Wednesday 31 March 2010

Working Class Millionaire

"I don't wanna be a clerk, a conductor, or a spark. Life's too short for working who knows where. So I'll just sit back and dream, forget the 'ouses inbetween, and be a working class millionaire ..." sings Richard Digance during his wonderful song Working Class Millionaire. It dates from his time recording for Transatlantic, and I'm willing to bet the overlap between the folk revival and music hall wasn't that great at the time. But Richard smartly marries the two. He references Gus Elen, taps into familiar music hall themes about being suspicious of work and fond of making a bit of money some other way. The song has some brilliant lines about having a mansion down in Bow or a palace down at the Royal Albert Dock, having lions either side of the gateway to the drive, and in the marble halls goalposts painted on the walls and other things the 'Ampstead crowd detest. In the one of the most famous of London songs Harry Champion inherits a watch and chain which he hopes will make him rich. It doesn't. And his friends mock him, offering to buy up Any Old Iron. Rather nicely when the Trotters do become working class millionaires it is with a watch and chain they thought was worthless ...

Tuesday 30 March 2010

Disgusted E7

"These are the streets where nothing grows. There's easy pickings for the ones who know ..." Students of songs relating to London postcodes will probably point to The Wolfhounds' second session for John Peel's show on 26 May 1987 which featured a couple of relevant numbers. One was Disgusted E7, which they also released as a b-side. I always liked this as a title, as it makes me think of the type of folks that write to the local newspaper to rant about some subject or other. At the time the epithet Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells was supposed to sum up a certain sort of conservative grouch. By twisting it Callahan and the Wolfhounds relocated the malcontent to Upton Park or Forest Gate, perhaps as an Alf Garnett type figure. But then again when it came to expressing disgust at the world around us there was really no one better than Callahan. The other postcode related number from that Peel session was Boy Racers RM1, which referenced the group's own manor in Romford. It's an interesting thing about the Wolfhounds and London songs. There is always a sense of London in their songs, and they tended not to get explicit or specific even when the title directly referred to the Capital, like Ex-Cable Street. I liked that obliqueness, because there's more than one way to attack your targets ...

Monday 29 March 2010

One Wish

"I grew up in the H town. Living life on the blocks. From then that's when I became unorthodox. Used to tie knots in my socks. Fill them with rocks. And I'd swing your jaw if you gave bad looks. Now I haven't changed. Still slightly deranged. Still slightly outraged. And I feel insane. Like the way I could take so much pain ..." On her hit single One Wish Shystie raps about growing up in E5, on the east side of London, specifically Hackney/Clapton. She was part of the grime scene, and seemed set for sustained success. But the UK music industry really doesn't have a clue how to develop the 'careers' of female MCs. Its record is lamentable when it comes to nurturing the wealth of talent on its doorstep. So Shystie has more recently had more success as an actress, ironically in the role of a female MC struggling to make it against all the odds in Dubplate Drama. She did release a great LP back in 2004, the appropriately titled Diamond In The Dirt, and hopefully another will enable her to make up for lost time. In the meantime ...

Sunday 28 March 2010

Burlington Bertie from Bow

"I dress up in fashion. And when I am feeling depressed I shave from my cuff all the whiskers and fluff, stick my hat on and toddle up West. I'm Burlington Bertie. I rise at ten thirty. Then saunter along like a toff. I walk down The Strand with my gloves on my hand. Then I walk down again with them off. I'm all airs and graces, correct easy paces. Without food so long I've forgot where my face is. I'm Bert, Bert, I haven't a shirt ..." Of course there's nothing new under the sun. And long before grime, when the music hall was all the rage, London locations were frequently used in songs. As in I'm so-and-so from wherever. Ella Shields singing Burlington Bertie from Bow is a perfect example. The number was written by her husband William Hargreaves in 1915, and is a bit of a send-up of an earlier Bertie number. In Ella's star turn Bertie has fallen on hard times and is scraping by in Bow. But he's determined to keep up appearances. Down but not out, you might say. Ella was one of the most celebrated male impersonators of the music hall era, and in many ways the fact she was American just adds another lovely twist to the ironies inherent in her performances. Colin MacInnes writes in praise of her in Sweet Saturday Night, mentioning in passing that "she was a bit of an intellectual, and liked analysing her art". There is a lovely clip of her, late on in her career, performing the song Aveline. There is even surviving film of her doing a turn as Burlington Bertie from Bow ...

