26 Feb 2024

'Streets of London' singer Ralph McTell returns to New Zealand

6:24 am on 26 February 2024
Ralph McTell

Ralph McTell plays two shows in New Zealand in March. Photo: Ralph McTell

Ralph McTell's signature song 'Streets of London' - a hymn to the homeless and lonely - is notable for being one of the most covered songs by other artists in the 50-plus years since it was recorded.

He joined Jim Mora on Sunday Morning to talk about his six-decade-long career, including his knack for songwriting, life on the road, and rubbing shoulders with Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and Tom Waits.

McTell was last in New Zealand 20 years ago with Steeleye Span. It was "quite a tour", he said.

One of the highlights was going backstage at another theatre to see Billy Connolly, who was also touring at the time.

"We all went up and gave him a surprise visit. It was a wonderful because we all knew him… We've got the photographs and great memories."

Connolly and McTell first met in the late '60s, and collaborated in TV and live shows. At one point, McTell had fronted a UK children's TV series called Tickle on the Tum, which was set in "a little village in England where I was an unexplained lodger and I invited guests. They would come into this little shop and tell me their adventures of the week."

Connolly heard about it and wanted to take part, so they created a role called Bobby Binns the Dustman and McTell wrote and sang a song about him.

McTell also contributed a song, 'Dream Time', for one of Connolly's tours of Australia, which he will perform in New Zealand.

"Billy and I are both very fond of being down here in the Antipodes, and we often talk about it and the feeling of kinship that we have, and it's very special place for us."

Another song, 'The Unknown Soldier', about the tomb of a fallen World War I soldier in Westminster Abbey, was voiced with the help of Connolly and other British stars.

"From [the time] of being a little boy and realising what the Unknown Soldier signified, it was always with me.

"One day, somebody said to me, 'You know, there's some footage that exists … of the arrival of the boy from the fields of France or … no one knows where he came from. That was all part of the mystery.

"And I checked out this film and I just [thought], I've got to do something. I think it was 1919 - they brought him home and the whole ritual, sometimes British pageantry, they get it right. And in this instance, the whole thing was filmed. The exhumation of four bodies from the battlefields that were unknown, with boys, with no names, and couldn't be identified."

A body selected by a general was wrapped up and brought home in 1919 to receive full military honours in London.

"The whole thing was just incredible."

McTell wanted to commemorate all the British soldiers so for the Scottish voice invited Connolly to do it. In turn, he knew Irish actor Liam Neeson, who "agreed straight away to do it, cause he'd known an old boy in his village up in the north of Ireland who had served in both battles of the Somme". Neeson knew Welsh actor Sir Anthony Hopkins, so he joined the other actors on the recording.

"Obviously I couldn't encompass all the Allied soldiers from all over the globe who took part in that terrible carnage, but my theme was the ones who were never identified."

At Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium the names of 50,000 unidentified soldiers names are written.

"And every night since the end of the First World War, seven buglers go out and play 'The Last Post' and it's one of the most incredibly moving ceremonies that you're ever likely to see."

McTell is bringing a treasured 1952 Gibson J45 guitar on tour despite the fact our humid climate "plays havoc" with the instrument.

"There's nothing compares to the tone of that and and … that's my driver. I love the guitar. I've always wanted to be a good guitar player. And I've just happened to have written some songs on the way. But guitar still intrigues and delights me. And I've just been playing this morning, been in my motel when I play every day, whether I'm working or not. And I just love the sound of the acoustic guitar, and I love the sound of the Gibson J45 in particular."

He recalled performing at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival alongside Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Jethro Tull.

"I had no idea what was going to hit me when I walked out on that stage and saw they now estimate 500,000 people. [It was] a festival run by 25- to 28-year olds with no clue on how to manage anything. I was wearing a shirt that I'd swapped for a set of old guitar strings in Milan some years before and I just wasn't prepared for either the impact of this or what it meant. It took years before I realised that it was both the end and the beginning of something."

McTell admitted to missing the performance of his "guitar hero" Hendrix, leaving before he took the stage.

"The festival discipline, such as it was, broke down towards the end of the evening. And my manager, who's probably quite wise and has survived us, said we've got to go. This is gonna get out of hand - you know, all these people, and no one to shepherd it. And so I missed Jimi."

It would be another 25 years before he saw Hendrix perform after watching a documentary about the festival.

"It was worth the wait… It's an extraordinary tour de force and … he only did one other concert after that…. But that [festival] experience is indelibly in my mind, and thankfully there's a few snaps of it as well, so I know I was there."

Mora said "unassuming" was an adjective often pinned on McTell, but he was not meek by any means - pointing out that he had played in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, when nobody else was prepared to.

"One time I walked out on stage at the height of the Troubles - and God knows they were hellish for the poor people who lived amongst them. And I'm not drawing any distinction between them - people are people. But you don't know who's come to you, whether they're Republican sympathisers or Union sympathisers … once you get in and you're playing music. The whole place stood up before I played a single note and gave me a five-minute ovation or something. And I would say to [other musicians], for goodness' sake, these people are one of the most wonderful audiences and they need music. They need you to come over and do it [tour Northern Ireland]."

Mora asked McTell about the title of his recent album, Hill of Beans, which was taken from a Humphrey Bogart quote in Casablanca, and implied "that whatever you and I managed to do in life, it's not going to be very important or permanent in the great scheme of things".

"You've got it. Absolutely. That's exactly what I meant. When you get to live as long as I have and you don't die the rock'n'roll death and you're still knocking on in your late 70s like I am, you look at art and the way it's [importance is] bandied about - to me, I dispute that.

"I think art is important to the individual or the artist… but it changes very little. It only alters style, in my opinion. I was just thinking this morning of Salvador Dali's painting '[Soft Construction with Boiled Beans Premonition of Civil War' (1936),] which shook me to my boots. That's a painting and that depicts civil unrest and division better than anything."

He wrote a song based on the autobiography of Alice B Toklas, written by her partner Gertrude Stein, and of them discovering Pablo Picasso and George Braque in Paris, while "there were soldiers in trenches down the road, shivering and being shot at. And you know, they were rattling around and going on [about] their great philosophy of art and painting and everything.

"But I wanted to mix as many things up in one song as I could, and to be truthful that in the end, the lives of three little people don't matter… It's my reflections on art, having had a long time to think about it. Yes, it's essential, but it changes nothing."

Ralph McTell plays The Tuning Fork at Auckland's Spark Arena on 13 March and The Piano in Christchurch on 14 March.