Sunday, 31 January 2010

Red Sky Over Wembley

"Night approaches slowly. With bells and waste-laden trains. We take a taxi cab and send it northward. And do a runner through well-remembered lanes. Well, we watched the red sky over Wembley. With pain in our hearts for all those we know ..." And this is how it all started. Sat listening to The Decorators' Red Sky Over Wembley, wondering why some things were lost and some things never found, and why some London songs were played to death and others never mentioned. Mick Bevan's band of doomed romantics were among the London-based outfits of the early 1980s that seemed destined to be dogged by ill-fortune. The Decorators had the songs, the beautiful guitars, the presence. They even had Dexys' Pete Saunders in their ranks. But it wasn't to be. The group's output was small, a few singles, a couple of mini-LPs, but it is a fine body of work, which has inspired words elsewhere.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Swiss Cottage Manoeuvres

"On a Christmas cake day one Friday in August in a bookshop in Charing Cross Road I first set eyes on a girl and at once I did know ..." Al Stewart has a song called Belsize Blues, which is available as a bonus track on the expanded edition of his best-selling work. Back in the days of teenage punk rage I considered Al Stewart's Year of The Cat to be the enemy, along with Elton John and Supertramp. It would be many, many years before the early works of Al Stewart won me over. His first LP, for example, contains a lovely little London song, Swiss Cottage Manoeuvres. It's a very Donovan-esque tale of the original bookshop casanova, who falls for a girl with eyes like a poet and hair like a rainbow, who just happens to be the daughter of a judge from St Albans. It's a bit of a 'will she, won't she, should I, shouldn't I?' tale, but I won't give away the full story. Let's just say the path of true love or lust is never smooth. The Swiss Cottage setting seems to fit perfectly with Al Stewart's early bedsit balladeer persona. The question is whether I should give Year Of The Cat another go?

Friday, 29 January 2010

Les Bicyclettes de Belsize

"Les bicyclettes de Belsize carry us side by side. And hand in hand we will ride over Belsize. Turn your magical eyes round and around, Lookin' at all we found. Carry us through the skies, les bicyclettes de Belsize ..." As a kid whenever I heard Engelbert singing Les Bicyclettes de Belsize it always sounded so glamorous and exotic, and even when I knew it was a version of a film theme I somehow imagined something shall we say big budget and French rather than an arty little romantic film about Belsize Park in north London. It is only recently that Les Bicyclettes de Belsize has appeared on DVD, hand in hand with The London Nobody Knows. Bit of an odd couple that. The Les Reed score has also recently reappeared twinned with another of his great soundtracks, Girl On A Motorcycle, which featured Cleo Laine singing the lovely Don't Ask Me. In the London of the mid-1980s that film was a bit of a by-word for beat boho-cool, with lots of images from it used in fanzines and the TVPs seemingly besotted with it. Not sure we were so familiar with the film of Les Bicyclettes de Belsize though, or the rest of Les Reed's score which includes gems like Episode Six singing about the Gentlemen of the Park. Incidentally pedants do like to point out that the film is a bit more 'Ampstead than Belsize Park. Tsk. The other big hit version of Les Bicyclettes was by the great Mireille Mathieu ...

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Parliament Hill

"Nothing to do but watch the clouds go sailing by. Thinking of you. See you walking in my mind. All the doubts are left behind in the sunshine. If you come to Parliament Hill ..." sings Chris Simpson on Magna Carta's gorgeous Parliament Hill from the 1971 LP Songs From Wasties Orchard. It's a lovely slice of folk rock/soft pop all about finding escape and sanctuary, with the distinctive bass sound of Danny Thompson. It certainly bears comparison with the best US sounds in this area. I mean the folk rock area, rather than the south east corner of Hampstead Heath which is Parliament Hill Fields. It's a green part of London that's inspired two very different and well-known poems. There's John Betjemen's with his children carrying dandelions to Kentish Town, and there's the rather later Sylvia Plath one that also mentions Kentish Town. Is it just a phase we go through with Sylvia Plath? I don't think so. Some of her words still mean the world to me. This passage particularly from notes written in Cambridge, February 1956 still sums up life for me: “What I fear most, I think, is the death of the imagination. When the sky outside is merely pink, and the rooftops merely black: that photographic mind which paradoxically tells the truth, but the worthless truth, about the world. It is that synthesizing spirit, that ‘shaping’ force which prolifically sprouts and makes up its own worlds with more inventiveness than God which I desire. If I sit still and don’t do anything, the world goes on beating like a slack drum, without meaning. We must be moving, working, making dreams to run towards; the poverty of life without dreams is too horrible to imagine: it is that kind of madness which is worst.”