Saturday 27 March 2010

Bow E3

"Now if you're from Uptown, Brooklyn-bound, The Bronx, Queens, or Long Island Sound. Even other states come right and exact ..." From a hell of a distance away those lines of Rakim's have long held a certain enchantment. And I suspect that's the case too with all the grime tracks that refer to specific parts of London. Does that seem glamorous and mysterious to a listener thousands of miles away? When Wiley is rapping about representing Bow E3 what do people think it's all about when they're from outside the Capital? At least Rakim went on to conclude: "It's ain't where you're from, it's where you're at". For others though where you're from says a lot about where you'll be at. Wiley is I guess the crown prince of grime, and often an inventive and prolific producer. Plenty of his tracks refer explicitly to London, including Living In London, a collaboration with old colleague Tinchy Stryder. Perhaps best of all though is Slippin' which has some nice references to scavenging in Roman Road and so on ...

Friday 26 March 2010

Bethnal Green

"I'm usually hanging out in Bow. Hardly down Bethnal Green. But I think there's summat you should know when I strolls down Bethnal Green. Faces have changed so much and there's places that I ain't been ..." I suspect this project could be overwhelmed by contributions relating to London from the grime scene. Londoners have always had this innate ability to find schisms and divisions where there doesn't need to be any. Race, religion, the river, footwear, haircuts, football colours, and postcodes. The grime scene in particular plays on the post code game, and there are numerous tracks where rappers are talking up their particular locality. A lot of the music comes from the east of London, and in particular the Bow area. Ruff Sqwad is one collective, among whose ranks Tinchy Stryder has passed, which has made great play about coming from Bow E3 on tracks like Anna. Sqwad members Slix and Dirty Danger have also shown some real style in changing direction and location by talking up neighbouring Bethnal Green ... featuring some fantastic whistling too.

Thursday 25 March 2010

The Ballad of Bethnal Green

"I'll tell a tale of a jealous male and a maid of sweet sixteen. She was blonde and dumb and she lived with her mum on the fringe of Bethnal Green. She worked all week for a rich old Greek for her dad was on the dole. And her one delight was a Friday night when she had a rock 'n' roll ..." Paddy Roberts' Ballad of Bethnal Green is a late '50s number that captures I suppose what was a bit of a vogue for mixing musical revue with a bit of Cockney colloquialism to spice up the form. Paddy was a South African born songwriter, who had a bit of a success with shall we say slightly suggestive songs for the adult audiences. But he was an accomplished all-round songwriter, and among those who had hits with songs he had credits on were Lita Roza, Frankie Vaughan, Eve Boswell and Ruby Murray. Ruby actually sang some duets with Norman Wisdom of songs bearing the name of Paddy Roberts, such as Boy Meets Girl. Ruby, rather inadvertently, has made a lasting contribution to the Cockney vernacular so as a tribute here she is singing in the heart of London ...

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Bethnal Green Tube Disaster

"Let me take you back to the second world war. A time of great valour. A time of folklore. To a place in the east end they call Bethnal Green. Battle scarred by the Blitz. Can you picture the scene? There's a tube station all Londoners know. It's between Barmy Park and Paradise Row. It was used as a shelter by families all around. When the siren gave the warning they'd go underground ..." One of the finest examples of using the pop song form to tell a story is Bethnal Green Tube Disaster from Frank Tovey & The Pyros' Grand Union LP. It captures the tale of how on the night of 3 March 1943 173 people were crushed to death in Bethnal Green tube station which was being used as a shelter during the Blitz. The full story is told in Frank's song or in accounts available online. At the time of writing this terrible civilian disaster is topical again as a campaign is being waged to raise money for a fitting memorial to be built for those who died unnecessarily. It can be supported by visiting the Stairway To Heaven Memorial site. Let's also remember Frank Tovey who wrote some of the finest London songs of our time ... The disaster is also remembered in a quite lovely song, 15 (3 March 1943) by the group Resigned on its CD, It's Still My Bethnal Green.

Tuesday 23 March 2010

Faded Glamour

"And your sunglasses stuck with sequins from the shop down at the end, where they sell unlabelled tin cans. You just guess what you're going to get. And I tell you that this faded glamour's a stupid art-school idea. And you tell me I don't know because I don't have to live here. I could move away, probably will someday ..." Animals That Swim's Faded Glamour is set in and around the borough of Hackney and the surrounding areas. It's verging on Iain Sinclair territory I guess, with the appeal of certain areas for people keen to live somewhere cheap and in a location that has a certain something no matter how well it tries to disguise it. Of course for the real locals the bone of contention is that such people are 'slumming' it by choice whereas they've really had little in the way of options. The irony is that, as in Sinclair's case, they can end up staying for considerably longer than anticipated and can have much more of a feel for the place than someone brought up there ... Interestingly Animals That Swim's lines about how we could just walk around, we could walk all over town, now seem prophetic. Photo of Iain Sinclair in one of the booths at the old Copper Grill behind Liverpool St. station circa 1999 by Phil Nichols from the excellent Classic Cafes site.

