RALPH, ALBERT & SYDNEY

TELLING TALES

Ralph McTell in conversation with John Beresford, January 2008.
Part 9: John had saved his question about That Song till last...

Street Cred

[John] I have one more question, if I might, please. It’s about ‘Streets of London’, if you don’t mind.

[Ralph] No.

OK. I’ve collected twenty-eight ‘Streets of London’ vinyl singles from around the world. They’re issued in twelve different countries. Between them they have four different recordings of the song. Not one of them is the first recording you made, from ‘Spiral Staircase’ - that’s never been released as a single anywhere.

So, the question I have for you is: do you know where and when ‘Streets’ was first released as a single, and where and when it was first regarded as a ‘hit’ single?

By me, or by somebody else?

Recorded by you.

Well, my first recording was the last song on ‘Spiral Staircase’… Gus pleaded with me to do ‘Streets’, because he knew I actually got it… Mickey Bennett, my old pal, who sings on a couple of records with me, remembers me playing him ‘Streets of London’ when we were living down in Mitchell, in Cornwall; so it was clearly written before my first album came out, or about that time. I didn’t think it was suitable for my first album, and it was Derek Brimstone... I’m sure you know all this, don’t you?

This is all recorded - the writing on a fag packet...

Or on the back a serviette, I think. Anyway, the first recording that I did was with Gus. We’d just recorded ‘Last Train and Ride’, and sent the lads out to the pub round the corner, or something.

So, that’s my first recording. I know that within three or four days of the album’s release, the first cover version that I am aware of was recorded by an Irish singer called Danny Doyle. That’s what I’m told. Also, within a week, someone had heard the song in Australia, and the song just went zipping round the world by word of mouth.

Nat was prevailed upon to release it as a single several times, and he declined, because, he said, “It’s too long at four-and-a-half minutes; it’s not commercial; and it’s sad”, and all the rest of it. And then, as far as I remember, in 1974, when my contract was well expired with Transatlantic, and they were free to do with the recordings what they wanted, we heard that they were going to put out that first version as a single. We heard.

So my brother said to me, “Ralph, you know they’re going to do it, so we might as well… why don’t we do it ourselves and give it to Warners? They have a better distribution.”

So I recorded Bert Jansch singing ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ in the morning, and then did ‘Streets of London’ in the afternoon - with Rod Clements on bass and Prelude doing the backing vocals. They did both tracks, and I just sang them the parts I wanted them to do. I did one take with Rod of my song.

And Bert said it’s the most valuable recording Bert’s ever done, because it’s on everybodies’ Christmas collection. I wish I’d done it, because it was my discovery, if you like, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’; and, coincidentally, it just came out of copyright two years ago - that’s why you’re hearing all these different versions now at Christmas time.

Well, Bert put that out as a double A-side - the same track on both sides.

Is that right?

Yes. And you’re cited as the producer.

 


In The Bleak Midwinter

“I recorded Bert Jansch singing ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ in the morning, and then did ‘Streets of London’ in the afternoon.”

Yes, that’s right. Yes, never had a penny for it! Well, there we are, that’s the spirit of Christmas! Same as COB and all that, those recordings I did then - still never got any money. So, I’m not really...

Well, let me tell you what I’ve found out, and see if it rings any bells.

Yeah, ok.

Was this the first single release of 'Streets of London'?

 

I have a single of ‘Streets of London’, from ‘Revisited’, produced by Gus, released in France by Transatlantic on the ‘Serie Gemini’ label. It is stamped ‘Sud Radio’, and is dated the 14th of April, 1971.

Right. Is it a live version, or something?

No, it’s from ‘Revisited’. It’s what I call ‘version two’. So, I know that in 1971 ‘version two’ was out in France. It may have been out in Germany at the same time. The same version was released in France and Germany in 1975, after the version you’ve just been talking about became a hit.

Also in 1971, you recorded ‘You Well Meaning’, and for the American release of that album you put another version...

It was on there.

...which I call ‘version three’ - which turns up on the box set, of course, for the first time in the UK, ‘officially’.

That’s right.

But, ‘unofficially’, that recording was out on vinyl in Germany in 1971 and Holland in 1972...

That’s right; and was a hit.

And was a hit, absolutely: in Holland it was number 9 in the 1972 charts...

 

This version of 'Streets of London' reached no. 9 in the Dutch charts in 1972.

Three different recordings of 'Streets of London' were released in Germany in 1975.