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The 'Ampstead Way

"It's so absolutely different and delightful when you dance The 'Ampstead Way. It's so far ahead of dreaming, why it's practically romance. The 'Ampstead Way ..." sings Beryl Davis with a bit of support from comedian Sid Field on the number The 'Ampstead Way from the 1946 big screen spectacular London Town, which it seems misjudged the mood of the nation with its technicolour brashness in that immediate post-WW2 period. Despite its Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke score the film wasn't a success, but this is a lovely little number. The film also featured Petula Clark, barely into her teens but already a showbiz veteran. Londoners and their dropped aitches eh? Tsk. 'Ampstead seems particularly prone to it. Hmm. Well, 'Ampstead 'Eath in the 19th century was THEE place for Londoners to go on a day out. The opening of the railway station there in 1860 made it more accessible, and brought crowds from other parts of London, particularly on Bank Holidays. A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 9: Hampstead, Paddington (1989) states: "Damage, particularly fires among the furze, and rowdiness were often a problem in the 1870s, when there might be 30,000 visitors at the August holiday and 50,000 on a fine Whit Monday. Violence was also a problem at the bonfires and processions held from before 1850 on Guy Fawkes day, until in 1880 a committee was set up to regulate them. Numbers reached 100,000 in the 1880s, although that estimate included trippers to Parliament Hill Fields, which were not yet part of the heath. The crowds were thickest in the south-east corner near the station, where in 1892 nine people died in a rush to escape from the rain. 'Appy' Ampstead became a nationally known phrase in the 1890s, when celebrated in a song by Albert Chevalier and in the cartoons of Phil May." The phrase 'Appy 'Ampstead was also used by the painter Arthur Rackham. His earliest sketches of life in Hampstead in the late 1880s reflect an eye for detail or what he himself declared a cockney ability to be 'very observant of small, new, strange things'. And 'ere's Gracie Fields singing 'Appy 'Ampstead showing what a great character player she was. Mind you, she was a 'Ampstead resident herself.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Hampstead Way

"Everything's okay now Hampstead Way ..." sings the very great Linda Lewis on the lovely Hampstead Way from her first LP Say No More. Linda is one of London's treasures (West Ham born and bred) and her '70s recordings are among the best things recorded on these shores, and on a worldwide scale up there with Laura Nyro and Minnie Ripperton. Her sound is such a mix of styles, and the LPs she made for Reprise were way way ahead of the pack. Hampstead Way refers to the house Linda shared with a variety of artistic types, including Robert Wyatt and Jeff Dexter, and where there were all sorts of soon-to-be superstar visitors hanging out. Linda's singing career started with a cover of Mary Love's You Turned My Bitter Into Sweet and she sang with Herbie Goins and the Nightimers before going on to do that wonderful solo stuff. "Cue the music and cue her ..."

Monday, 25 January 2010

Hampstead Incident

"Standing by the Everyman, digging the rigging on my sail. Rain fell to sounds of harpsichords, to the spell of fairy tale. The heath was hung in magic mists, enchanted dripping glades. I'll taste a taste until my mind drifts from this scene and fades in the night time." Donovan's Hampstead Incident is an addition to our London songs featuring the Everyman in Hampstead. I wonder if he was popping in to see a Godard feature in the grand tradition? Seeing as the Mellow Yellow LP appeared in what was it 1966 then perhaps he would have been going to see Pierrot Le Fou for the first time. Appropriately Jean-Paul Belmondo appears in another of Donovan's London songs of the time, Sunny South Kensington. Indeed the Mellow Yellow LP has quite a suite of London songs. There's Museum, of course. And Young Girl Blues. Zouzou did a fantastic French language version of that, which I really love. Many many years later Donovan and Zouzou would do a lovely little duet ...

