05/07/2010

Willesden to Cricklewood


London, in one shape or another, was the central focus of many of the Clash’s songs: the wake-up call to arms of London’s Calling; The Guns of Brixton; (White Man) in Hammersmith Palais. The Westway – the elevated flyover through Paddington and West London that had been bull-dozed through communities in the late sixties - was a recurrent image in lyrics and photos and Joe Strummer once referred to his music as ‘the sound of the Westway’, with the bleak urban graffiti-ed images of under the Westway used to promote the group in their early days.

However, 20 years or so later a very different side to London emerged in a song on the debut album by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, Willesden to Cricklewood. The lyrics and music are reflective, backwards looking, almost sentimental, a long way from ‘London calling to the faraway towns, Now war is declared - and battle come down’ The title recalls, consciously or not, Lark Rise to Candleford, Flora Thompson’s account of childhood in the Oxford countryside of the turn of the Nineteenth Century.

The setting had moved up the North Orbital to the margins, to the suburbs of north west London, an area that had long been seen by many as the epitome of glum , faceless mediocrity, with the neighbouring districts of Neasden and Dollis Hill the butt of long-running jokes in Private Eye and Willesden Green a running gag in the cartoon Danger Mouse. The Goodies comedy series was set in Cricklewood, with the Goodies recording a song called The Cricklewood Shakedown (One, two, three, four, where's the place that we adore?, Doin' it right and doin' it good, we're all going to Cricklewood). The kind of snootiness, in fact, that can be directed to what is perceived as the periphery, the ‘ordinary’.

Perceptions may have started to shift since Strummer’s song of 1999.Willesden was the setting for Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and the novel and TV series brought wider awareness of the cultural vibrancy of the area. In fact, a sense of that was picked up in this song .’Let’s hip-hop at traffic lights, Ten thumbs up and smilin’ bright, Crossing all the great divides, Colour, age and heavy vibes’. But there was also a sense of community and history ;’Now you’ve got the Absinthe out, your old mother, she wants a stout’ .A sense that an area that can be dismissed as anonymous, somewhere to drive through on the way to Ikea or Brent Cross, has its own stories- the arrival of the railway, the Jewish refugees, devastation in World War 2, Irish labourers coming to work on the building sites ,migrants from Jamaica and India.

I only spent a short time living in Willesden, in a bedsit many years ago. It lost its appeal one night when the couple in the room next door held a séance and allegedly conjured up the Devil. There was a lot of banging about and screaming before the pair fled down the street into the night. It may have been an elaborate moonlight flit, I suppose, but the Polish landlord was philosophical about it the next day; ’There are some things you shouldn’t mess with’. Quite so. However, I have found ancestors of mine who lived and worked there, their lives captured in the odd faded photo or memorial card, an entry in the census or a birth or marriage certificate. The video on the link to this song could have been snapshots from a slice of family history.

In a way the song is a personal statement of a man then nearing 50 and looking back on his life-‘Thought about my babies grown, thought about going home, Thought about what’s done is done, We’re alive and that’s the one’. A poignant statement, of course, for Joe Strummer was to die 3 years later. Yet it is a song of redemption and there is no disillusionment or disappointment, no bewilderment at what happened to the fire and anger of the early days of Thatcherism. Instead, there remains a sense of the continuity of London, of change but also of things carrying on. So it goes. ‘From Willesden to Cricklewood, as I went it all looked good.’

Link to song

32 comments:

  1. Great column about a great song. It's a far cry from the apocalyptic vision of the Clash's “London's Burning,” but no less powerful.

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  2. I was driving through South London just after Joe Strummer died in 2002 and someone had spraypainted JOE STRUMMER R.I.PUNK on a wall in large red letters. I heard from a friend who attended the funeral that they played "From Willesden to Cricklewood" at it, towards the end.

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  3. http://www.flickr.com/photos/jaybushman/33765747/in/set-771757/ :)

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  4. I'm not sure I agree with you about the song this time around, Geoff.... It's such an ambivalent ode to suburbia, so in tune with the feel of gentrification, but I need to think about it more.

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  5. hey Geoff! Just discovered the column here in New Orleans. Have you visited? Shoot me a line if you are ever in the city, I can take you some music joints and you can write a column about New Orleans!

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  6. Geoff, the thing I like most about your awesome column is the autobiographical stuff! Sounds like you had quite a life. And your column has inspired me to think about my own song-map, all the places I have been and all the music I associate with those places. I wouldn't be able to write a column like yours, but I have my own little song-map now:) Thank you.

