Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

Streets Of London

with 3 comments

If London had the grid system of Manhattan, or had been rebuilt entirely like the Paris of Haussmann, then maybe it would have a readily identifiable sound. After all, you can spot the sound of Manchester – whether it’s the Hollies, Joy Division, the Stone Roses or MC Tunes – at 20 paces. London has always been more fluid, in its architecture and its population. Different eras, and different postcodes, define the sound of the city at any given time… Some districts have a sound that seems to seep, unalterable, from the pavements. A few miles north west of Mile End is a leafy corner of London which drew in pastoral folkies from St Albans, Kingston, Tanworth-in-Arden and Glasgow – Muswell Hill is where you’ll find a gorgeous arts and crafts pile called Fairport, and this is where a budding psychedelic band called Fairport Convention shacked up in 1967. Having settled in the Edwardian suburb, surrounded by woods and parks with jaw-dropping views over the city, their sound quickly mutated into folk rock. Living within cycling distance were the similarly wistful Sandy Denny (soon to become their singer), Nick Drake, and John and Beverly Martyn. Clearly the vistas of Highgate Wood and Alexandra Park affected the music of the locale as deeply as Ridley Road market and the semi-dereliction of Clapton and Dalston have dictated jungle/UK garage/grime narrative of the last 20 years.

This article by St Etienne’s Bob Stanley in last week’s Guardian reminds me that I meant to post something about Bryter Layter by Nick Drake. Having assured me that “London is a miserable shit hole”, Mark Newton promised me I should check out the album “for an accurate, Songs-of-Experience-esque view of the city.”

To be honest, it is not much of a London album. Only one song, At The Chime Of A City Clock, references the city and even that is less about the specific experience of living here than the specific experience of being monumentally depressed. As you might expect, this is a recurring theme. What you probably wouldn’t expect is the deeply incongruous music that accompanies these plaintive lyrics, I have a lot of sympathy for the original Melody Maker assessment that it is “an awkward mix of folk and cocktail jazz”. It is only on the John Cale arrangements – Fly and Northern Sky – that Bryter Layter rises above this.

In the end, I’d rather be listening to Richard Thompson (who plays guitar on Hazy Jane II). A founding member of Fairport, he one of the musicians who always reminds me of London – despite living in LA. He has also recently been announced as the director of this year’s Meltdown Festival. Excellent.

Written by Martin

18 March 2010 at 09:40

3 Responses

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  1. Pink Moon‘s the one; plus ‘Black Eyed Dog’ from the ‘Time of No Reply’ posthumous collection. ‘Cocktail Jazz’ is too grievously correct as a description of a lot of early Drake; but that album is pure, and pretty much perfect.

    Wouldn’s see him as a ‘London’ artist, though. Misery in the affluent countryside, rather.

    Adam Roberts

    18 March 2010 at 13:04

  2. Urbanwise, at the time, I found Nick Drake as feeble as Ralph McTell or Al Stewart. But then I spent many an all-nighter at Les Cousins drooling over Roy Harper, only to discover 40 years later that he was as whiney & self-victimised as the rest of them. Was there ever a genuinely hard urban singer-songwriter in the UK ? Or were they, in themselves, a sort of urban myth ?


    18 March 2010 at 14:42

  3. Yes, Pink Moon and the collection – that’s pretty much all the Nick Drake you need in my life.

    Mike: I don’t know – Gerry Rafferty maybe? Was he hard?

    Al R

    18 March 2010 at 15:41

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