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Thunder over Kilburn

"But it's raining hard tonight here, up in Kilburn. The drunken men cannot find their way home. They stagger and then fall down in the gutter, singing sad laments of love gone wrong. Thank God! That it will soon be tomorrow. And I'm not lying, soaked out in the street. I'll call you when I wake up, baby. If I can just get off to sleep." Ah yes. Jock Scot's poem Thunder Over Kilburn which might seem to flirt with County Kilburn cliches but is in fact a touching tale of absence making the heart grow fonder. This performance appears on My Personal Culloden where Jock collaborates with the great Davy Henderson's Nectarine No. 9 on what was the reactivated Postcard's swan song. The set features another great London song in White Cars Passing By where Jock refers to going with his girl to the Everyman cinema in Hampstead to see Brigitte Bardot in Godard's Le Mepris and not wanting to leave. Ah nice. The old romantic eh? I remember going there to see Breathless for the first time, falling in love with Jean Seberg and spending weeks rubbing my thumb along my lower lip like Jean Paul Belmondo. And while we're talking about poets and Kilburn ...

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Kilburn High Road

"From the tracks that hissed from engine fast approaching to the engines clipped clopped rumbling heavily by and I want you ..." sings John Head on Kilburn High Road, one of the loveliest of Shack's songs which is saying something. I particularly like this one because with a title like that it's important to avoid the obvious cliches, and the railway imagery is a delight whether it's the old North London lines or even the West Coast Main Line which would take them home. One of the more pleasant aspects of Shack's painful progress has been John's development as a songwriter in I suppose a Dennis Wilson/Dave Davies way. I doubt there is anyone more delighted by that than brother Michael who if I remember rightly was fiercely protective of little brother in the early Pale Fountains days simply referring to the new guitarist as John and not letting on to the world at large that they were related. But he knew all along, way before we did, if Byrds Turn To Stone is anything to go by: "Learnin' to play the guitar. One for you and one for me. Who'd be the first one to learn all the tricks by Mr Lee ..." The Brothers Head are truly jewels in the crown of England's Glory as an old Kilburn and the High Roads song might 'ave it. Speaking of which, remember this?

Friday, 22 January 2010

Kilburn Towers

"Little white jug, me and Kilburn Towers. As we sit on the hill, and we drink and we swill. Till the early hours and then I am everything. Little white jug and me and Kilburn Towers ..." Now there is a debate to be had about whether the Bee Gees' Kilburn Towers is a London song. But we're not going to entertain the idea that it's not one of ours. I mean, the hill could be Shoot Up Hill. The tower could even be the famous Gaumont State Cinema's. And if we need experts to speak in our defence we will wheel out Harvey Williams who wearing his Another Sunny Day hat set the Bee Gees on the road to fame and fortune by covering Kilburn Towers and helping us realise the Brothers' songwriting genius. And if there is anyone who objects too vigorously we'll resort to the Bee Gees' Trafalgar with its "I rolled into the smoke and there I lost my hope. I need someone to know me and to show me the square peg fits the hole. Why haven't I been told? I need someone to know me and to show me. Trafalgar, Trafalgar, Trafalgar, please don't let me down ..." The very idea ...

Thursday, 21 January 2010

St John's Wood Affair

"As I grow older going too far down the road from St John's Wood where I read on the notice board that God is by my side all the time. 'Hello God. Would you like to take a walk? Maybe we can have a talk?'..." sings Patrick Campbell-Lyons on St John's Wood Affair by the only Nirvana you need to know. I hate the way the group's work is described as baroque as that suggests a certain whimsical listlessness whereas the lovely arrangements on Nirvana's All Of Us are really powerful. The most famous St John's Wood song is of course Play With Fire, which is quite neat really as our Mick is a keen cricket fan, and Lord's is in the vicinity. Lord's has been immortalised in a number of cricket related songs, like Lord Beginner's Victory Calypso which celebrates the West Indies 1950 test success. A song that I doubt would pass Norman Tebbit's cricket test when the Tory bully echoed the sort of sentiments TV sit-com character Alf Garnett once spouted. Coincidentally Alf's catchphrases inspired the title of another St John's Wood related song when Mickey Dolenz sang about hanging out with the Beatles at Abbey Road and back at their pad in Randy Scouse Git. And for those in search of Nirvana -with some great London '60s footage ...

