"London Song" / Ray Davies
I'm leaving tomorrow evening for a week in London, so I may not be posting for a while. Oh, my hotel over there purportedly has Wi-Fi and all, but I doubt I'm going to want to waste my time in the Big Black Smoke blogging. I may even miss my usual Nick Lowe Birthday post -- and on his 60th birthday, yet! -- but rest assured I'll be celebrating in my own way.
So before I go, I wanted to share this with you. It's definitely one of my favorite odes to London, written by that quintessential Londoner Ray Davies. Part travelogue, part potted history, it's little more than a stream of London placenames, from Chiswick Bridge to East Ham (mostly outlying places that only resident Londoners know), as well as names of famous Londoners, both real (William Blake, Charles Dickens) and fictional (Dick Whittington, Sherlock Holmes). But don't expect some perky tourism promotion -- done as a sort of spoken word set to a jazzy staggered syncopation, it's in a brooding minor key, totally befitting a city Ray describes as "a dark place, a mysterious place" (back-up singers add "it's a cruel place, it's a hard place").
Ray begins with an almost cinematic panning shot: "There's a room in a house in a street in a manor in a borough / That's part of a city that is generally referred to as London." He employs the same device twice more, tracing the course of the river ("there's a tap by a reservoir, leading to a stream, that turns into a river estuary that eventually opens to the sea") and again celebrating its mercantile power ("there's a docker by a wharf, sending cargo overseas,
unloading foreign trade from a large ocean vessel /In the mighty metropolitan port of London"). But this is no Brittania Rules the Waves vision -- the spooky way he enunciates "London" loads the city up with typical Daviesian ambivalence. Or, as he says towards the end of the song, "There's a part of me that says 'Get out' / Then one day I'll hear somebody shout / 'Sounds to me like you come from London Town'."
My favorite parts of this song happen to be the two details that Ray repeats. I love how he winds up his roll call of celebrated Londoners by adding, with an ominous echo effect, "And don't forget the Kray twins," referring to a pair of 1950s-era gangster siblings who terrorized the city in their day. I've been creeped out by these guys ever I saw the 1989 film The Krays starring the Kemp brothers of Spandau Ballet. (You may know the Krays better as the inspiration for Monty Python's Doug and Dinsdale, the Piranha Brothers.) The British Tourist Authority does not push the Kray Twins in their brochures, needless to say -- but to me, the Kray Twins are an essential part of why I'm drawn to this teeming metropolis.
And then Ray elevates the whole song with this sweeping panorama, pushing to his highest range, singing an unsettling series of jumpy intervals: "But if you're ever up on Highgate Hill on a clear day / You can see right down to Leicester Square." The second time he sings it, he adds, with a mysterious little trill, "I'll be there." Love it or hate it, he can't leave the place; it exerts its restless fascination upon him still, and always will. Well, me too, and you can bet I'll be up on Highgate Hill to get that same view sometime in the next week.
I love this London Song video, because whoever made it went to all the places Ray mentions, dredged up images of all his famous Londoners, and put it all together on screen. The version behind the video is a live acoustic version from Ray's Storyteller show; the Storyteller album is where you can pick up this London Song sample. If you want a more rocking version, of course, here's a clip of Ray performing the song on Conan O'Brien's show.
As one of my favorite Londoners would say, "It's all good."