Monday 22 March 2010

Iron Lady

"The Iron Lady she no easy ..." When the media draws up its list of anti-Thatcher songs it's made up of the usual suspects. You don't see UK reggae tracks like Macka B's Get Rid Of Maggie on it, for example. Or Iron Lady by Demon Rockers, an early incarnation of the Ragga Twins, which covers an impressive array of subjects such as money spent on nuclear weapons, housing conditions for the poor, unemployment, police harrasment, the death of Colin Roach, and how these issues impact particularly on places like their own Hackney. The rough house masters Flinty Badman and Deman Rockers were graduates of Unity (the sound system rather than the theatre ... you need the Honest Jons collection Watch How The People Dancing). As the Ragga Twins they released a string of classic singles in the early '90s, such as Wipe The Needle and Hooligan 69, as well as the LP, Reggae Owes Me Money. Soul Jazz has issued an essential round-up of the Twins' finest moments, including a couple of bonus Demon Rockers tracks. The Twins were the first signing to Shut Up And Dance's label, and the set-up would produce some of the best music ever from the UK with its mess of dancehall, hip hop, house and anything else they felt worth 'alf inching. The names a bit of a red herring too, as they did anything but shut up, covering some of the thorniest issues of the day, from hard drugs to homelessness to admission policies. Tracks like Shut Up And Dance's own Save it Till The Mourning After and the remarkable Nicolette's Waking Up still sound magnificent ...

Sunday 21 March 2010

Rough in Hackney

"This is not New York. This is England ..." I suspect that on his debut LP, Weapon Is My Lyric, when Overlord X stated that it was Rough In Hackney he wasn't simply making a statement about how tough life can be in that particular London borough. It's likely he was referring to UK hip hop artists forging their own identities in the late 1980s, and how the sound he was creating was as hard-hitting as anything coming from the East Coast or West Coast of America. It was a theme he would return to on his second LP with the track You Can't Do That In London which seems to be a bit of a dig at NWA and their way of carrying-on. One of the first breaks for Overlord X came via a session for John Peel at the end of 1987. He'd record another the following year, and his debut single 14 Days In May made number 28 in the Peel Show 1988 Festive 50. When John's name is invoked by campaigners for this and that, it seems to be forgotten exactly what he used to play. He was certainly one of the important outlets for UK hip hop acts like Overlord X, Cookie Crew and Silver Bullet. I can even remember hearing him play 14 Days In May and being blown away by the raw power, which is not something you could say for a lot of music in 1988.

Saturday 20 March 2010

City Suits Hoxton Trash

"Back in the day Bass Clef running ..." On the track City Suits Hoxton Trash our hero Rob Gallagher in his Earl Zinger guise comes on a little 'fings ain't what they used t'be' as he surveys what's become of the Hoxton environs. It's a familiar London story. Colonisation, commercialisation, gentrification, infiltration, call it what you will, as the artists' workshops and studios appear, followed by the cafes and clubs, shops and luxury flats, leading to conflict with the locals and a perceived loss of character and identity, and new phrases entering our vocab like Hoxton Fins and Hoxton Heroes. Rob Gallagher looks back to simpler times, when Jarvis Cocker in the video shop would probably have been filling shelves and one of the few reasons to come to the area would be the tiny Bass Clef venue, where legendary club nights like Norman Jay's Monday rare groove session attracted many faces from the London jazz dance/funk scene. This was the milieu from which Rob's Galliano project developed, sporting some fine knitwear and becoming part of the Talkin' Loud label, with the Young Disciples. "What have we learned from history?"

Friday 19 March 2010

Duffer of St George

"On our way to Shoreditch; off to Fabric in Shoreditch: Duffer of St George and I don't care. Duffer of St George and I don't care. On a Spitalfields Sunday get a two pound curry and roll ups; get a 12p bagel and a camouflage t-shirt and bracelets ..." sings Eleanor Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces on their song Duffer of St George which captures the sense of how the near east of London changed dramatically in terms of leisure tourism in the early years of the 21st Century. It was the record they made with/about their grandmother, Rehearsing My Choir, that made me sit up and take notice of the Fiery Furnaces. It's a gloriously ambitious record, and contains one of my all-time favourite lines about taking a late train to a lost love. It is the Friedbergers' obvious love of words that really appeals, and I suspect that's the appeal of the Duffer of St George refrain. The feel of the words. I guess that would have been around the time Duffer became the ubiquitous brand with all and sundry wearing their hoodies and sweatshirts. When I became aware of the Duffer brand it was when they were attracting attention for their knitwear designs which echoed the Gabicci and Roberto Carlo tops that were easy to obtain in charity shops, and had earlier been sported by Subway Sect and many roots reggae artists. One of the Duffer designers was Barrie K Sharpe, who was also a legendary figure in London club culture as a rare groove DJ and then for the records he made with Diana Brown such as The Masterplan ...

