Ralph McTell back walking the streets of Belfast
Ahead of a concert in Belfast tomorrow, the singer tells Andrew Johnston how he loves Northern Ireland so much he encouraged his daughter to go to university here
He may be best known for singing about the streets of London, but when Ralph McTell hits Belfast tomorrow evening for his latest live show, it will no doubt be the highways and byways of this city which he will be thinking of more fondly.
While the acclaimed folk strummer's sensitive ballads and warm storytelling manner have taken him to stages around the world, he still counts Belfast among his favourite places to play.
Indeed, the singer has been a regular visitor to Northern Ireland for over 40 years, including those tough times when many harder-edged artists often side-stepped the city due to security fears.
"I played Belfast for the first time in 1969, when I had just a couple of records out," the 69-year-old Farnborough-born star remembers. "I did a week's residency at the college [Queen's University], and I thought, 'What a wonderful place'.
"When I came back, the Troubles were just beginning – the first civil rights marches – and it was a bit bewildering because I didn't really know the political situation in Northern Ireland at all. But I was just struck by the huge friendliness of the people. There's a lot of brio, a lot of spirit, in the town.
"It was incredible to me to think that there could be so much bad feeling between the communities. That's probably not entirely gone in some respects, but it's so much better than it was. It's wonderful to see the city resurrected and thriving musically."
And Ralph says there was never any fear or trepidation about visiting a place that at the time was mostly renowned for sectarian violence: "Perhaps naively, I thought music transcended anything like that. When you sit down to listen to music, you don't ask your neighbour what 'card' they're carrying. You become an audience.
"And music has a healing power, anyway. I'm not talking about the 'singing nun' here – I'm talking about any music. It's something that touches the spirit, the mind, the soul of people, and it draws attention to the things that unite rather than divide."
Throughout the 1970s and '80s, Ralph continued to include Belfast on his tours, despite the worsening conflict. "I used to do it every year at one time," the crooner recalls. "Things have changed, the city has changed, and now, you've got a surfeit of talent queuing up to play there. You're spoilt for choice.
"Once upon a time, I was the only person who seemed to come over, so I had it my way!"
Despite the bombs and the bullets, Ralph was a tireless promoter of Northern Ireland to his fellow musicians, often urging them to visit the province for live shows. "I'm not claiming heroic status here, but I tried to persuade everyone I knew that this was a great place to play, that the people were wonderful and that they'd have a great time," Ralph says.
"But if you've got a band of four people, it only needs one of them to not want to go, and I encountered that on many occasions. For some people, the fear was very, very real. All they saw was the terrible news reports."
Ralph's love affair with Northern Ireland extends even further, as he encouraged his own daughter, Leah – one of his four children with Nanna, his wife of almost 50 years – to study there. "She was offered places at a university in Scotland and at Queen's. I said, 'I know where I would go,' and she said, 'But there's a lot of trouble ...' And I said, 'Leah, that's what everybody says, but it's not like that. Belfast is a vibrant and exciting place'.
"So, she went, and she had a wonderful time. She even got a great Belfast accent! The late Jim Aiken – who brought the Rolling Stones to Ireland and various other things – was a personal friend of mine, and I said to Leah, 'If you get any problems, you just go see Jim and he'll look after you!'."
Surprisingly, neither his daughter or his sons – Sam (47), Tom (37) and Billy (36) – have followed their father into performing for a living. "Music is extremely important to them," Ralph says, "but they've probably seen the other side of what it can be like – the doubts, and the grief you give yourself. None of them have gone into it professionally, although I'm delighted to say that at least three of them play an instrument, and the one that doesn't – my son Tom – is actually looking after my business and will be with me in Ireland. He's tour-managing me and is taking care of our little company as well."
Ralph's Celtic connections go deeper still. A veteran of more than 50 album releases, his back catalogue is brimming with songs inspired by the Emerald Isle and its people, from the immigration anthem From Clare to Here to Mr Connaughton, based upon a neighbourhood Irishman who helped spark a love of music in the young Ralph May, as he was then known.
"There was a massive wave of Irish immigration to England after the war – from both north and south – and Mr Connaughton was a young man who lived upstairs from my family," Ralph explains. "I grew up without a dad, so people like Mr Connaughton, who gave us kids a little bit of time, were important.
"I always associated the Irish accent with warmth and kindness, possibly because of him, originally, and when I was in hospital after my accident – I had a bad motor accident and I was away for 16 weeks – I was looked after by an Irish nurse, and when I came out, my mother and my brother told me I had an Irish accent.
"Then if we cut to my teenage years, when I was in the Army, I was in with boys from the north and the south. In the Republic, you could join at 14-and-a-half, and in the north, you had to be 15. I was 15 when I joined up, and I met Irish lads from all over the place. So, it goes back a long way."
