Ralph McTell’s “Streets of London” is by far his greatest. In the singer’s own words, the song is the “blip in his graph.”
Today, 50 years after it was written, the song hasn’t lost its relevance. This makes us think, “What makes the song appeal to all generations?”
“Streets of Paris” could have been the song’s title, as McTell took inspiration from the homeless people who seek shelter in the metro’s hot air grates to stay warm.
McTell began with a tune, then came the inspiration for the lyrics. He tried to suit the people he saw on Paris streets to the tune that he had. He also incorporated his experiences growing up in the country, and renamed the song.
But “Streets of London” isn’t an ode to England’s capital. The closed-down market mentioned at the beginning of the song was a market located in Croydon, London, near the place where McTell spent his childhood.
The song appeals to many because it reflects essential truths about humans.
McTell deems that like the “same old man” in the all-night café who wanders home alone, all of us fear emptiness, loneliness, and alienation.
The song resonates to all of us in different ways. For music producer Jerry Playle, the song is something etched on his memory forever. When Playle was a young guitarist, he performed the song during his audition for a folk club. Despite practicing on his guitar for hours, he couldn’t shake off his stage fright. He was close to retreating from the stage, but his audience sensed the struggle and joined in one by one. Playle admits it’s one of his most uplifting experiences which had made the song lyrics more meaningful for him.
Disc Jockey Gwen Ever used to listen to punk versions of the song back in the ’90s. Never did he imagine then that at the end of the decade, he would be among the homeless people in the song.
Ever’s downfall started after he split his pregnant girlfriend and lost some family to the Zeebrugge ferry tragedy. He became homeless and began showing signs of mental health issues. He got back to his feet after surviving an overdose. But Ever still feels strongly about homelessness. For him, McTell’s song should be the mark of a gone era, but homelessness has only become a more significant concern.
The song still never fails to remind Maria Bentley-Dingwall of her mom Iris and uncle Derek Bentley. In 1953, Derek was unjustly convicted of murder and hanged. His sister Iris promised to clear his name, but died in 1997, a year before her brother’s sentence was quashed. Moved by the injustice that Derek Bentley suffered, McTell involved himself in the process of clearing his name and even wrote the song Ballad of Bentley and Craig.
For McTell, the “Streets of London” is a song about alienation that he wrote for a friend who uses heroin heavily. But in a broader aspect, the song is about those people who belong in our society but feels like they don’t. The “Streets of London” has a theme that resonates to most of us, which may be the reason why it still appeals to us even half a century after it was written.