Thursday 18 March 2010

The Wind is Getting Stronger

"She emigrated from Russia at nine months old. She's still got all her teeth but some are filled with gold. They hurt her now when she drinks something cold ..." One of the pleasures of this project has been people pointing out songs from artists who might otherwise have eluded me. I am particularly grateful to Paul Cowdell for suggesting the inclusion of The Wind is Getting Stronger by Rory McLeod. It's a lovely song about Rory's gran, a stubborn and strong lady who grew up in Stepney Green. There are some fantastic lines in there about translating Cockney to Yiddish, and having a gap in her teeth from working as a seamstress and biting the cotton and thread. That sort of detail is the mark of a great songwriter. Rory himself has been a circus clown, fire eater, story teller, traveller, troubadour, minstrel, one man band. It's been fun catching up on songs like Farewell Welfare, and characters like Rory are increasingly appealing for the way they survive and thrive outside the conventional musical mainstream. Here's Rory performing a live version ...

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Look Around

"Words? What words? How can the likes of me find the words for what we 'ave to go through?" says Vivienne Martin in her role as Kate at the start of the number Look Around from the 1965 musical The Match Girls, which had words by Bill Owen (yes that ...) and a score by Tony Russell. The musical had evolved from a 1940 play by Robert Mitchell for Unity Theatre. Bill Owen was closely involved with Unity for many years, long before finding fame in Last of the Summer Wine. The East End of London has an important history of trades union activity, from the dockers to more recent struggles against low pay for contracted-out NHS services. But the story of the 1888 match girls strike is perhaps the most significant event in the area's social history. Campaigning journalist Annie Besant had written an article, White Slavery in London, highlighting the appalling conditions girls were working in at the Bryant & May factory in Bow and the effects of phosphorous poisoning. Following publication the factory's owners tried to get the match girls to sign a statement saying the article was wrong, but they refused. When one of the girls was sacked, her colleagues came out on strike. Their campaign was fought with great vitality, and gained support from many leading socialist figures. The girls won, and one of the outcomes was the formation of a matchworkers' union. As for the musical itself? Well, it had a short run in the West End (ah then you had shows by Lionel Bart and Anthony Newley in those pre-Lloyd Webbed-Foot times), and the surviving original cast recording has a lot going for it in a jazzy cockney kinda way. And I have to take my 'at off to the splendid person that posted Anita Harris' interpretation of one of the show's numbers on YouTube ...

Tuesday 16 March 2010

Trade Union

"Very much in the present is the Bengali group Dishari, singing Trade Union, a rallying cry to fellow Bengali workers to stand together under the Trade Union banner ..." runs Hannah Charlton's sleevenotes to Robert Wyatt's Nothing Can Stop Us collection. Dishari was a group formed by Abdus Salique. He had moved from Bangladesh to the east end of London at the start of the '70s, and was very much a part of a period of change where the Bengali community grew in the area while the Jewish population gradually moved away. In a recurring pattern the Bengalis had to face racism and poverty, but Abdus Salique was among those determined to fight. He became involved in trades union politics, and formed the group Dishari to give a voice to his community which he felt was not being represented in the Labour movement or the arts. Robert Wyatt gave the group the opportunity to record a song as part of a series of 7"s he put out on Rough Trade in the early '80s. The track they recorded was Trade Union, which was a call for Bengali workers in east London to get involved with the Union movement. Significantly, because of the Robert Wyatt/Rough Trade link it was a song heard by an audience outside the Bengali community in and around Brick Lane. In the 40 odd years he has been in London Abdus Salique will have seen major changes in the area, from the race attacks in 1978 and the murder of Altab Ali through to the rebranding as Banglatown and the City's encroachment with its clubs and cafes. He has continued as a business man, becoming chair of the Brick Lane Traders' Association and continuing to speak out about how he feels the Bengali community should be represented. Meanwhile a new generation has its own struggles, and understandably it is more interested in using grime or hip hop to express itself. Among the new generation is Naga, who is very much in the present ... and indeed has performed at the Rough Trade 'superstore' now based in the old but very different East End ...

