Letter from London: Song

Billy Preston playing at the Beatles’ rooftop concert as the cops show up. Still from Get Back.

In a slightly hypnagogic living room overlooking a heaving North Sea, my sometimes musical grandmother, who brought me up, liked to watch a BBC programme called ‘The Good Old Days’. Rather than this just being a resting place for once popular Victorian-Edwardian music hall songs, it was also an elaborate excuse for people in the audience to dress up in diverting costumes, while taking directions from a loquacious chairman called Leonard Sachs. His words were so long and periphrastic, a word Sachs himself might have used, that people whooped at every syllable, not caring one jot about their meaning.

It was while watching my grandmother sing along to these songs, songs she could also play on her grand piano, that I first heard London ditties such as ‘Down at the Old Bull and Bush’. I remember this because there were few roads leading to the future, and this particular song referred to an actual London pub in Hampstead: ‘Often with my sweetheart on a bright summer’s day/To the little pub there my footsteps will stray/If she hesitates when she looks at the sign/Promptly I whisper ‘Now do not decline!’’ I visited the Old Bull and Bush many years later. It was an anti-climax. There is the past, I was therefore thinking, and then there is the songwritten past.

Talking of London songs, every week I receive a playful online newsletter which serves as light relief from the jagged world in which we live. A world where agreements to send depleted uranium shells to Ukraine for example naturally forget the birth defects we inflicted on Iraqi children. Anyway, last week’s newsletter included an option to use AI to write a song on any topic of our choosing, and I asked for a ballad about this very column. This is what it came up with: ‘Taking a stroll down the streets of London Town/Watching the old buildings and thinking of the past/Exploring the alleys and the parks so grand/Writing a story of this amazing land.’ The grinding tune was as awful as the words. Not only did it sound fake, it didn’t even know which era it was from. I suppose on some darker level I was relieved by its turgidity — it was like seeing the whites of your enemy’s eyes and finding no one at home — but the overall feeling smacked of desperation.

Which is why people in the creative sphere are registering concern today over exactly how much unprotected content for the purposes of AI is being scraped. A prolific scraping which actually reminds me of those Japanese factory ships which used to fish off the coast of Ireland 25 or so years ago, hoovering up as much tuna as possible while using nets banned on Irish trawlers. I have worked briefly in the past with two exceptional women in AI, one of them an artist, the other an astonishing all-rounder, and I cannot really claim animosity in full towards this field. Also, to be fair, both women did remain in control of their AI. I also have had business-like dealings with an affable senior data scientist in the States. So why am I left with this image in my head of a giant ship’s hold dragging its load across the bottom of the ocean and risking mass spillage?

My daughter in the middle of penning a new song, London-related, as it happened, says she feels unthreatened by any of this — ‘it’s not like I’m Lady Gaga,’ she smiles. (Shockingly, only 12.6% of songwriters today are women, by the way.) Another school of thought says visual artists, at least, should add ‘Do Not AI’ to their images. Or does opting out of being unknowingly farmed by AI software — data training, they call it — open one up to more ridicule than protection? Who owns the source images the algorithm pulls from? Under UK copyright law you are the owner of any picture, poem, sculpture or story you produce. For me, an artist’s copyright is close to magical. Sometimes, all an artist owns. Meanwhile, I see people in the movie and TV world are swivelling in their executive chairs, getting over-excited about the first ever title sequence made solely with AI in ‘Red Skies’ — the image of an artist’s head on the cutting room floor springs to mind.

Every song has a silver chorus. This whole business has brought to life for me a welcome host of otherwise half-forgotten London songs. Who can forget ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’ by The Jam? How about the instrumental ‘Grunwick Affair’ by Dennis Bovell? Or ‘Itchycoo Park’ by Small Faces. Even ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ by Radiohead? And wasn’t ‘London Boys’ — a concept successfully revisited by artist Robert Rubbish recently — one of Bowie’s earliest tracks? Suddenly, wherever I looked last week, whatever I thought, a London song appeared at the end of it.

If you don’t include the manhole in the early 1980s I briefly fell into when I had a band in London, since my late grandmother I’d not given much conscious thought to London songs at all. This was why it was so interesting for me when a few years ago journalist and artist Clare Lynch invited me on to her Soho Radio show, ostensibly to talk about ‘decompressing’. For this, Clare asked that I select one or two London songs. I began with a 1970 number called ‘London London’ by Caetano Veloso, who had been forced into exile by Brazil’s military dictatorship. When Veloso wrote it, he and his wife were living in Chelsea with fellow exile and singer-songwriter Gilberto Gil — a future Brazilian Minister of Culture — plus his wife and manager. It is a deliberately naive and tender evocation of an escape made not just from authoritarianism but reality too.

‘Work is much more fun than fun,’ Noel Coward once said. His song ‘London Pride’ was another of my choices. This Teddington-born renaissance man wrote ‘London Pride’ during the Blitz: ‘Stay, city, smokily enchanted, cradle of our memories, of our hopes and fears.’ Biographer Philip Hoare — I have not read Oliver Soden’s latest biography — described Coward’s life before he died — alone on the island of Jamaica — as ‘a paradox between what he presented to the world and what he was like’. Even if, bafflingly, a lack of success can in many ways be an even more genuine state of being, Coward, once successful, struck me as precisely fascinating because his pretensions were far more interesting than the sometimes over-entitled aristocrats he aped. ‘I love criticism,’ he also once said, ‘just so long as it’s unqualified praise.’ All praise to him, I say, though for some reason I never much liked his performance in ‘In Which We Serve’.