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Granny's Yard

"I remember growing up at Granny's Yard in the '80s. Playin' hopscotch. Runnin' away from the neighbours' dog. Bodypopping with the boogaloo break force. Glow worms, garbage pail kids, sodastreams and braids wid beads. The summer festivals down in Kensal Green. The days when we were so carefree ..." sings Shola Ama at the start of Granny's Yard, another excellent addition to our London list songbook with lots of lovely detail from Reebok Classics to D'Angelo. Shola details her London rites of passage through to, well, I guess the point where she became so successful at a ridiculously early age after being discovered singing to herself on the platform at Hammersmith tube station in true showbiz fashion. Life hasn't been smooth sailing for Shola, and the LP this great track appears on, Supersonic, from 2002 was released independently after she bounced back from tackling some demons of her own. It was a great fightback, but this country has an appalling track record when it comes to celebrating our own soul stars. Sadly since then there's not been another LP from Shola. She has, however, been active underground on the garage and grime scenes, appearing on tracks with the likes of Giggs and Aftershock/Terror Danjah. You just wish sometimes the opportunities came along for her ... it's no wonder that on Granny's Yard she sings: "Sometimes we all need to remember the things that we did 'cos life is forever always changing. But the memories we have are so so amazing ..." And as the spirit of Mr Coward is always haunting us here, Shola sings some Noel for us ...

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Harrow Road

"I saw Elvis washing clothes in the lauderette by the Grove. Washing powder on his nose. Down the Harrow Road ..." What a way to start a song. Mick Jones, of course, has his own chapter in the London songbook, and this is one of his finest moments. Harrow Road appears on Big Audio's Higher Power set which is cruelly overlooked when the great man's work is mentioned. I'm sure Clashologists will be able to talk at length about the significance of the Harrow Road in the group's myth. But it's a mighty long road and a very old road and Mick knows there's a lot of stories there to be told. Higher Power also contains a number called Over The Rise which makes me think immediately of Kensal Rise or Kensal Green. And I don't want to. So, to keep ghosts at bay this is for me. "Sing Michael sing ..."

Monday, 18 January 2010

I live in style on Maida Vale

"I can't take no more of this stuck-up scene so I am going away ..." sings the great Jesse Hector on his I Live In Style In Maida Vale number, a tale of turning the tables and getting revenge on the girl with her nose stuck up in the air. It actually dates from 1974 and the sessions Jesse's Hammersmith Gorillas recorded for Larry Page's Penny Farthing label, but remained unreleased until 1999 when Big Beat/Ace put out the excellent Gorilla Got Me set. The name Hammersmith Gorillas actually comes from another London song by Third World War. Those other proto-punks sang about the Hammersmith Guerillas though on their second LP. They'd sung about the Shepherds Bush Cowboys on their first. Proto-punks? Well I prefer the term future primitives. The Gorillas certainly were that odd thing. Were they resistance fighters in the pre-punk '70s keeping the flame burning for real r 'n' r? Or were they just ahead of their time, doing their John The Baptist bit? Certainly the Gorillas look was a joy to behold. The mod haircuts, the rockabilly sideburns, the punk attitude. And the Gorillas idea of what rock 'n' roll should be was very much rooted in the tradition of the Kinks and Small Faces, so as we don't seem to have film of the Gorillas in all their glory here's the Small Faces ravin' it up in style 'round Kensington way ...

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Eight Miles High

"Nowhere is there warmth to be found among those afraid of losing their ground. Rain gray town known for its sound. In places, Small Faces unbound ..." I wouldn't like to think how many times I've played The Byrds' Eight Miles High. And it's still that guitar sound that grabs me. So much so that it's easy to overlook the London references in the lyrics. Though even there people prefer to look for other meanings. I was just thinking about how I first came across The Byrds, I guess, via the Flamin' Groovies, Orange Juice, and even perhaps the TVPs' King & Country. In the early 1980s we really weren't overwhelmed with Byrds product. There was really only the Original Singles compilation which was a revelation. I think Chestnut Mare was available on an Old Gold 7", and I bought that because in Sounds Dave McCullough said each of Hurrah!'s songs was like a mini-Chestnut Mare. There were idiots in 1985 criticising Primal Scream for being obsessed with The Byrds and Love. Idiots. We were hearing all that stuff for the first time and it was liberating. I remember going to see Roger McGuinn at Dingwalls in 1984 which perhaps wasn't the wisest idea but hey ho ... On the Byrds' second visit to the UK Roger was getting into using cameras and in recent years footage of the group's arrival into London has emerged ...

