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  • Writer's pictureDan Synge

Strange Town

Updated: Aug 8, 2022

With live music back on the cultural agenda, we look at the people and places that rocked the capital. Part two: The Outsiders

Poet and activist Linton Kwesi Johnson

To the social historian, part of London's appeal is that it has always attracted outsiders who invariably help to push the cultural boundaries further. Exiled 17th century Huguenot weavers, 19th century Jewish refugees as well as Afro-Caribbeans, Asians and Africans arriving largely post-1945 , have all had their unique slant on the city. A remarkable amount of it exists in popular song.

Take for instance, the Trinidadian calypsos of Aldwyn Roberts aka Lord Kitchener. He is known for Cricket Lovely Cricket, the tune composed after his team the West Indies beat England at Lord's in 1950, but he also sang about the challenges facing his countrymen in the motherland. ‘Never me again will go by London Underground train’ he crooned in The Underground Train or ‘My landlady is too rude, in my affairs she likes to intrude’ from My Landlady, a comment on the difficulties faced by new arrivals via Empire Windrush.

Similar sentiments were echoed 30 years later by the late Smiley Culture, whose Cockney Translation and Police Officer chimed with the polarisation and racism directed, during the 1980’s, at the black community.

'Cockneys have names like Terry, Arfur and Del Boy...'

A south Londoner himself, Smiley Culture was something of an outlier within the reggae hierarchy, but his vocal style predated the now generic London accent heard today – a stew of Jamaican patois with the original local vernacular.

Although neither artist incorporated a full blown Cockney knees-up into their repertoire, both Brazilian political exile Caetano Veloso and future global reggae superstar Bob Marley spent formative years here in the downtrodden 1970’s.

For the troubadour of Tropicalia, London proved to be a predictably lonely experience and both culturally and geographically a long, long way from his native Bahia. Here's an extract from London, taken from the 1971 LP Caetano Veloso.

I'm wandering round and round nowhere to go

I'm lonely in London, London is lovely so

I cross the streets without fear

Everybody keeps the way clear

Meanwhile, for Marley the pain wasn’t all in vain as it eventually led to a record deal with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, who at the time owned recording studios in Chiswick by the river Thames. His breakthrough hit LP Exodus (1977) was recorded in W4 and it is said that Marley’s favourite London pastime was playing football with his bandmates in Battersea Park.

Tottenham fan Marley enjoys a park kickabout

Of course, a quintessentially foggy London town famously had Ella Fitzgerald ‘low’ and ‘down’. The capital, with its sprawling landscape of terraced housing, arterial roads, underground networks, mile high offices and somewhat limited opportunities for spontaneous social intercourse, is frequently depicted as a tough, over-expensive and often unforgiving place to put down roots. This applies whether you’re a wet-behind-the-ears Paul Weller from Woking's The Jam:

They smelt of pubs, and Wormwood Scrubs

And too many right wing meetings

(Down In The Tube Station At Midnight)

or Linton Kwesi Johnson, a school boy from Chapelton, Jamaica:

w'en em gi'you di lickle wage packit

fus dem rab it wid dem big tax rackit

y'u haffi struggle fi meek en's meet

an' w'en y'u goh a y'u bed y'u jus' can’t sleep

(Inglan Is A Bitch)

Even Sheffield-raised art student Jarvis Cocker railed against the social injustices on offer to outsiders such as himself. The Pulp song Mile End from the 1996 Trainspotting soundtrack, was inspired by Cocker’s experience of moving to a high rise in the then ungentrified East End:

The pearly king of the Isle of Dogs

Feels up children in the bogs

And down by the playing fields

Someone sets a car on fire

I guess you have to go right down

Before you understand just how

How low, how low a human being can go

(Mile End)

Well, it’s all a far cry from Terry meets Julie down at Waterloo Bridge!

Even the real Londoners, such as Brixton boy David Bowie, can testify to its darker side. One of his earliest and most underrated recordings, The London Boys (1966), tells the sobering story of a suburban teenager who, in his attempt to impress the fickle West End mod cognoscenti, falls victim to too many pills and too little sleep.

You're gonna be sick, but you mustn't lose faith

To let yourself down would be a big disgrace

(The London Boys)

Perhaps this sorry character would have been better adopting Lily Allen's more free-wheeling faux-Cockney approach to the city, choosing instead to explore Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove on her bicycle in the heat of summer because ‘the sights that I'm seeing are priceless’ – among them, incidentally, an old lady being mugged in a park and ‘a fella looking dapper…sittin' with a slapper’. How London is that?

Extract from Music Legends of London, copyright Dan Synge, 2020

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