 


Well, you’re right on all of those points. I do believe that, as you said, in Germany in ’75, there were four versions in the charts of ‘Streets of London’, but you’d have to verify that. One of them was by a girl called Jasmine Bonnin, and three of them were mine.

I was under the impression (I can’t say for sure) that the Transatlantic version was out, the ‘hit’ version was out, and the version from ‘You Well Meaning’ was out.

Yes, the three of them were out in 1975. The 1975 reissue of the one first issued in 1971 on Famous, backed with ‘First And Last Man’ - that came out again in Germany in ’75.

The ‘hit’ version, of course, backed with ‘Summer Lightning’ - that version reached number 8 in the charts in Germany in ’75.

And, as you say, the Transatlantic one, which I think was first issued in ’71 or ’72 in Germany, but I can’t prove it.

Well, I can’t either. I have no idea.


A little word of warning for people buying these records from the internet, is that the dates that they cite are always the production dates.

Yes.

So, they’ll say it is a 1971 record, meaning it’s a 1971 recording, but what’s missing is the date of issue. The giveaway is when it says, on the front cover, ‘No 1 Hit in England’ - that’s when I know it’s a 1975 issue.

Exactly, yeah!

 

When it says ‘No 1 Hit in England'
I know it’s a 1975 issue.


Ralph on 21st Street

At the last count, there have been twenty-one different officially-released recordings of ‘Streets of London’ by Ralph McTell (released in the UK unless stated).

1. ‘Spiral Staircase’ LP, 1969

2. ‘Revisited’ LP, 1970

3. ‘You Well-Meaning Brought Me Here’ LP (USA), 1971

4. ‘Streets of London’ Single, 1974

5. ‘Top of the Pops - 533’ LP, BBC, 1975

6. ‘Ralph, Albert & Sydney’ LP, 1977

7. ‘Folkweave’ LP, BBC, 1978

8. ‘Christy Moore & Friends’ LP (Ireland), 1981

9. ‘Just Guitars’ LP, 1984
with John Williams

10. ‘At the End of a Perfect Day’ LP, 1985

11. ‘Live at the Town Hall’ VHS, 1998

12. ‘Travelling Man’ CD, 1999

13. ‘The Big Gig’ VHS, 2003
a cappella with Show of Hands

14. ‘Folk Festival’ CD, 2004
a cappella with Steve Knightley, Phil Beer, Chris While and Julie Matthews

15. ‘The London Show’ DVD, 2005
with The London Community Gospel Choir

16. ‘McTell on the Mall’ DVD, 2008

17. ‘Songs for Six Strings Vol 1 - Advanced Sampler' CD, 2011

18. ‘40 Jahre Disco Vol 7 - Disco Nights’ DVD (Germany), 2011

19. ‘70th Birthday Concert’ DVD, 2015
with John Williams

20. ‘Streets of London’ Charity Single, 2017
with The Crisis Choir and Annie Lennox

21. ‘Sunday for Sammy 2018’ DVD, 2018
with The Swing Bridge Singers

 




So there’s a little tale that I’m going to tell - the Tale of Streets: it’ll be called ‘Ralph on 13th Street’, because thirteen* different recordings of ‘Streets of London’ by Ralph McTell have been commercially available.
[* Now twenty-one - see panel, left.]

No! Is that right? That’s awful! That’s terrible! I just… when I was a kid, I was a big fan of a guy called Jesse Fuller, who played 12-string guitar; and everything he ever did had ‘San Francisco Bay’ on it. And I thought, “I hope that never happens to me.”

But was it the same recording of ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’?

I don’t know! Have you got a version of me doing the ‘hit’ version on a label other than Warner Brothers - a British label?

I haven’t got a British label other that Warner Brothers, no!

’Cause I have. I was going to give it away to somebody. It’s another record company, and I don’t know whether they were sub-commissioned by Warner Brothers. I’ve signed it and everything... I’ll give it to you, John; if I find it, I’ll give it to you. I can’t remember what label it was - it’s a red label, anyway.

A UK release?

Well, I don’t know. You’ll have to have a look.

I’ll have to tell you! The Reprise UK version was issued three times - it was reissued twice in different sleeves, in 1980 and again in 1981. But it’s the same record physically, with the same release number, but different packaging.

Is it really? Why did it come out again, I wonder?

You wonder, don’t you?

I don’t know!


Otherwise, its been all over the world, on different labels, in different versions. Even the version from ‘Ralph, Albert and Sydney’ was the A-side of a single released in South Africa.