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Next Plane to London

"Maybe over there I'll get a start. Only hope by leavin' I don't break his heart. The more important part than any record on the chart. I'm on the next plane to London. Leavin' on runway number five ..." The Rose Garden's glorious Next Plane To London deals with the dilemmas of fame. Should the ambitious singer move to another city to make their mark? And is that more important than the loves they'd leave behind? Bit of an old dilemma that one. The song itself was written by Kenny O'Dell, who recorded it for an LP on a White Whale subsidiary. The song made its way to folk rockers The Rose Garden who had a hit with it. Kenny would write another great entry in the American country songbook, namely Behind Closed Doors which was a huge hit for the great Charlie Rich when I was knee-high. And as was the way at the time Next Plane To London winged its way around the world, and there is a particularly lovely interpretation by Renee Martel, a French Canadian who ironically also became a country singer later on ...

Friday, 15 January 2010

Last Train to London

"Last train to London just heading out. Last train to London just leaving town. But I really want tonight to last forever. I really wanna be with you. Let the music play on down the line tonight ..." Oh this is glorious stuff. ELO's Last Train To London. Absolutely irresistible. From their 1979 disco masterpiece Discovery. Odd isn't looking back. In that strange breathing space between glitter and punk the Electric Light Orchestra was one of my very favourite things, and I adored A New World Record and Out Of The Blue. But by 1979 post-punk and the mod resurgence were everything, and Discovery probably passed me by. And ironically getting excited about the punk/disco crossover I missed ELO's Disco-very! I'm not sure the lyrics bear too close an analysis, but what the heck. I mean something like Joe Jackson's Down To London has clever lyrics but it just leaves me cold. Anyway, it's all wrong. It's always up to London. As in Jeff Lynne's Last Train To London would be up to London pretty much regardless of where it was running from ...

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Dettwork SouthEast

"Laying down facts like British rail tracks. Cockney rhyming slang, and black conundrums dem pun the dungeon. This is how we function in London, from New Cross to Piccadilly Circus, from tower blocks across the circuit. No surplus no deficit. No more no less. If it's Southeast or Northwest or Shredded Wheat or East. From Old Kent Road to Ladbroke Grove, I lay low. Handle most of my biz on my cellular dog and bone. We pass through Elephant and Castle. Take the back streets to save the hassle when delivering a parcel. Over the bridge and through the tunnel, beyond the horizon, where the sky scrapers meet the sky lining. My eyes on the prize seen, not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow ..." Perfectly put that at the start of Blak Twang's Dettwork SouthEast. Blak Twang or Tony Rotton is one of the great presences on the UK hip hop scene, and his 1996 LP Dettwork South East set could lay claim to being the scene's Smile. In other words it's never really officially appeared, but has taken on a mythical status and has been heard by so many people shall we say informally one way and another. It's a ridiculously great record, including gems like Real Estate which make even more ludicrous the claims of people who insist there's been no great UK hip hop. I guess it needs pointing out that the lost LP's title is a black slang play on words referencing Network SouthEast, which in 1986 was the new name for British Rail's old London & the South East region. Soon after its arrival Network SouthEast bought in the Network Card which gave a third off rail travel in the region and was a real boon. An early advertising campaign used the O'Jays' Love Train. While the name disappeared officially with the Tory privatisation in 1994 the branding would be seen for amy years to come on trains passing through Black Twang's SE8.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

In Transit

"Next stop check out the dumb advertising. Swan around Greater London for just £2.50. Duck and dive 'round Dartford for only £1.60. But you can chicken out at home for the small sum of nothing ..." sings Callahan on the Wolfhounds' In Transit, an everyday tale of the pains and pleasures of travelling around the Capital by public transport from their 1987ish Unseen Ripples LP. You only have to look at these few lines to understand the genius of Dave's songwriting. The detail perhaps passes many by. Shortly before this song appeared British Rail and London Transport introduced the Capitalcard which allowed unlimited off-peak travel on buses, trains and tubes. It was very welcome, but a bit of a sop for those of us still chaffing about the judicial decision that took away our cheap fares (Bananarama wrote a protest song about this but forgot to write the words if I remember). A swan really was used extensively in an advertising campaign to promote the new Capitalcard with Johnny Morris doing the voiceovers. The Capitalcard would of course become the Travelcard, still a partnership between London Transport and British Rail's Network SouthEast division.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Sweet Georgie Fame

