Mandy Nolan chats with Ralph McTell, the songwriter who came to public attention in 1967 with Streets of London. He willbe playing at the Byron Community Centre on Sunday with local troubadour Mick McHugh as support.
Ralph, how did Streets of London change your life? This song was just another song written in 1965 which had been neglected. In 1967 I had given it to a friend who got in touch to say the song was going down so well that he really felt I should record it. My producer Gus Dudgeon insisted that it went on my second album and within two days of release we were notified of our first cover version. Within weeks we knew the song had travelled around the world and certainly as far as Australia. It therefore goes without saying that a song that travels under its own steam is going to change the writer’s life forever.
That song has been covered by so many artists. Which version (besides yours of course) is your favourite? At the risk of upsetting the 300+ known cover versions and the thousands of versions on YouTube, there is something about the tenderness of Sinead O’Connor’s version that I find touching. She captures the slight naivety of the sentiment beautifully, without even trying.
Is covering the ultimate form of flattery for a songwriter? Yes.
What are the songs that you enjoy covering? And what do you look for in a song that you haven’t written? I think Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, Tom Waites, John Martyn. What I look for is the mystery, magic, nuance and the courage to take on areas of our common humanity that have escaped me or that have filled me with wonder.
What is the literature and art that have had the most influence on you? All of it – I love it all. It seems to me that if man wanted to know what truly elevates him above all other life forms it is his need to express his spirituality through art.
What do you think it was about Beatnik culture that was so revolutionary? Are we just too cynical now to believe that the world can really be a better place? Just as all cultures interpret their surroundings, which are often common to us, all in different ways, so the Beatnik culture looked at what already existed and interpreted it through the medium of poetry, art, discussion and music in a radical alternative way that I found totally intriguing and exciting – and I liked corduroy trousers and long hair!
How would you describe your journey as a songwriter – what do you see as your major triumphs and still your major struggles? Looking back over the years and songs I think it’s possible to detect a maturity – the blank canvas presented at the beginning of a career tends to get more complex the longer you stay writing. However I feel I am writing better songs now than I did in the early days and to have peaked at Streets of London when I was only 22 would have negated the work that was to follow, which I feel has continued to improve. I think the major triumphs are that songs are continuously requested by people to whom the central message and music still communicate. The struggles are still the same, to be original, musical, melodic and economic with lyrical content.
How have you seen the industry change for artists like yourself? Every generation, musically speaking, adopts its own criteria and one could not expect to communicate with each successive generation as they come along. It’s important that they have their own spokesmen and musicians. The industry has learned how to manipulate public taste in a way that was never there for my generation and that is why we think we had the best of it. Thankfully, music remains its own reward and there are plenty of young musicians and songwriters to pick up the torch and run with it against the prevailing wind.
What advice would you give to an emerging singer-songwriter? Take up plumbing! But if the muse is insistent do not expect financial remuneration. Music and writing are their own rewards.
What are the stories and pictures that you are driven to share through your music? I’d like to think that my songs speak for themselves but, when all is said and done, all that remains after manners, fashion, etc is our common humanity and this is the area that provides endless stimulus for creativity.
Finish this sentence: music can’t change the world but it can… Because music affects us on so many different levels, mainly through the emotions, it can lift the spirit, whether it be to make you want to dance or think or want to do it yourself and remind you that there are others out there just like you – you are not alone.
What should we expect for your show in our region? Some of the above!
Sunday at the Byron Community Centre, 7pm. Tickets $55, under 16s $33.