But it was in the folk clubs where Ralph's bond with Ireland was solidified. He was drawn to the traditional songs that were a fixture of the music scene in the late 1950s and '60s. "The bravado and the craic and the good humour and the fierce sense of enjoyment was very intoxicating, with or without alcohol," he reminisces.
"I'm not a gloomy person, but I think quite deeply at times, and there's a lovely counterpoint to all that to be in company where people love to be together and have a bit of music and tell a few yarns and take a few chances. It's who I would like to be more like, in many ways."
Ralph's own songs have likewise affected many people over the years, perhaps none more so than Streets of London. Written for his 1969 second album Spiral Staircase, the heartfelt tune with its poetic lyric about loneliness – not homelessness, as is often thought – was re-recorded as a single for the 1974 Christmas market, reaching number two in the UK and becoming a global hit.
Today, it remains a folk club staple and has been covered by hundreds of artists, ranging from Cliff Richard to punk outfit the Anti-Nowhere League. "We get another cover version nearly every week or month," Ralph marvels. "I just got a Serbo-Croat translation through the other day.
"I haven't the foggiest idea how or why it's happened, and if I thought it was my best song, I would have peaked extremely early, because I began writing it in about 1965.
Given that it has brought financial rewards but tended to overshadow the rest of his material, Ralph regards the success of the song as a double-edged sword. "I am enormously grateful to it in one sense, but slightly resentful in another that I can never move past it effectively in the overground," he considers. "But as I was never aiming for commercial success, I'm very grateful for this accidental blip in my graph."
Indeed, Streets of London has taken on a life of its own, reaching audiences far beyond the folk circuit. The song – and McTell – have been parodied numerous times over the years, notably a French and Saunders sketch in which Ralph appears alongside a host of rock luminaries, who are giving evidence against McTell in court, where he is accused of writing a useless guitar instruction book.
The cult sketch show Big Train also broadcast a skit in which actor Kevin Eldon portrays McTell as a singer whose audience – including future Hollywood star Simon Pegg – boo loudly when he tries to play anything other than Streets of London.
Ralph takes the mickey-taking in his stride, though, even if he's not exactly sure what's so funny. "With Big Train, I personally didn't think it was a great gag," he admits. "I just thought, 'Why are they all laughing?' It caught me off-guard, because, of course, my audience knows the other three or four hundred songs.
"With French and Saunders, Dawn [French] always comes to my gigs when I'm playing locally, so I think she must have put me up for it. But my manager at the time didn't tell me I was the guy in the dock. I thought I was going to go along with all the other musicians – Dave Gilmour, and Mark Knopfler, and Lemmy, and everyone.
"When I saw that I was the fall guy, I said, 'What the eff is this?' I nearly clocked my manager. For weeks afterwards, people would walk up to me and go, 'Guilty!'"
Still, a bit of ribbing from the nation's comedians is a small price to pay for having written a song that seems destined to stand the test of time, long after Ralph himself is gone.
"It's beginning to dawn on me that it's going to last," he reflects. "It's an extraordinary thing. I spent at least half or three-quarters of my career denying it was that. But even if I think it's just another song, the world takes a slightly different view."
Ralph McTell plays the MAC in Belfast tomorrow. For details, visit www.themaclive.com
Play that song again ... and again
Sometimes having a ‘signature song’ can be a blessing and a curse, as these artists have discovered:
* American Pie (1971) by Don McLean: the lengthy ballad has been covered numerous times, notably in a dance version by Madonna, but writer McLean (top) has had to field constant questioning about the song’s cryptic lyrics, which reference “the day the music died”, the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. Nevertheless he quipped that the song also meant “I don't ever have to work again if I don't want to.”
* Wonderwall (1995) by Oasis: of the breakthrough hit that helped launch their career, lead singer of the Mancunian Britpop icons Liam Gallagher (second from top) reportedly told MTV in 2008 that “I can't f****** stand that f****** song! Every time I have to sing it I want to gag.”
* Stairway To Heaven (1971) by Led Zeppelin: the atmospheric classic has become a standard for any aspiring teen guitar player, but the band’s lead singer Robert Plant told a newspaper in 1988: “I'd break out in hives if I had to sing that song in every show.”
* I WIll Survive (1978) by Gloria Gaynor: although the American disco singer (below) enjoyed a raft of hits in the Seventies and Eighties, it was this defiant tribute to new-found singledom that will be her lasting legacy it seems
* Born in the USA (1984) by Bruce Springsteen: written as a strident critique of America’s treatment of its Vietnam War veterans, many took The Boss’s bombastic delivery a little too literally in the midst of the economic optimism of Reagan’s America. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Springsteen (left) would only play the song live in a pared-down acoustic format, but has more recently returned it to its fist-pumping glory while touring