christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: Ralph McTell

Down the Road with Ralph McTell

To the Apex, Bury St Edmunds with my father to see the great Ralph McTell; it’s a cold Remembrance Sunday night. We are both serious fans since becoming addicted to his Right Side Up album, which is genuinely one of the great albums of the 70s – London Irish flavoured ballads mixed in with inspired covers, including a devastating version of Tom Waits’ San Diego Serenade. We are delighted to discover that through accident rather than design we are seated in the front row, giving us a close up of three beautiful guitars, waiting patiently for instruction.

The building itself is extraordinary – a sort of high tech barn. We are almost completely enveloped in wood which gives the odd impression that we are actually inside a guitar. It smells good too. When Ralph appears, a little shambling, he gazes around in wonder. ‘What an amazing place,’ he mutters, before adding: ‘but you know that because you live here.’

He’s in contemplative mood this evening, explaining how Remembrance Day has almost meant a lot to him – and treats us to memories of all kinds, including a powerful, haunting version of England 1914. There are reminiscences of his own army days, as well as long ago trips to the beach with his uncles and aunts. The past is a rich seam he returns to, exploring a sort of personal mythology of post war Britain. But he is far from a nostalgia act; this tour is not as extreme as the one in support of Somewhere Down the Road, where he played almost entirely new material – albeit with great power and conviction. Tonight old and new sit comfortably alongside each other, informing and enriching, while the unity of tone comes from his guitar playing – precise, intricate and melodic.

He shows off the guitar he’s owned since he was 19, while explaining how easy it is to covet others. ‘If you’re a guitar player,’ he confesses, ‘you’ll know you can never have too many guitars.’ He’s promoting a new album of instrumentals: Sofa Noodlings, his first all instrumental album, including re-workings of old favourites, alongside new tunes. A highlight is Housewives’ Choice, a kissing cousin of Blind Blake’s Rag, a jaunty jazz inflected rag (inspired by music he heard on the BBC’s Light Programme as a child, which ‘played cheerful music to keep the housewives cheerful. Please tell me I’m not the only one in here old enough to remember it!’) It’s also an excuse to essay his delightful and possibly unconscious hip shimmy while he plays.

Streets of London is received gratefully and inspires a hushed audience sing along. Although he must be sick to the back teeth of it by now, he still treats it with respect – perhaps acknowledging that it has allowed him a life of creative freedom and given him a following wider than some of his folk contemporaries have enjoyed.

Melodies still seem to come easily to him; The Girl on the Jersey Ferry (from his last album) is a lesson in classic song writing – using a single image well as exploration of memory and regret, while using a sophisticated double narrative. It sits comfortably alongside Naomi – his beautiful peon to love in old age, played in stately fashion on the gleaming grand piano. His introduction is typically enlightening, funny and poetic too – how a visit to an elderly couple for tea sparks his imagination.

But it is then guitar he returns to as his enduring love; he plays us hard edge blues alongside Reverend Thunder and The Ghost of Robert Johnson, both tributes to the great bluesmen whose shadows still hang across his work. A spirited Around the Wild Cape Horn also points towards this becoming something of a modern classic. Despite so many years on the road, Ralph still seems in awe at the love and acclaim he inspires. But he deserves every bit of it – as a living link to a valuable tradition of folk and blues and as a great English musician and poet. The past is something to be understood and unravelled over time, but this evening proves that music – the space between the six strings – remains the greatest mystery of all.

You Can Discover – Remembering John Martyn

Years ago I got hold of the Island Records’ John Martyn best of, Serendipidy. I was easily seduced by the slurry vocals and intricate fingerstyle playing. Like thousands of others, I quickly learnt ‘May you Never’ on the guitar, although never quite mastering that famous ‘slappy thumb’ technique he made his own).  I was less keen however on the echoplex jazz experimentation –  wishing he had continued down his folksy path. Ralph McTell, who was a contemporary of the Les Cousins folk scene in the late sixties (they all thought that was the name of the bloke who owned the club) thought much the same thing.


Having read John Neil Munro’s excellent 2007 biog, Some People Are Crazy, and using the browsing power of iTunes, I decided to give John Martyn another go, and was rewarded in spades. Essentially, everything up to 1980 is fantastic. The early acoustic things are ridiculously likable – from the sweet-as-sherbert version of ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ the hippy-trippy idealism of ‘Woodstock’ and melt in your mouth cover of ‘Don’t Think Twice it’s Alright’ where he manages to improve on Dylan’s melody. Even whimsical tunes on The Tumbler like ‘Sing a Song of Summer’ and ‘Fishin’ Blues’ are charming. His energy and look-at-me guitar playing sell even the slightest material. 

The real revelation however, is the album Inside Out, which combines richly melodic fare such as ‘Fine Lines’ – (lovely to hear John totally into the music in his spoken ‘it felt natural’ intro) with more sophisticated electric playing. World music, jazz inflections and hypnotic riffs make it plain why Martyn found this direction more intriguing. Once you get into the One World album with its trippy grooves (especially on Dancing and Big Muff), the satisfactions are deeper still. The acoustic years seem lightweight in comparison.

The decline then, after 1980’s Grace and Danger, with its more mannered production (the stinging version of Johnny Too Bad’ an exception) is all the more disappointing. There are a couple of later gems on Sapphire (a haunting version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow – apparently recorded as a joke and fittingly, a minor hit in Germany) and the poppy Fisherman’s Dream. After that, unfortunately there is really nothing but synthesizers and false comebacks.  He just seemed to lose his mojo – much like Stephen Stills in 1974; the tunes just stopped coming.

Munro’s biography probably hasn’t won Martyn any new sympathisers – his prickliness, unreliability and unfailing ability to say exactly what was on his mind in any given situation won him few friends, especially when the booze got the better of him. Some of the images are at once fascinating and pitiful – when he is taken in by a friendly pub landlady in the mid eighties, she finds him slumped on the floor by the kitchen fridge eating their supply of lobsters.

Lobsters aside, you could do much worse than spend an hour discovering the soulful, original body of work John created in the sixties, seventies and early eighties. There’s nothing around now that comes close to it.      


 He was the man who was always singing

    the gifted tramp, who wore his overcoat

on the hottest days; whose melodies

    smoked from his mouth. He followed

his bright, unlucky self around the village.

    The Charlie Mingos of Lanarkshire; his pockets

spilled over with apples and plectrums.

     He stumbled the streets, made faces

at the kids, who knew nothing of the way

     he could bend the air around him, or

conjure light from a guitar with a bear’s claw. 

     They only knew of his pints of Barcardi

and how mid afternoon he would growl songs

     to his answerphone inside a red phone box.