essential records from Nicolette, Ragga Twins. The 1992ish S.U.A.D. LP Death Is Not The End covers a lot of ground and has a lot to say for itself. Kevin Rowland adds acoustic guitar to Autobiography of a Crackhead. Raving I'm Raving got to number one for a day. Pure White Black Lies will break your heart. Java Bass will get you dancin'. And then there's Runaways ... gritty, compelling drama.

Johnny come home

London. The eternal magnet. City of refuge. Somewhere to reinvent yourself. The city of resurrections. You can lose yourself in London. You can get lost in London. There are all sorts of reasons why people escape to London. Searching for sanctuary. Or that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Johnny Go Home was the title of 1975 TV documentary (in two parts, I believe - one was called Billy Two-Tone) about runaways in London and the perils of life in the big, bad city - rent boys, Piccadilly, amusement arcades, and so on. It was preceded by a couple of books on the subject called The Dilly Boys and Keep The Faith Baby. Jake Arnott would later put the theme to good use in his novel Johnny Come Home.

Johnny Come Home was also the debut single from the Fine Young Cannibals, on the runaway theme, which was accompanied by a ridiculously cool and impeccably attired video. Singer Roland Gift would a little later appear with Joanne Whalley in one of the great London films, Scandal.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

A view from her room

The old idea about how in order to get you need to move to London. But does it bring happiness? There's a great quote from Weekend's singer Alison Statton about how A View From Her Room "is, thinly disguised, about me and how unhappy I was when I settled in London. It's about a day when the rush hour traffic was going past outside my window and I had to keep the window open and hear it as it was so hot in the middle of last summer. There's an air of escape in it as well I think ...". A View From Her Room is an important London record in other senses too. It was the record of the summer of 1982, and in particular this 12" version woke a lot of people from the punk generation up to the possibilities of jazz.

Knocked 'em in the Old Kent Road

Surely everyone knows The Lambeth Walk. And the Music Hall tradition is a rich source for London songs. Colin MacInnes published a brilliant book on the subject in 1967. Sweet Saturday Night covers pop songs from 1840 to 1920, and if you can track down a copy it's a great read. Among the artists MacInnes mentions, often with mixed feelings, is Albert Chevalier. Known as the Costers' Laureate he was however a bit of a coster imposter, a well-to-do sort from Notting Hill way. Nevertheless MacInnes concedes he was an "astonishing lyric writer and composer". Knocked 'Em In The Old Kent Road deals with a favourite Music Hall theme of unexpected inheritance. But with a bit of a twist, if you know what I mean ...