Ralph McTell – “Streets Of London”

Cover of 1974 Ralph McTell single "Streets Of London"

Although initially written and released on his second album in 1969, “Streets Of London” by Ralph McTell came out as a single in the UK in 1974, having earlier been successfully launched as a single in the Netherlands.

I remember when I flew into Britain for the first time a week before Christmas in 1977, when I was not quite 20, this song was in my head as we circled over London before landing – and as I descended the steps from the plane onto the tarmac (maybe it was concrete, who cares…).

And again the next morning as I leaned out the hotel window in the dark before the sun came up (behind clouds, I believe, but I didn’t care – I had returned to the land of my parents that I had dreamed of since childhood).

It came to mind tonight at dinner in a hotel in Bristol with my father, as he talked about having a cup of tea for a pound at London’s Victoria Station.

For that made me think of the old man in “Streets Of London”, and the woman with her carrier bags.

I had come across them at Victoria Station on a dreary Sunday in late 1980 as I waited in the station cafe for a train to the ferry that would take me back to the Continent.

His name was Mr Golden.

He had nowhere to go – he lived with his son, who had thrown him out, and had no money until his next pension payment.

I bought him a cup of tea – for a pound. And I kept him company as he passed away the time waiting for Monday.

It makes me quite teary eyed now just thinking about it.

As we sat there, the woman from the song with her carrier bags came by.

The whole situation was so surreal, and the irony is that I have just read that Ralph McTell actually based the stories in “Streets Of London” on characters in Paris, although he apparently drew on his hitchhiking and busking experiences in that city as well as London and elsewhere in Europe.

Which reminds me that I also used to see them in Frankfurt when I lived and worked there, the “old girl” in particular, with her carrier bags.

“Streets Of London” went to Number 2 on the UK singles chart over Christmas in 1974, at one point selling 90,000 copies a day.

Later I learned to play it on the guitar.

Although meanwhile covered over 200 times, the song became so closely identified with Ralph McTell that there was a sketch on British comedy show Big Train in which he plays “Streets Of London” and then attempts to perform “a new song”.

After expressions of shock and disbelief in the audience, who cannot conceive that Ralph McTell could play any other song, they force him (or rather the actor playing him) to segue into “Streets Of London” yet again.

So here it is, Ralph McTell with “Streets Of London”:

Does that take you in your mind to the streets of London?


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