Monday 15 March 2010

The Spirit of Cable Street

"Back in '36 down at Cable Street. State and blackshirts marched but they met their fate. Workers' class hatred drove them off the street. Fascism is class war. Unite in the spirit of Cable Street. From Cable Street through the nazi wars. Workers stood their ground fighting fascism. We should learn from them that there is no passive way ..." Cornelius Cardew's The Spirit of Cable Street which he recorded with People's Liberation Music (available on the Consciously CD) makes explicit the connection between the momentous events of 1936 in Cable Street when the Jewish East End, together with local dockers and others, rose up to fight the fascist threat and the continuing struggle against racism and fascism. It carries on: "Now at Red Lion Square the people fought with bare hands. Like their parents did down at Cable Street. Keep alive the fighting spirit of Kevin Gately ..." referencing an anti-racist demonstration in 1974 to stop the National Front during which a student was killed. This was an interesting song for the pre-punk '70s. The usual career trajectory is to start out with a revolutionary fervour which fizzles out along the way. Cardew came from an academic background, studied with Stockhausen, was closely involved with the improvisers, was featured on Sonic Youth's Goodbye 20th Century,and so on. In the early '70s, however, he disowned his past: "I have discontinued composing music in an avant garde idiom for a number of reasons: the exclusiveness of the avant-garde, its fragmentation, its indifference to the real situation in the world today, its individualistic outlook and not least its class character (the other characteristics are virtually products of this)." He became more involved with Marxist/Communist politics and action until his death in 1981 when he was killed in a hit-and-run incident in east London. One of the quotes often used in relation to Cardew is one from Robert Wyatt: "If the word 'romantic' should be rescued from the whimsical sentimentalists, it is so that we could then apply it, properly, to Cornelius Cardew: a real fountain of breathtakingly adventurous music." It is easy to see similarities between the politics and work of Cardew in the '70s with what Robert Wyatt has been doing since linking up with Rough Trade at the start of the '80s ...

Sunday 14 March 2010

My Home in Morgan Street

"My home in Morgan Street. It makes me happy, it's good. I have my own room. Though it reeks of stinking fish. There stands a girl in a dress. Shouting 'Six a penny baygels!' And a small Jew with his fiddle is playing the violin ..." The song My Home in Morgan Street is one of the highlights of Whitechapel Mayn Vaytshepl, a fantastic CD from Klezmer Klub. It is a collection of songs that celebrates the old Jewish East End. Some of the songs are adaptations of ones collected by friends and family, handed down by oral tradition, which the defiantly vibrant but desperately poor community would sing. Other numbers are new interpretations of folk songs and dances, played in the klezmer tradition, revivifying the spirit of the past. The CD is wonderfully infectious, and filled with London references. What makes it particularly important is that the history of the Jewish East End has generated a number of great books and memoirs, from Joe Jacobs to Emanuel Litvinoff to Bernard Kops to Rachel Lichtenstein, and all these mention the community's music and dancing. So Klezmer Klub's work in bringing this music to life is particularly welcome. But this is not just something worthy. It's some of the most uplifting music that's appeared in a long time. Please visit their website and treat yourself to a copy ...

Saturday 13 March 2010

The Liberty of Norton Folgate

"Once round Arnold Circus, and up through Petticoat Lane. Past the well of shadows, and once back round again. Arm in arm, with an abstracted air. To where the people stare out of the upstairs windows. Because we are living like kings. And these days will last forever. 'Cos sailors from Africa, China and the archipelago of Malay jump ship ragged and penniless into Shadwell's Tiger Bay. The Welsh and Irish wag tails, mothers of midnight. The music hall carousal is spilling out into Bow firelight. Sending half-crazed shadows, giants dancing up the brick wall of Mr Truman's beer factory, waving, bottles ten feet tall. Whether one calls it Spitalfields, Whitechapel, Tower Hamlets or Banglatown, we’re all dancing in the moonlight, we’re all on borrowed ground ..." There are certain acts, such as Madness, Ian Dury, Squeeze, The Clash, Pogues and Saint Etienne, that have not really been featured in this project because they are so closely associated with London songs. That is not a reflection on their work. Far from it. Madness, for example, are pretty much held in universal affection. They could trade on sentiment, and tread water on the festival circuit. But their most recent work, The Liberty of Norton Folgate, is their finest yet. And in the pop context it's a struggle to find others who have come up with their finest and most adventurous record after 30 odd years. The title track is a remarkable achievement, which is why it is included here. In its survey of the east end there are enough London historical, literary and popular culture references to keep us amused for donkey's years as we follow up clues, from music halls to the docks to the markets to the places of sanctuary ... in me secondhand coat.

Friday 12 March 2010

Petticoat Lane (On A Saturday Ain't So Nice)