"London Bridge is falling down. Pop songs I hear with suspicion. But now at last I'm glad to meet a sweet lovin' real good musician. Oh, from Broadway to Festival Hall I have listened and I've heard them all. And they say I'm a real swingin' dame yet I'm impressed, my ears are blessed with Georgie Fame. So stay a while, you'll see 'em smile, you won't complain. His hands and feet make music sweet, you'll miss your train. My goose is cooked, I'm gettin' hooked on Georgie Fame ..." sings Blossom Dearie on her tribute to Sweet Georgie Fame from her wonderful 1970 LP That's Just The Way I Want To Be. The LP she recorded with some of the greats of British jazz, and the set which gave us the irresistible I Like London In The Rain. As well as her tribute to the great Georgie, the record features songs for Dusty Springfield ("London flowers fair blooming in her hair") and John Lennon. I love the one for Georgie the best. Particularly the line that suggests getting so engrossed in the music you miss your train. A real dilemma at times that. Do you bail out and get the last train? Or stay awhile and have to seek alternative forms of transport? Two questions spring to mind. Who is the Sandra Harris co-credited, and does anyone have a copy of Tony Bennett's version? I assume the lyrics were subtly changed. And wouldn't it have been great if he performed that song at the Festival Hall when he played there in '74? In the meantime here's Georgie in wonderful form ...

Monday, 11 January 2010

The Nine Road

"Through the heart of the British metropolis. Moving smartly down a thin red line. London Transport's respectable warrior. The number nine. Picks up the City business man, tourists from the Serpentine. French, Arabs, Polish and Finnish men. The number nine ..." A while back I stumbled, as you do, across a clip of The Nine Road, a film made for London Transport by the British Transport Films team in 1976 about the bus route number nine, and was enchanted by the title song which featured at the start and the end of the footage. I figured it would be easy to find out more, but the internet wasn't much help and even when I tracked down a copy of the film the music wasn't mentioned in the credits. Grrr. Thankfully I stumbled across some splendid chaps at the BTF forum, who suggested it was Norman Beaton singing. What a splendid suggestion. It would fit perfectly. I know Norman had written musicals while in the UK and had sung calypso back in Guyana before leaving for England at the start of the '60s, and fans of Desmond's will remember his character's combo, the Georgetown Dreamers, featuring our friend Ram John Holder, Sol Raye, and Count Prince Miller (Jimmy James' sidekick at one time). This film then I guess would have been made just before Norman appeared on our TV screens in the sit-com The Fosters, set on a south London estate, and starring a teenage Lenny Henry just after his massive success on the TV talent show New Faces. This was Norman's first breakthrough role. So the British Transport Films team needs to be commended if they used Norman. You cannot imagine that happening now. The detailed documentary/real life feel would be replaced by glossy marketing puff dictated by some agency team with no feel for or interest in its subject matter but which charges so much for its services ignorant accountants think they must be adding value. Aww don't get me started. Let's just enjoy The Nine Road and for now we'll have to wonder whether this really is Norman Beaton . We're working on it ...

Sunday, 10 January 2010

The Star

"Trudging home to Fulham, having missed the last bus. Watch my car slick by. 'Can that be the boy we knew?' ..." sings Ian Whitcomb in his wonderful number The Star, a tale of sweet revenge recorded in 1967 where our hero fantasises about getting his own back on Perkins and settling old scores with all those other enemies from schooldays and beyond by becoming a movie idol in Lawrence of Australia and having the world worship him with his name up in lights ... ha ha. Ian Whitcomb may never have quite become that household name, but he's a true star 'round these parts. Has been ever since Rev-ola in its early days put out the excellent This Sporting Life compilation. A genuine character, and a pop person who knows his Bakunin and Marx but is more interested in vaudeville and variety. Anyone who calls a record Mod, Mod Music Hall is bound to be one of our heroes. Ian retreated from the flower power '60s nonsense into a world of pre-WW2 songsmithery with a touch of proper rock 'n' roll, and a liking for Britain and its "confederacy of recalcitrant, cantankerous, eccentric curmudgeons". That's a phrase from Ian's book Rock Odyssey, which is the best chronicle of the '60s you'll find. The account of Ian's first encounter with Mick Jagger, for example, is priceless. The same session that gave us The Star also gave us The Notable Yacht Club of Staines, another tale of revenge and a performance that tells us what Ian thought of Bob Dylan. And if you're wondering what goes on in the Mod Mod Music Hall ... "reach your own conclusions".

