There are some interesting versions of Streets of London out there says Ipswich-bound Ralph McTell
Wooing women with Bob Dylan’s help, children’s TV and a Himalayan version of Streets of London; entertainments writer WAYNE SAVAGE talks to Ralph McTell.
“OH well, that’s made me feel really old now,” laughs McTell as I recount rushing home from primary school to watch the children’s TV show Tickle on the Tum.
I’m not the only one; audiences still ask him to play songs from it. He may not remember them all these days, but the good news is the series lives on via DVD if you want to relive your childhood.
The singer-songwriter-guitarist is more famously known for his Ivor Novello award-winning song Streets of London; born out of watching the homeless while he played on the streets of Paris and his efforts to reach a close friend losing himself to heroin.
Covered by more than 250 artists since its release in 1974, there must have been some interesting versions.
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“That’s a polite way of putting it,” he says. “There’s some utterly appalling ones out there, I’m not going to name them and there’s been some remarkable ones.”
As for the strangest? That honour goes to punk outfit the Anti-Nowhere League [see the included video].
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“Apparently it was one of the biggest numbers in their set; everybody used to join in, all jumping up and down, throwing beer all over each other or whatever it was they did in those far off punk days.
“One day it might even be a hit for somebody and I’ll get some royalties,” he laughs.
The point, McTell says, is the song still resonates with people today.
He’s still amazed at how many guitarists tell him it was the first tune they ever learnt to play. It’s sung at school assemblies - I remember doing that - in churches and even the Himalayas.
“A friend of mine was [there] on a walking holiday and stopped at a village; they found he was English and asked him if they could sing him a song.
“He sent this postcard and said ‘they sang me bloody Streets of London up in the mountains I thought I could get away from it’,” he laughs.
For a long while the song was just three verses long. He gave it to a friend and fellow musician who found it went down great with audiences. Writing a final verse, McTell remembers the first time he played it in public.
“There was this deafening silence that went on for about five weeks in my mind and then a thunderous applause. It still seems to be doing it really. Something else happens in the room when I play that song.”
Fans coming to see him at Ipswich’s Corn Exchange this Sunday can expect to hear it, as well as songs spanning McTell’s 45 years in the business; from first release Eight Frames a Second to last year’s Somewhere Down The Road - his first studio album of original material in ten years.
“I’ve never been a speedy writer, but this may well be the longest I’ve ever taken to bring a collection of songs to the studio,” he laughs.
I’ve caught McTell during his so-called “holy week”; sat alone at his Cornwall home with just his guitar and piano for company.
“It’s become quite a refuge for me over the years, every now and then between cups of tea I go back and run through another song and rehearse; trying to clear my head and get match fit.”
Liking a structured rather than seat of his pants approach to performances - the subject of an article he recently wrote for the University of Columbia - he’s trying to relax more these days.
Set lists are shuffled, audience and fans’ requests included and nostalgia sometimes sees him change his song choices during a show.
“By about the 30th gig we might have some format but it’ll be over by then,” he laughs.
McTell is looking to take that sense of easiness into the studio. Despite having released 27 albums he admits he’s never found it a very comfortable place to work. New songs can get old real quick when you have to do things so many times.
“I’m getting better and beginning to see the potential of doing a bit more crafting of songs in the studio. Digital recordings enable you to have more than one stab at a song and join it up without anybody being able to detect where the join is,” he laughs.
“I’m very excited about writing still and composing; I don’t see that stopping in a hurry.”
As well as reminisces about how his songs came about, expect tracks from his Bob Dylan birthday tribute download Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright.
McTell’s been a fan since he was 17, describing him as the greatest artist of his generation and a massive influence.
“There’s no better, greater or more important artist to me; it’s the subject matter, it’s the song format he chose. He changed the way we listen to voices. He broke so many rules and established new benchmarks for writing. None of the contemporary songwriters would exist without Bob.”
He’s never met him, although Dylan now knows of him after a concert-goer shouted “have you ever heard of Ralph McTell” at him during a gig.
Dylan hadn’t, by the way. But he’d apparently heard of American pop singer Guy Mitchell.
Turns out the tribute download wasn’t the first time McTell had recorded a Dylan track.
“A few years back I did a more or less Dylan, Woody Guthrie blues tribute album called Gates of rden and I‘d drop one of two songs into my set over the years.
“[But] I first recorded one of Bob’s songs when I was 19 and sent it to my girlfriend in America who’d left me, but she came home when I sent the song.”
Ah, if music be the food of love…
“Unfortunately only for a little while because then we split up forever… but that’s another story,” he laughs.