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Streets Of London – Ralph McTell

Inspired by the poverty and homelessness he had witnessed in Paris…

Streets Of LondonRalph McTell

skjermbilde

Reprise K 14380 (UK)

Recorded at Air Studios, London

Released November 1974

Writer Ralph McTell

Producer Ralph McTell

UK #2   1/75

One of the most well known and performed folk-songs of the last 40 years, this must be a nice little earner for composer Ralph McTell, and though it was his only major hit, Mr McTell can still command a full house at large concert halls. Born Ralph May in Farnborough, Kent in 1944, his first instrument was a ukulele and like many other British youngsters of the period he was influenced by the skiffle music of Lonnie Donegan as well as discovering the blues of Lead Belly, Robert Johnson & Blind Willie McTell, whose surname he adopted. After a stint of national service he began busking around Europe in the early 1960s, gravitating to Paris where he entertained cinema queues and met a Norwegian girl by the name of Nana Stein who he married in November 1966. A short period as a schoolteacher was soon replaced in favour of a fulltime musical career.

While mostly performing cover material, Ralph had by now also begun composing his own songs, among them, ‘Streets Of London’, apparently the third song he’d written. In fact, the song nearly became known as ‘Streets Of Paris’. It had been inspired by the poverty and homelessness he had witnessed in the French capital, but not wishing to upset Parisians, the setting was changed to London. In 1967 he signed to Britain’s top folk label, Transatlantic, and recorded his first album, Eight Frames A Second, with arrangements by Tony Visconti and production by Gus Dudgeon. Surprisingly, though the song was already complete, it didn’t appear on this album because McTell thought it “too depressing.” He was however persuaded to record it for his next album, Spiral Staircase in 1969 and recently recalled that he was ‘stunned’ when the audience at that years Cambridge Folk Festival began singing along to ‘Streets’. McTell was by now becoming a big name on the folk-circuit, and although ‘Streets’ was not released as a single, it was becoming a very popular song, and by 1970 he was able to fill the Royal Festival Hall and also played that summers’ Isle Of Wight Festival in the company of Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell. (As a matter of interest, the now semi-legendary Nick Drake’s last public performance was as support act to Mr McTell at Epsom College)

Signing to Warner Brothers’ Reprise label in 1972, the hit recording of ‘Streets’ came about quite by chance in late 1974. McTell was working in London’s Air Studios with his pal and fellow-folkie Bert Jansch. It was Jansch’s session and the object of the exercise was to record some hit material for Bert. At the end of the session there was some spare studio time left over and McTell decided to knock off a quick new version of ‘Streets Of London’. The previous unavailability of the song as a single, its existing popularity, the fact that it was released in the lead-up to Christmas, and a certain “good will to all men” seasonal appeal, resulted in a #2 position on the UK charts. It must have been somewhat embarrassing for Mr McTell, since the object of the recording session, a Christmas song by Bert called, ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’, went nowhere, while his own ‘Streets Of London’ sold several hundred-thousand, was a worldwide hit and won him a prestigious Ivor Novello songwriting award.

The follow-up Warner Brothers album, Streets, made the UK album charts and was released in America by 20th Century, although it appears that ‘Streets Of London’ was not released as a single in the US market. Ralph, who has been married since 1967 and has 4 children and 10 grandchildren, continues to pack concert houses around the world some 41 years after his chart success, and his 2004 tour culminated in another sold out appearance at the Royal Festival Hall to celebrate his 60th birthday – he was still touring in 2012 (Australia as well as the UK) and towards the end of the year released a CD of guitar instrumentals under the title Sofa Noodling – Ralph celebrated his 70th birthday with a concert at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, on 7 December 2014.

 

Copyright © 2016 SongStories/Tony Burton                 

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