We have now arrived at the end of 1974; we are about to enter the then to-some scary area known as 1975. A time of big decisions and already there's a sense that whatever will become of this decade will be worked out now. The Nixon era has already ended and the Vietnam War is drawing to a close. In the UK there’s the growing sense of unease coupled with two events that are responses to that unease. This unease continues to this day and in fact its crushing and terrible logic is attempting to be worked out even as I write this. There is hope however; there is always hope....
"Streets of London" is the sort of song that sticks; McTell is not singing of any general sense of loneliness but about specific people and to a specific person - a friend of his who was a heroin addict. It is the realistic loneliness that stands quite opposite to the song which kept it at #2, Mud's "Lonely This Christmas." It is a gentle, near classical song with a touch of folk; country blues, even. The power of it is the musical simplicity which acts as a welcoming warm hug of a frame around the four people depicted, all of them alone, all desolate.
McTell's voice is warm too, familiar, as opposed to the (at this point) recently departed Nick Drake, who was more unworldly and yes, seductive. McTell is taking the listener by the hand into the streets of London, starting at the Surrey Street Market in Croydon (where he was raised), ending on the Thames by the Seaman's Mission with a veteran (WWI? WWII?) who has been cast aside, just as the bag lady and the T.S. Eliot/Beckettian figure who does nothing but drink tea all night to pass the time. These are all people who are alive but whom society does not want to recognize, who are yesterday's news. The addict is gently shown those who are lost, in darkness, wandering and sadly friendless. I would like to think that some heard this song and it opened their hearts, or as McTell wanted to do, changed their minds. Not through preaching but through the powerful examples that especially at Christmastime are a reminder to look out for others and to be more considerate. That is the real meaning of the season as it happens.
That it took three times, three different recordings, to make this song a hit shows how sometimes a song just has to appear at the right time (and in the right way) to make its impact. It has become a standard folk song (recorded first in '69, produced by Gus Dudgeon) so much so that punk (ah yes punk - we'll get to that in enough time) band the Anti-Nowhere League did their own cover, with altered lyrics (mais oui) "Let me grab you by the hair and drag you through the streets of London, I'll show you something that'll really make you sick" was heartily approved of by McTell himself. The song is McTell's main legacy, one he has accepted as his gift to the world, even as he continues to write and record albums to this day. Can the world change because of a song? Can it have an impact beyond itself? The answer is, as always, with the listener.
Next up: Lord have mercy!