Like Waterloo, the River Thames has sporadically cropped up in past columns, flowing through songs like London itself: the dirty old river in Waterloo Sunset, the sullen River Thames in Grief Came Riding, the echoes of the lapping of the dark river waters on a foggy evening in London, Queen of My Heart. As a city river, its place in songs is not unique. Lindisfarne are best known for their sing-along ode to Newcastle and its river, Fog On The Tyne. There was Liverpool and Ferry Cross the Mersey by Gerry and the Pacemakers. The Seine too has had its share of songs - Down in the Seine by the Style Council, for example.
The Thames, however, has always held a special place in London and in films and songs alike has been both a focus in its own right and as a background to countless scenes played out visually or musically before it. At times, it is used as shorthand for conjuring up traditional London/Britain, like showing a red bus or Big Ben. Take this clip from a 1964 pop film vehicle for singer Joe Brown, 3 Hats for Lisa: ‘traditional London’ is spelled out in capitals by a backdrop of the Thames and Tower Bridge –plus Sid James (South African born) as a typical tap-dancing Cockney taxi driver.
Indeed, its bridges and banks were also part of music’s landscapes, as seen with Grief Came Riding and Battersea Bridge. Then there was Cilla Black’s London Bridge, a ‘B’ side from 1969. Her 60’s singing career has got over-shadowed by her rapid move from early Beatles’ connections into light entertainment, Tory Party conferences and general showbiz chummery. She was also a prime example of a 60's home-grown act whose own version of a particular song was more successful than the original and definitive classic. Baby I Need Your Loving was a UK hit not with the Four Tops original but by Liverpool second-division outfit, The Fourmost. The version of the Curtis Mayfield-penned Um, Um, Um, Um ,Um, Um that was the hit in Britain was by Manchester’s Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders rather than Major Lance, rather losing the enigmatic quality of the lyrics in the process. Sound of Silence was more successful for the Bachelors than Simon and Garfunkel. Cilla Black managed it twice, with number one hits with Anyone Who had A Heart (Dionne Warwick) and You’ ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling (the Righteous Brothers). London Bridge, however, is an unexpectedly charming little period piece from the time when London Bridge indeed wasn’t there :it had been dismantled and flogged off to an American real-estate developer to put back together in Arizona.
The Thames is also often used as a metaphor, as rivers tend to be because of their paradox of constantly changing whilst staying the same. Elton John’s Across the River Thames, a rather self-conscious 2006 recreation of his early to mid 70’s sound (complete with Davey Johnstone on guitar and Nigel Olsson on drums) had the Thames as a symbol for his own career, ie still there; “But I'm still here and the fog still rolls across the River Thames”. In Richard Digance’s Dear River Thames, the river takes on another symbolic guise:” Stay by me, stay by me, And don't let me down. .... For the ride, I must confide that you are my friend.” (For some reason, the song is often seen as credited to Ralph McTell). There have been numerous versions of Ewan Maccoll’s Sweet Thames Flow Softly - Planxty, Rufus Wainwright, Cherish The Ladies amongst them. I suppose history and continuity is what the river mainly represents in all these songs.
The song here, Earlies, is rather different. The Thames has only a small walk-on part in the lyrics about doing an early shift in the London of 1981 and the IRA bombing campaign but it somehow permeates the whole song. There are 2 versions here. The first is a live version by the original artists, the Trashcan Sinatras, a Scottish indie band with a harmonies- and - jingle/jangle sound reminiscent of Teenage Fan Club - or the Go-Betweens of Streets of Your Town. The second is a more gossamer and ethereal version from 2011 by Lotte Kestner (aka Anna-Lynne Williams).
The precise meaning of the words/location is hard to pin down: County Kilburn is clear enough ( a name for Kilburn in north-west London because of its large Irish population) but goodness know where Cakebrick Road is. That hardly matters though, for the song is really about nostalgia and wistfulness for times and places past, and the Thames is a perfect setting for that. There is something about it that can create a mood of yearning and false or real memories, like the mist rising from it. It was in Waterloo Sunset, with Ray Davies saying the lyrics were shaped by his trips over Waterloo Bridge as an art student in the early 1960’s and by a spell as a child in St Thomas Hospital, seeing from the balcony the views described in the song.
Like anyone who has spent time in London, it has also figured in my memories there. Travelling down it on a boat to Greenwich on a school trip up from the coast; or a spell doing my own ‘earlies’ after first arriving in London, crossing the river en route to work at 6am; or standing on the banks with my son after his graduation and looking over to the London Eye, not there at the time this song was set. You cannot step twice in the same river for other waters are ever flowing on to you - maybe that is where the nostalgia comes from.