Saturday, 9 January 2010


"Drunks and the tourists. The tarts and old men. Wheelers and dealers are at it again ..." sings the wonderful Bishi on her Nightbus, a canny depiction of the weird cross-section of life you can find (or hopefully avoid) on London's night bus network. Bishi is one of the best things about modern pop music, and anyone's who has fallen under the spell of her One Nation (Under CCTV) promo video will have delighted in the central London settings. Ooh look Roupell Street, and so on. Pop music needs more Bishi. I guess I should confess Bishi first made my ears prick up with her references to Angela Carter's Nights At The Circus, which is part of London's literary tradition and a particular favourite. As is this ...

Friday, 8 January 2010

Who's Fooling Who?

"She knows all about Murphy's law on a Monday night. Charlotte Street's always jumping ... it's an all night bus that you've missed again. It's a walk home late in the pouring rain ..." sings Julie Roberts on Working Week's Who's Fooling Who? Ah the age old problem of how to get home late at night. In the mid-'80s when this was recorded London was anything but a 24/7 city. Night buses were few and far between. The song with its references to the soul jazz groove, to jazz dance DJ Paul Murphy and the Sol y Sombra where he used to play, perhaps fell into the hands of critics who had their own agendas and prejudices. But what the heck. After Weekend Simon Booth's new outfit kicked off with an adaptation of the Allende's administration anthem Venceremos (released on Paul Murphy's label) with a video by Julien Temple, featuring the legendary IDJ dancers. The song itself featured Robert Wyatt, Tracey Thorn and Claudia Figueroa on vocals. Wyatt's involvement always made me smile because the group's detractors ordinarily fawn over anything involving the great man. I seem to remember Robert Elms claiming Venceremos as one of THEE London songs. Why not? The follow-up single Storm Of Light featured Julie Tippetts on vocals, and this genuinely is a London song. Now let's get this straight ... Robert Wyatt's on your first single. Julie's on the second. The cream of London's jazz musicians are contributing, including the great Harry Beckett. Fantastic ...

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Nowhere Square

"Time to rush to the stop. Catch my bus. I know. Time to stamp on a foot. Excuse me. I know. Wish I'd been born in a different time. Standing close to my seat is a girl seen before on a thousand dark mornings. And the perfume she wears follows her through the doors. Leaves me with no song to sing ..." muses Louis Philippe during his enchanting Nowhere Square number. Louis Phillippe, London songs and buses seem to be a bit of a recurring theme here. And why not? Except that while he was singing about London's buses the official dictum was that only losers take the bus. That of course completely misses what may be from a distance something somewhat romantic. Why else would the Count Five sing about the Double Decker Bus? And there's no overlooking the fact that TV shows like On The Buses were ingrained in our psyche. Then of course there was Here Come The Double Deckers, a transatlantic success, which in terms of kids' TV was wonderfully subversive, anarchic, communistic and we would dream of hanging out in a scrap yard with our gang messing around on an old London double decker. The Double Deckers' gang of course featured someone who has already appeared as part of this project. Now don't all shout at once. In this episode, in keeping with our proclivities, the gang get mixed up in the murky world of pop, with mixed results ...

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

London's Brilliant Parade

"She's one of those girls that you just can't place. You feel guilty desiring such an innocent face. But of course they knew that when they cast her. Along with the red Routemaster. And the film takes place in an MGB. And a perfect re-creation of The Speakeasy. Everybody looks happy and twisted. Though she probably never existed. For old times' sake. Don't let me awake. I wouldn't want you to walk across Hungerford Bridge. Especially at twilight. Looking through the bolts and the girders. Into the water below. You'll never find your answer there. They sounded the all-clear in the occidental bazaar they used to call Oxford Street. Now the bankrupt souls in the city are finally tasting defeat ..." London's Brilliant Parade is Elvis Costello at his best. He says so much so impressively, working in so much detail, but you're never quite sure exactly what ... If there is one phrase I hate it's 'iconic image'. It's become so overused. As in a Routemaster bus as 'iconic image' for London. Like we are all meant to be mawkishly sentimental about Routemasters, forgetting that to some they were the devil incarnate usurping the trams. So if we are all so attached to Routemasters how come so few songs mention them? "And a trolley bus in Fulham Broadway. The lions and the tigers in Regents Park couldn't pay their way. And now they're not the only ones. At the Hammersmith Palais, in Kensington and Camden Town, there's a part that I used to play. The lovely Diorama is really part of the drama, I'd say ..."

