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
Link to song