On Saturday you might have been lucky to see one or two customers, but: "Petticoat Lane on a Sunday morning is a picture of industry. All the shops, yesterday shut, open up like sesame ..." Well, that's the contention in Lionel Bart's 1962 musical Blitz! from which the number Petticoat Lane (On A Saturday Ain't So Nice) comes. Bart's start in showbiz came through Unity Theatre, and Unity's story is one of the great London tales. Its roots were in the 1930s Jewish east end with a backdrop of popular left working class politics, communism, and anti-fascism. It, however, was established in the St Pancras area of London, where among those who graduated through its ranks would be Bill Owen, Una Brandon-Jones (who was in Sparrows Can't Sing), Ted Willis, Alfie Bass, David Kossoff, Warren Mitchell, Herbert Lom. Among others who had links to Unity were Paul Robeson, J.B. Priestley, Alexander Baron, Patrick Hamilton and Johnny Speight. After the incredible success of Oliver on stage, Lionel Bart's next work was Blitz! Set in the east end of London during WW2 it follows the fortunes of families working on the stalls down Petticoat Lane. The original cast featured Bob Grant (Jack from On The Buses) and Grazina Frame. It was a success, with Shirley Bassey scoring a hit with Far Away, but it's not become part of the public's psyche in the way Oliver has. People love to point out Bart never matched the success of Oliver, but that's as irrelevant as saying Kevin Rowland never had another Come On Eileen. After some troubled times Lionel returned to our screens in 1990 for a fondly remembered Abbey National ad ... "There's an 'appy ending".

Thursday 11 March 2010

Sparrows Can't Sing

"Aint't it a shame sparrows can't sing. Think of the joy sparrows might bring. But all they can do is fly and fly and fly ..." Sparrows Can't Sing is a 1963 film set in and around Stepney. It's a real gem, directed by Joan Littlewood, so it has close links to her Theatre Workshop in Stratford East. The film evolved from a play written by Stephen Lewis, who is better known now as Blakey from On The Buses or Smiler from Last of the Summer Wine. His roots are in east London though, and he has remained a life-long socialist. Tony Benn in his Diaries mentions going out on the campaign trail with him. Among the other people in the film who would go on to become key figures on TV are Brian Murphy, Yootha Joyce, Roy Kinnear, Victor Spinetti, Arthur Mullard and Bob Grant. There are all sorts of reasons to love the film, from the blitz scarred landscape to the experimental dialogue. There are some wonderful cameos too, such as Queenie Watts' turn and Murray Melvin's suits. The sparrow metaphor is implicit rather than overdone, though I doubt anyone could have anticipated how appropriate the casting of Barbara Windsor in the role of Maggie would be, given the cockney institution she became. Lionel Bart wrote the title song, which Babs got to sing ...

Wednesday 10 March 2010

East End Girl

"And when they're kicking down the door, she'll be there at your side. They'll never take her alive coz she's an east end girl. She's dangerous and beautiful and proud. With her feet on the ground and her head high in the clouds. And all it takes is one look through a late night party crowd to put you under the spell of an east end girl ..." Cock Sparrer get wonderfully sentimental about their East End Girl on perhaps their finest moment. They of course had the perfect London name. Wot'cher me old cock sparrer, and all that. And the cockney sparrow is in many ways the perfect symbol of the city. Plucky, chirpy chappies fighting it out among the larger, greedier species. These days sparrows have been disappearing from the London landscape. Where once they thrived on the space, now it's all built up, and even gardens are disappearing as people pave them over to make way for car parking space. Cock Sparrer have had other wonderfully tender moments, such as Battersea Bardot, their tribute to the actress Carol White who was such an important part of the '60s film world, with roles in Poor Cow, Up The Junction, Cathy Come Home and so on, but it all went tragically wrong ...

Tuesday 9 March 2010

Pie and Mash

"I went down to Canning Town. George does the best pie and mash around. Try it once, you'll soon get 'ooked. Waiting outside for the pies to cook. Pie and mash every Saturday. 42 pence is all you gotta pay ..." sing The Gymslips on Pie And Mash, their tribute to the other Cockney culinary favourite. There is a case to be made for The Gymslips as the missing link between Gert & Daisy and The Ramones. While the group's irreverent approach may have been misinterpreted, they were at times very much in the music hall tradition with their send-ups and character play, and as a consequence in the archly aspirational '80s ridiculously undervalued. "We're the renees and we don't care," they effectively said to the world in their monkey boots and red tab Levis. Now renee is a piece of east London slang you don't really hear anymore. I have to confess I didn't know until recently that Paula and Karen were later in another group called The Renees, with Jacqui Callis from the later incarnation of the Delta 5 ...

Monday 8 March 2010

Jellied Eels

"Now ever since I was a mite I've 'ad a whackin' appetite. My 'ollerin' for dinner would raise the rafters. I'd swallow me befores as well as me afters. Till one sunny afternoon they bunged something in me spoon. And I'm sure it must 'ave been ever since then that I've 'ad an irresistible yen ... For jellied eels, jellied eels. Wogg-a-ling about like wonky wheels. Why d'ya frown and look so sickly. Slide 'em down your throat and quickly. Don't bring up any empty cup. Though I knows just how ya feels. When you gets the taste, you won't wanna waste them lovely jellied eels ..." sings Joe Brown in his tribute to one of the Cockneys' favourite dishes, Jellied Eels, a bit of fun written by the great Lionel Bart when he was penning a series of hits for the UK pop brigade, like Do You Mind for Anthony Newley. Ah good old jellied eels. An acquired taste perhaps, but an essential part of east end folklore, with Tubby Isaacs' stall and all that. Joe himself may not have been an authentic Cockney but he was evacuated TO the east end during the Blitz. And he was one of the first to 'ave a go at mixing music hall traditions with rock 'n' roll trappings, covering Harry Champion very early in the '60s. This particular performance is followed by a classical interlude, then Alan Klein's What A Crazy World We're Living In, which fans of the Style Council's Life At A Top People's Health Farm might smile at ...