Even when I was still living in Edinburgh with fiercely cool post-punk Scottish bands like Joseph K and Orange Juice setting the scene, I could not resist the subliminal — and not so subliminal — call of London. Indeed, one attraction was expressly found in the song ‘London Calling’ by The Clash, a girlfriend’s favourite: ‘The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in/Engines stop running, the wheat is growing thin/A nuclear era, but I have no fear/‘Cause London is drowning, I live by the river’. All these years later, I am now living close to that river, though usefully uphill.

Music back then was an overt and undisguised thing: not like today. Now, with our headphones or AirPods, and rigorous but seldom revealed internalisations, music today is like a well-kept secret, as if we tiptoe around the city with our anonymous playlists deliberately never giving anything away. We have become the New Unreadables. People listening to music stare from their seats on the London Underground at people listening to music staring back. And, thanks to Spotify, the musicians are hardly getting paid. Some of us may as well be on different continents as none of us sitting there are any the wiser. Of course, it is not only music we are listening to, even less so songs about London such as ‘Waterloo Sunset’ or Lily Allen’s ‘LDN’. It may be Bernardino Evaristo reading her experimental London novel ‘Soul Tourists’. Or an explosive new podcast from ever-sparring Londoner Russell Brand. Or James O’Brien or Andrew Marr: more people today listen to radio than use Facebook each week.

I suppose the world over has been listening to London songs for centuries. More recently, well, almost 15 years ago, I was stuck at Camp Bastion, now Camp Shorabak, in Afghanistan. Bastion at the time was the logistics hub for British military operations in Helmand. I was on my second trip to Lashkar Gah from Kabul via Kandahar, and I honestly wondered if I would be stuck at Bastion forever as there were no helicopters to take me on. Nor could I tell the practice rounds from the real ones on the camp’s periphery. In fact, there was a Taliban raid there a few years later when they killed two US Marines and destroyed or damaged eight Harriers and a C-130. Some even claimed Prince Harry was the intended target.

Anyway, dawn had just broken and I had this inexplicable urge to listen to ‘Do The Strand’ by Roxy Music. Still under canvas, I put some headphones on and took a walk around the base. As I passed the busy field hospital, then a group of young American soldiers about to advance out of the camp, singer Bryan Ferry was in both ears, telling me ‘There’s a new sensation/A fabulous creation/A danceable solution/To teenage revolution’. The air was dry, so dry, and there was much uncertainty, too much, but in my head I was back in London, doing whatever the Strand was. Ferry claimed it was a song inspired by Cole Porter but for me it would forever be an innocently selfish moment in a dark piece of history in the Afghanistan-Pakistan war zone, in which about 243,000 people were killed, with more than 70,000 of them civilians. I was eventually flown out with my film kit on my lap in an American Black Hawk.

If you like the sound of angels, you should hear 8,500 children sing in unison in the vast 02 dome on the Greenwich Peninsula here in London. Young Voices, as it is known, is the largest children’s choir in the world. These concerts took place for us when our children were still at the local primary school. It was like listening to the future, and liking it. Most of the owners of these small voices will be adults now, and I wonder what if anything they are listening to, as they catch their trains or buses, or drive their cars, or wheel their prams round shopping centres, wondering where the next rent is coming from, or sit with sleeping relatives staring gently into space. I remember the power of these voices was enhanced somehow by the fact all were singing in semi-darkness. What I also liked most was that every single child was deemed a performer and the entire auditorium was their stage.

The O2 is still going strong — 9 million people attended last year. Last week Snoop Dogg was performing. Further down the line will be 79-year-old Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters. Waters is an interesting story. The son of a WWII conscientious objector, recently he said he is taking legal action after his Frankfurt gig from the above tour was cancelled by German officials accusing him of being one of the ‘world’s most widely spread antisemites’. Waters, a famous champion of the Palestinian cause, has found himself under siege on several fronts. He made few friends by addressing the UN security council a month and a half ago, even if — when you actually listen to what he said — it was a call for an immediate ceasefire. Trying to be clever, the Ukrainian ambassador accused him of being ‘just another brick in the wall’, though the musician had in truth just pointed out the illegality of the invasion — ‘I condemn it in the strongest possible terms,’ said Waters from his giant screen, in a neat tweed jacket. It may take time for him to recover from what was a damaging initial report in Berliner Zeitung about supposedly complimentary words on Putin, though I don’t speak German and have not read a translation.

Finally, who can ever forget what in my respectful belief is the greatest London moment in terms of song, when four Liverpudlians and one Texan (Billy Preston) took to the roof of the Apple Corps HQ on Savile Row in central London? I was just a child at the time but even I can remember it. This was what turned out to be the last ever Beatles performance, ending famously with John Lennon and his ‘I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we’ve passed the audition’ quip. Or was yours Freddie Mercury during Queen’s Live Aid performance at Wembley? Or a melancholic Nico in Hyde Park? Or how about Madness on the roof of Buckingham Palace? Or Florence + The Machine singing ‘South London Forever’ in Hyde Park? Or Black Uhuru at the Rainbow Theatre? Or Squeeze’s open air gig on Deptford’s Crossfields Estate? Could it be Rip Rig + Panic at the Commonwealth Institute? Or Lisa Stansfield at Ronnie Scott’s? Or one or two of the lesser known recent Fold Jam gatherings on Hilly Fields before the police shut them down? Or my son’s band Butch Kassidy last Friday at the 100 Club? Or the woman busking at Green Park tube station that same night singing like a nightingale in nearby Berkley Square? We are spoilt for choices here in this beautiful city. As another song in ‘The Good Old Days’ repertoire went — all together now, my splendiferous ladies and gentlemen — ‘maybe it’s because I’m (now) a Londoner that I love London Town.’

Peter Bach lives in London.