Was it really? Isn’t that amazing?

And in Uruguay, it’s called ‘Calles de Londres’. It’s you singing - you haven’t changed your voice, it’s not in Spanish!

No! Have you come across any of the foreign language versions of the song?

No, I haven’t.

Well, there’s a French one, ‘Tous les Bateaux il Faut un Port’ - ‘Every Boat Needs a Port’. Don’t ask me why that’s ‘Streets of London’! And there’s a lovely French translation by a girl called Martine Habib.

But the one I want is a Cantonese version by someone called Sam something, in Chinese. I would love to hear that! I’ve been promised it was a big hit in Hong Kong, and I never heard any more about it. But his first name was Sam.

Well, there’s another research area. I’ve never looked at the cover versions. Domenico looked at the cover versions, you may recall.

Yeah, he did a whole bunch, didn’t he? (1)

 


The Reprise version was re-issued twice in the UK.

Yeah. You reckon there’s over about 220. I know that he’s got...

Well, that’s what’s been registered with the publishers. Its two hundred and twenty something. The last one was Ritchie Blackmore.

No, the last one was somebody else, really, somebody... oh, I just heard that one of my favourite artists sung it - she hasn’t recorded it - Alison Krauss from Union Station. She sang it with a very famous guitar player recently, and one of my American correspondents wrote to me and said, “You might be pleased to know - I don’t think he added anything to your version”. He said that Alison Krauss sang with him, and I though “Wow”, ’cause I think she’s absolutely...

One of your heroines.

She’s just marvellous. Her band, Union Station - probably among the best acoustic music you could ever hear in terms of its technical ability, its soul. It’s beautiful. It’s not everyone’s taste, because it’s banjos and mandolins, and stuff.

Sounds good to me, Ralph!

Oh, it’s really good. If you’ve never heard her, check it out. A lot of the musicians appear on Dolly Parton’s album (of all people), ‘The Grass is Blue’, which is a fantastic album. Don’t let anyone put you off. Dolly’s wonderful on it; but the band are out of sight.

I shall look that up, thank you. Its always worth expanding one’s collection.

Well, I think anything by Alison Krauss and Union Station is fabulous. There’s one album where her guitar player - a guy called Dan Tyminski - sings in the old ‘hill’ style of singing, which was made famous by a man called Ralph Stanley (who appeared on ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’) - that sort of stuff. But the playing on Alison’s band - she plays violin and sings like liquid honey - and the dynamics that they create around acoustic instruments, is just breathtaking. It is just so perfect. She does ballads and stuff, modern songs with just this same acoustic line-up. It sounds orchestral almost. It’s just fabulous playing. See what you think, anyway, if you get a chance.

I will indeed, thank you very much.

We’re all done, are we?

Well, I could go on forever!

No, this will do for now man, won’t it? We’ll do it again, man, we can do it again.

That’ll be lovely.

We can do it again whenever you like. I’ve enjoyed talking about it, and I hope you’ve got some… Oh God, I do hope you have a recording there!

Well, this is being recorded on a website, so I’ll put the phone down, go on line, download it onto my computer, and burn it onto a CD.

So you say.

So I say! Well, that’s the plan.

You should say, “O ye of little faith”, there! [Laughs.] Good luck, John!

OK, Ralph, thank you very, very much.

You take care.

Bye for now, Ralph. Cheers.

Cheers.


I put the phone down and looked at the time. We’d been talking for very nearly two hours. I put the kettle on and made a very welcome cup of coffee. Then I logged on to the ‘record-your-call’ website to retrieve my recording. To my shocked disbelief, it was not there! OK, I thought, maybe it takes a while to register. I left it an hour. Nothing. Another hour. Still nothing. I rang the contact number. No reply. With Ralph’s gentle jibe ringing in my ears, I emailed Customer Services.

The following day, I got an apologetic reply. The problem, it seems, was at their end. If I’d care to log on again, my recording would be there. So I did. And it was! So I downloaded my 20-MB MP3 file. Wearing a broad smile, I plugged in some earphones, clicked on my newest desktop icon, and listened in thankful awe as I recognised the voices…

[Ralph] Hello.   [John] Hello.

Yeah!   Contact!


With thanks to Ralph for sharing his time and his memories.
The text of this interview is the copyright of Leola Music Ltd, and may not be reproduced without permission.
All illustrations are the copyright of their owners or publishers and are reproduced here for information only.


(1) See Domenico Mosca's ‘Streets of London’ page on his Weather The Storm website.

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