Sunday 7 March 2010

Cockney Bill of London Town

"At Shoreditch was a little school at which for a penny a week it was knocked into me head that to be Cockney bred was a glorious thing to say ..." sings Harry Champion in his number Cockney Bill of London Town. Harry Champion was one of the great (genuine) Cockney comedians/singers of the music hall era. He is best known for numbers such as Any Old Iron, Boiled Beef & Carrots (Harry had a thing about food-related songs)and I'm Henery The Eighth. If you read up on him you're likely to see mention of his rapid-fire delivery, which Colin MacInnes refers to in his book Sweet Saturday Night: "He shot on from the wings as if projected by a missile and, with an enormous grin on his broad rubicund face, battered out his numbers like an amiable machine gun." More recently Harry has been championed by Chas 'n' Dave who cite him as one of their chief influences ...

Saturday 6 March 2010

East End

"Tell you about the place I've lived all my life. I'll tell you all the truth about the struggle and strife. All the toffs say it's a bit of a dive. It's the only place left where anyone is alive ... Take a walk around Bethnal Green. Or meet the Mile End mob. Well they're mean. Get a 69 bus to Canning Town. It's never ever gonna get us down ... We can't help it if we're working class yobs. We can't help it if we hate the snobs. So you can stick to your seaside, your beaches and sand. 'Cos we've got the best home in the land ..." The inimitable Stinky Turner sticks up for his manor on the Cockney Rejects' East End. Say what you will about the group and its music, the Rejects were nevertheless a blast of fresh air when they burst upon the music scene in '79 with what seemed like an authentic howl of working class rage against anything and everything. My abiding memory is of the Flares & Slippers EP on Small Wonder, Stinky in his pyjamas, and John Peel introducing Police Car in those expletive-free days with the words: "Freedom? There ain't no Nottingham Forest freedom". Funny what sticks in your mind. As if there wasn't enough trouble with tribalism back in those dangerous days, the Rejects added a bit of spice with their very public support for West Ham, which resulted in a rumpus whenever they went on tour. As for West Ham, at least in 1980 when the Rejects got to sing Bubbles on Top of the Pops the club won a major trophy as unfancied underdogs ... Adrian Sherwood made reference to the same momentous event on Billy Bonds MBE which was one of a few fantastic West Ham related tracks on the Barmy Army's The English Disease. The English Disease was a name applied to football hooligans during the Thatcher years, and they were one of her enemies within. It's odd then in recent years to see her heir's favourite Morrissey dressed up in his West Ham Boys amateur boxing club shirt enthusing about the Cockney Rejects. "The sound of the Rejects is the ringing hum of human energy," says Morrissey ...

Friday 5 March 2010

Bow Bells

"Bow bells are London bells. And no bells ring like Bow bells ring. A ding-dong, the sing song Bow bells ring. Bow bells are happy bells. And when they ring to me they bring a spring song, a ding-dong kinda thing ..." sings Donald Peers (I think) with Robert Farnon's Orchestra in Bow Bells, a number from the 1947 film Dancing With Crime which starred Richard Attenborough, Sheila Sim and a young Bill Owen. Robert Farnon was a Canadian who settled in London after WW2 and became the king of light orchestral sounds. His name has cropped up on countless credits, from TV themes like The Prisoner to collaborations with George Shearing. He also did the arrangements for Frank Sinatra Sings Great Songs From Great Britain, Sarah Vaughan's magnificent Vaughan With Voices, and worked extensively with Tony Bennett. Bow Bells of course are central to the whole Cockney thing. If you're born within the sound of the Bow Bells then you're a proper Cockney. The bells themselves are more in the City than the East End of London, being part of St Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside rather than the district of Bow. The church was hit during the Blitz in 1941 and it would be another 20 years before the bells rang out again (so oddly they wouldn't have been ringing when Dancing With Crime was released). You can argue til the cows come home about the true meaning of Cockney, and the attendant cliches and characterisations. One of the enduring Cockney teams is Gert and Daisy - the Cockney characters of Elsie and Doris Waters (their brother was one Jack Warner) who were particularly popular during WW2. One of their numbers was Cockneys At Heart - And Proud Of It Too. While the sisters were from the east end the song takes the term Cockney in the broadest sense. But then London's always been a broad church ... and its congegration likes a good old knees-up!