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  7. This great column about London (my hometown:) made me wonder if you could do one on Adele's "Hometown Glory": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BW9Fzwuf43c

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  8. I agree with Desiree that the autobiography is a great feature - and here's a song that maybe sums up your life and travels Geoff:): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WoIfglXAbh0&

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  9. Geoff we thought you would approve of our project Northside Songs, which works with children to make songs about their northside neighborhood of Pittsburgh:

    http://senseofplacelearning.wordpress.com/2010/06/28/spl-and-saturday-light-brigade-awarded-northside-songs-grant/

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  10. Your column made me wonder if we can see this song in the romantic realist genre - songs and songwriters that draw inspiration from their surroundings and the spirit of the people who live nearby, however rough or seemingly grey. People who can see past greyness to the rainbow stuff within.

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    Replies
    1. Romantic Realist, for a description of Joe is perfect.

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  11. It must be pretty rare to write songs about a particular route (from Willesden to Cricklewood), I imagine. There must be very few addresses/streets/routes in the world that can successfully represent a particular modality to singers and listeners alike. Thanks for this Geoff!

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  12. Geoff, I know choral music hasn't been on the blog yet but hopefully you'll enjoy my song about Astoria in Oregon: http://www.gregscheer.com/musicblog/astoria.mp3. Here are the lyrics: http://www.gregscheer.com/musicblog/astoria.pdf

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  13. geoff i just found your blog here in Hebron (West Bank). before i went down your list i said to myself: i wonder if he has any arabic songs. i want to suggest Wayn a Ramallah (why are you going to Ramallah) - (Palestinian Folk Song) by “Kulna Sawa” (Meaning “all of us together”)

    audio is downloaded here:
    http://ya-ashrafe-nnas.blogspot.com/2007/09/blog-post_02.html

    and another version is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cqFZbS-quXk

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  14. cheers geoff. here's my Joe Strummer art under the bridge Camden Lock: http://img177.imageshack.us/img177/6189/london06055copylm1.jpg

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  15. I really LOVE him... he wasn't just a singer, he was also one of the greatest poets ever! Really.. his band is my favorite at all and I found their songs just splendid! Do you know the song "Rebel Walz"? I think his lyrics are outstanding (as in many other songs like "Know your rights" or "bankrobber"!)....:) Ciao ciao!

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  16. Thanks for all these links-its fantastic to see and hear other songs/pieces of art. I couldnt access the Adele link, Maggie-I'll try another version.
    I agree that the lyrics are ambivalent, Laura, and the intention can be seen in different ways. However I got the feeling it was the statement of someone making peace with things.

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  17. This one might work: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXG0YMv5Fvk - I just thought the idea of a 'hometown' might be a good theme for a column one day........... :)

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  18. Yes I can hear that now too. Thanks Geoff! Seems like this is becoming a pattern: I think a song is a bit disillusioning and you rescue it for me, showing how it isn't necessarily as bourgeois/regressive/disappointing/conservative as I think!

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  19. Thanks Maggie-it worked this time, Its a great song.I knew Chasing Pavements but not this.

    I hadnt really seen the song before as being approving of suburbia,Laura. Some of the lyrics could be seen as being critical of the gentrification and wanting to shake things up but also recognising that the stories and history of the place go back s lot further. Its probably a sign of clever songwriting to get different interpretations.

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  20. They even have a mural (copied from the one in New York) of Joe Strummer in Lima, Peru: http://www.theclashblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/strummer-peru.PNG

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  21. Geoff, I have nominated the blog for the Blogger's Choice Awards 2010, in the categories Best Pop Culture Blog, Best Education Blog and "The Blogitzer" - this last one is "presented to the blogger who demonstrates the best writing ability on his or her blog". So all you readers, get over there and vote!: http://bloggerschoiceawards.com/

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  22. Good idea Laura! I just voted. FYI to everyone, here is the direct link: http://bloggerschoiceawards.com/blogs/show/96480 - and once you've voted in one category by clicking 'vote' (which might involve signing up for the site and its voting process), make sure you click on the links for the other two categories and vote there too. For example, I voted in "best pop culture blog" and then realised that it wasn't showing up in 'best education blog' or the one for good writing. Basically, you have to click on all three and vote in all three categories. Cheers!

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  23. Hey-thank you Laura and Chris!That really is great.

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  24. I just voted too! You're up to 6 votes in each category Geoff! And already on page 3 of ALL blogs in the education category: http://bloggerschoiceawards.com/categories/17?page=3 :)

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  25. I voted as well:) I don't think it belongs in the 'education' category though - not that's it not education, it is, which I'm sure is what Laura was thinking - it's just that the description of that category says "This award will be presented to the best blog about education, such as home-schooling, school related items, college, and the like. This is not a category for the best blog educating its readers on a particular topic." So I think that even if Geoff wins, it won't be valid. I nominated it for a fourth category though, I hope that's ok - "best political blog".

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  26. Thanks for all this support! It's wonderful encouragement

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  27. I voted too. only a few more and you'll be on the front page for the best quality writing one...... http://bloggerschoiceawards.com/categories/5?page=2 ; but why is there no music blog category and yet they have a best food blog and a best health blog, they need new priorities

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