29. Ralph McTell – Streets of London (1969)

When I was eight years old, my two favorite songs in the universe were Gordon Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” and Ralph McTell’s “Streets of London.” I learned them both from my fourth grade teacher, Miss Clermont, and I sang them both proudly and passionately with my classmates. I remember singing “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” with a patriotic fervor that seemed appropriate (even though I didn’t quite understand what all the lyrics meant) and singing “Streets of London” with a maudlin sort of melodrama that you’ll sometimes find in eight year olds, and not many places else.

In any case, part of me — the sensible part of me — says that this is a TERRIBLE song; but another — embarrassing — part of me still has a soft spot for it. It needs to be on the list, I think, since it turns up on every other list of “Songs about London” you can find (sometimes even getting the Number One spot). But I should probably also acknowledge that Ralph McTell wrote it while backpacking through Europe, and it was originally called “Streets of Paris.” He only changed it to “London” because he thought it sounded better (or would sell more records in England?)

By the way, if this track doesn’t fully appeal to your inner eight-your-old, you can check out this cover version by the Anti-Nowhere League instead. (It’s 1981; the lead singer is named “Animal”; and the guitarist is named “Magoo” — that’s probably all you need to know.) I’ll leave it to Kevin Dunn to weigh in on whether this band is awesome or terrible or both.

Ralph McTell

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4 thoughts on “29. Ralph McTell – Streets of London (1969)

  1. Allison Outhit says:

    Oh, this song is an old, dear friend. In fact, it’s a friend from summer camp.

    As a kid, I was sent every July for a month-long stay at a company-owned camp near Biarritz (a “colonie de vacances”, as it were). When I was 13, I moved up to the “ados” (“teens”) camp down the road. That year, I brought along my nylon-stringed classical guitar, which I had recently bought out of many months’ saved allowance. (I started playing guitar at 10 on my Dad’s 12-string.)

    In those days I lived in Norway, went to a private American school there, and only spoke French at camp in summertime. (Try to keep up, would you?) I wasn’t at all “up” on French pop culture and didn’t know very many songs that my camp-mates would have known. That said, anything Beatles worked, as did CSN, with or without Y. There were a couple of songs that I learned from a camp counselor who also played. One of them was Streets of London, which, somehow, all the French kids knew – including all the lyrics, which they would sing phonetically. An impressive feat considering how many verses the song has.

    Anyway, I took that one home and eventually relearned it on the 12-string. Later, when I moved to France and took up being a “baba” (hippie) who smoked Drum rollies and played guitar on the school steps all through lunch hour, this was one of the great classics in my repertoire. I even at some point attempted a French translation:

    “Laisse-moi prendre ta main, te mener dans les rues de Londres…”

  2. k- says:

    Great song. But as for Anti-Nowhere League, I was never much of a fan.

  3. k- says:

    I am OK with silly or dumb, but not both. The Damned were silly, but they were at least smart about it. No one could ever claim the Anti-Nowhere League were smart about their silly.

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