Thursday 4 March 2010

Old Smokey

"I was born east of Old Smokey by that same old river that brought my Granddaddy's smile ..." I love that line in Linda Lewis' Old Smokey. Linda was an east end girl herself and this song partly tells her grandparents' story and partly is a plea for some space and trees and breeze in the city. The track first appeared on Linda's 1974 LP Lark, but it's had a new lease of life having been used by Kanye West on Common's Go. Now I'm rubbish at spotting samples, but I do recognise this one and hope it's made Linda some money. It's what I call the Oranges and Lemons motif ... you know the old nursery rhyme: "Oranges and lemons say the bells of St Clements. You owe me five farthings say the bells of St Martins. When will you pay me? say the bells of Old Bailey. When I grow rich say the bells of Shoreditch. When will that be? say the bells of Stepney. I'm sure I don't know says the great bell at Bow." A few years earlier Common was citing Stereolab as kindred spirits, and recording with Laetitia Sadier on the track New Wave. Stereolab's roots via Tim Gane are east of Old Smokey too, when he was in Barking's McCarthy. Those seeking sightings of another east London legend Callahan (Wolfhounds/Moonshake) might have to make do with this TV appearance by Stereolab, which has a poignancy of its own as Mary Hansen was killed in a cycling accident in London back in 2002. For those that love to trace connections, Mary sang with The Wolfhounds and Moonshake ...

Wednesday 3 March 2010

Up in Heaven (Not Only Here)

"The towers of London, these crumbling blocks, reality estates that the heroes got. And every hour's marked by the chime of a clock and whatcha gonna do when the darkness surrounds?" sings our patron saint at the start of Up In Heaven (Not Only Here) - a song so cool it quoted Phil Ochs' United Fruit when no-one much seemed to care. It is one of the enduring media myths about the punk years that all the groups were singing about tower blocks and being on the dole. But was that really the case? Some songs do spring to mind, such as Chelsea's High Rise Living and the TVPs' 14th Floor. The list is not a long one though. One slightly more oblique entry in the high rise living chapter of the London songboook would be Rubella Ballet's fantastic Arctic Flowers. Rubella Ballet were (are!) a day-glo punk outfit, often associated with the Crass anarcho scene, sometimes with the goth or positive punk ones, but they're just unique. The music was often melodic and hypnotic, comparable to the Banshees at their best. Core of the group are punk evangelists Zillah Minx and Sid Truelove, and they're still spreading the word. Among the striking videos they have posted on YouTube is this promo filmed in 1981 on the roof of Balfron Tower, a council block in Poplar, east London, where they lived in a flat for 11 years on the 24th floor. And this fades in slowly ...

Tuesday 2 March 2010


"The cranes, they built this town, girder by girder, so high off the ground. The temps' off-the-phone voices gossip as they type. And they file to the tube every night at five o'clock. And the clerks knock back their halves and pints, look at the crosswords and girls' legs 'til the train's next stop. And the cranes, they built this town and not even a war could bring it down ..." croons Callahan on Moonshake's Cranes from 1996's Dirty & Divine set. A swift look at the credits on that record reveals the way lines were becoming nicely blurred at the time, where post-rock mingled with trip hop and Krautrock legend Michael Rother sat in on drums. Callahan's previous outfit had been underground pop legends The Wolfhounds, and their fiery works include the song Skyscrapers which features some very pointed aphorisms such as "just because the world is dying doesn't mean we should give up fighting" and "just because it's a monument doesn't mean that you remember. marble smashed into pieces. Hardcore for new motorways ...". And this was the future people were supposed to be fighting for ...

Monday 1 March 2010

Towers of London

"Towers of London when they had built you. Did you watch over the men who fell? Towers of London when they had built you. Victoria's gem found in somebody's hell ..." sings my childhood idol Andy Partridge on XTC's unusually forthright Towers of London. For no matter how impressive the Victorian architectural achievements were, there was a huge price to pay in terms of human life. The architects may have monuments built so we remember their names, but who remembers the families of those who fell by the wayside? Andy explained the thinking behind the song to an XTC fansite thus: "I saw an engraving of workmen building something under London - I'm not sure what - but they were in this huge underground corridor, with a hole in the top where the sunlight was coming in, and there was a pit pony down there, with a half-dozen navvies. And I thought, I'm going to write a song about London, but I'm going to write it from the point of view of the people who actually built it - the 'navigators' or canal builders. They were people who dug the canals, people who dug the Undergrounds - basically the labourers of the Victorian era, who were known as navvies. A lot of them were Irish, or people from the West Country, or from up north in England, so they were considered to be stupid yokels, generally, and they were looked down on, largely, by the population. You know, 'expendable' types."