Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Remembering the Forgotten: Ralph McTell: "Streets of London"

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!

Monday, August 5, 2019

You've Come A Long Way: "Rock Me Gently" and "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet"

Now then, where was I?....

You may or indeed may not know that I have had a long break from this blog as my husband was diagnosed and tested and then finally operated on last year.  It was a big and rarely-done operation and was, thank goodness, a success.  I spent a lot of last year either at work, shopping or in the process of visiting him in hospital, which I did nearly daily until I knew he was okay physically and mentally.  2018 was a hot summer; a summer of record; but I was blanked out by the end of the day, able eventually to listen to music (impossible at first), eat dinner, rest.  And then phone early the next morning to see how he was overnight, and it would then all start over again.

Now however, he is back at work, and my brave (possibly), unheralded and amazingly unrivalled blog can continue.  If you are new here – hello!  I hope you like it and have time to catch up with what I have written already.  And if you have read it before, you know how it goes...

It just so happens that I left off at a place very few people want to be stranded in – The Fog.  Or, if you are a psychogeographer, the liminal period.  Late 1974 was confusing and contentious - the Glam Slam era was virtually over, and disco had yet to really catch on.  Naturally it was a time (as ever) when record companies wanted hits, they wanted something catchy and oh well who cared what the lyrics were about as long it had a decent chorus and some good hooks.  The sexual revolution?  Who upstairs approved of that though?

Leave it to the Canadians, as always, to inadvertently push things forward.  Bachman-Turner Overdrive, the prairie kings of HRS, were working on Not Fragile and someone from the company came along to see if there were any obvious singles from the album.  Nope.  Well what else do you have, guys?  They had a song they only used to play to warm up which no one saw as being anything great or even okay – it was just a crappy song to them.  The company man knew it would be a hit though, so “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” was duly recorded, deliberate stuttering put in by Randy as a tribute to his brother.  And so it was a hit, this song about a naive young man who has fallen in love with a more experienced woman, and hooee is he having fun.  The stuttering works as a way of showing his shock, his pleasure – and the simplicity of the cowbell-rockin’ song does too.  That it’s a song about a sexually assertive woman and a man most happy and even greedy (“I took what I could get” he says, after “any love is good love” which actually gives the song a risqué element beyond mere greed) is very quietly revolutionary.   He is not resentful or bitter or neurotic about being the one who has things to learn – quite the opposite.  This isn’t “Summer The First Time” – the implication, as much as BTO can be bothered, is that they are equals, save for this one thing. Listen to the bass and you will see how sexy and knowing the song is, without being tiresome.
Andy Kim’s “Rock Me Gently” is a similar song, though it was very much intended to be a single, one that Kim had to finance and release on his own label as no one else was interested in it.  It was a gamble so desperate that on the b-side there was no time for another song, just the instrumental part of the a-side.  That both were hits (the b-side got airplay on US R&B stations) shows how gambles can indeed pay off sometimes.

Kim – and I’ve had a lot of time to consider this – sounds a lot more experienced than the prairie-boy narrator from BTO.  He wears linen and good cologne; he knows about art and music and yet is not a boring hipster.  He is a together dude and thus when he comes across a woman he loves and she wants...something he’s a bit unfamiliar with, he can be generous and gracious.  He knows about liberated women, the sexual revolution, and he’s perfectly fine with it, as long as it’s a gentle one.  Polite.  Thoughtful.  Sends flowers.  That kind of revolution!  Which was happening now that the 70s was busy putting the 60s ideology into actual practice. The lyric “Don’t you know that I have never been loved like this before” is sung in a way that it could be just that, or you could hear a little smile in it, implying....whatever you think it means. 
Both of these songs went to #2 here in the UK, and #1 in the US; there is a sweetness and humility and generosity in these songs that are sexy, a counterpoint in the UK at least to the usual idea of this era being something scary and most certainly macho.  
Now then, I should note that I have skipped some songs as I didn't really *feel* the need to write about them - "Wombling Merry Christmas" being one, "Far Far Away" by Slade being another and there's a Rollers song in there too - and of course "Killer Queen" by Queen I wrote about over at Then Play Long.  This is so I can better focus on the wonders of 1975, which I will be doing as usual but with the addition of the odd album or two* when needed to give a greater context to what was an exciting time musically (unlike some people who were just bored by music at the time).  Those of you who know what 1975 meant in UK terms will be waiting for June; in some ways we are living in the opposite of that time, when the UK said yes.
Up next:  a hunky folksinger takes you on a tour.
*Not in a TPL sort of way, but more as a sidebar, as such.