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Trams of Old London

"Through Electric Avenue, Brixton, down in SW2, Teddington and Kennington, Twickenham and Paddington. Uh huh. In the Blitz they never closed. Though they blew up half the roads. Oh, it hurts me just to see 'em going dead in a museum ..." sings Robyn Hitchcock in his stunningly beautiful elegy for the Trams of Old London. There's two interesting things here. One is the enormous affection people feel for the transports of the past. In this case Robyn mourns the passing of London's trams, which stopped running in 1952. This song was recorded many years before the introduction of the Croydon Tramlink, by the way. The other thing is the feature of London songs where the writer works in an impressive number of place names in a somewhat haphazard manner which scans rather neatly and sounds positively poetic ...

Monday, 4 January 2010

Days of Fire

"There's no more trains going that way. There's no more trains coming this way. You better make your way home, son. There's something going down in London. Well that ain't gonna stop me. So I step out the station and what do I see? Traffic for days. Let me walk a bit and I'll see where it get me. Then it all went slow motion, everything slow motion. First came the flash of lights then the sound of explosion . And we're still in slow motion, we're still in slow motion ..." sings Natty on Days of Fire, his collaboration with Nitin Sawhney which deals with his experiences in July 2005. It's intriguing. So many London songs but some subjects seem to be shied away from. How many songs can you name about the IRA's campaign in London? How many songs about the 2005 bombings? One other that does spring to mind is Dem A Bomb We by Ladybug ft Warrior Queen, which Kevin Martin is behind. Kevin in the guise of The Bug had an LP called London Zoo, appropriately. The funny thing is I may have missed Nitin's London Undersound set without a tip from David Arnold of The Claim fame. Medway loyalties and all that. London Undersound features another lovely sort of tube related tune, where Roxanne Tataei sings of Distant Dreams ...

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Improperly Dressed

"Stared at from the minute that I leave a place. My eyes straight ahead of me, cutting into space. You don't make eye contact standing on the street. 'Cause that's an invitation to everyone you meet. And things can get uncomfortable on tube trains late at night ..." sings Ari Up on The Slits' Improperly Dressed. And she would have known. God bless The Slits and all who sailed with them. What on earth happened to the Cut promo film that was in all the cinemas as a b-feature? Have I dreamt that existed? The clip of the girls performing on the Regents Park bandstand is one of the great pieces of London pop film. So for a change here's another Instant Hit, with some suitable London transport footage and a lot of the fun which sometimes gets forgotten about when the group is talked about or when they had to answer endless questions about being untypical girls as in this invaluable piece of film ...

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Man On The Tube

"Man on the tube. Don't catch his eye. He's looking over at you. Got his eye on your thigh ... " sings Barbara Gogan on The Passions' Man On The Tube from their excellent Michael and Miranda LP of 1980, touching on the theme of feeling frightened travelling alone on the tube late at night. Interestingly another track from the LP, Pedal Fury, deals with the dangers of cycling in the capital. The Passions were part of the early Chris Parry stable at Fiction Records along with The Cure, Purple Hearts and Back To Zero, which was a fantastic modern pop line-up. In other words, around the time of this ... Sing it Billy: "It's too late to take the underground ..."

Friday, 1 January 2010

The Underground Train

"I took the train to Lancaster Gate and the trouble that I met I am going to relate ..." sings Lord Kitchener on his tale of The Underground Train, one of the first calypso numbers he recorded in the UK. It's funny isn't it how some people have a real thing about the Underground and get totally intimidated, agitated or lost, while others among us seem to be immune to its pressures and terrors. Still I suppose the strangest thing that's happened to me on the tube is being stung by a wasp. I have a favourite Underground joke which I can't resist sharing ... about some guy from up North who came to London and headed for the tube but saw a notice saying dogs must be carried. Took him four hours to find a dog he was able to carry down the escalator ... This Lord Kitchener track appeared on the first of the essential London Is The Place For Me sets put together by the excellent Honest Jons team, which are exquisitely presented with invaluable photos from the Val Wilmer archives. Val herself is a London legend who is criminally under-represented on the 'net. Track down a copy of her memoirs Mama Told Me There'd Be Days Like These ...