Ralph McTell – Streets at The Street

Singer-songwriter Ralph McTell
Street Theatre, Canberra City
Saturday 10 February 2024 as part of a national tour

At the age of 22, Ralph McTell wrote Streets of London, a song which has arguably been covered more than any other in modern history and launched a career which is still going strong more than half a century later. But it nearly didn’t happen.

Richard spoke to Ralph McTell via Zoom from his home in London. The recording of Streets of London is from the 1975 best-selling LP, Streets.

Ralph May was born into poverty in wartime South London. A self-taught guitarist who doesn’t read music, he’s about to celebrate his 79th birthday. He’s outlived some of the big names of the 1960s folk revival including Bert Jansch, who McTell credits with making the folk guitar sound sexy.

He describes the instant success of Streets of London as a bit of a mystery. The song might not have seen the light of day had not the late music producer Gus Dudgeon insisted that he record it for McTell’s second album, Spiral Staircase which came out in 1969.

‘I said, “I don’t think it’s very good, I think it’s a bit sad.” And he said, “No, but it’s a lovely song, we must do it.” So the deal was he sent the other musicians off to the pub, and he said, “This is the last track, just give me one pass”, and I did it.’

The first cover version came out days after the album was released, and McTell says there are now more than 400, not counting probably thousands on the internet. Dudgeon went on to an illustrious career, producing for big-name artists such as Elton John.

McTell says that while Street of London changed his life, ‘in the 50-odd albums that have come out over the years, there were songs that I regard as better. They just don’t touch the public in the same way.

‘If you see songwriting as a craft…you don’t expect to get hit and rewards from it. You do it because you can’t help doing it. And that’s a big difference to the bloke who goes, “what could make a hit?” You know, I don’t do that. I just get involved in the subject and write about it and try and turn it into a song.’

Ralph McTell’s Steets of Oz tour – his 14th in Australia – begins in Tweed Heads on 7 February and culminates at the Port Fairy Folk Festival in Victoria on 10 March.

Information and tickets for his performance at The Street in Canberra on 10 February 2024 at https://www.thestreet.org.au/shows/ralph-mctell.

Thanks to David Watson in London for his invaluable help in researching this interview.