Author’s Note: there was at least one prepared but discarded chapter in my joint book with Trevor Hodgett Irish Folk, Trad & Blues: A Secret History (Collins Press, 2004) – a section bringing together three non-Irish artists with strong connections to Ireland, about whom I happened to have accumulated a few pieces of journalism in the previous decade. These artists were Ralph McTell, David Gray and Roy Harper. This is the Ralph McTell section of that chapter, with a first person introduction written for the book.
Ralph McTell: Introduction
Prepared for the book Irish Folk, Trad & Blues: A Secret History, along with the previously published journalism below, but unused
Eamon Carr tells a most amusing anecdote about meeting Ralph McTell at some TV show in the seventies. On paper, of course, it doesn’t work at all, but suffice it to say that it involves the members of Horslips spontaneously greeting the fellow with a personalised sea shanty in four-part harmony. What this tells us – aside from anything it may tell us about the members of Horslips – is that even then, at the height of his popularity, people in the business were instinctively disinclined to take Ralph McTell seriously.
It’s probably inconceivable now that back in 1970, when The Who recorded their incredible Live At Leeds album, at Leeds University, the next biggest draw on the campus was Ralph McTell. But far away from those dizzy heights Ralph, like the best of his songs, has proved his durability time and again. While Rory Gallagher was, famously, just about the only major international rock act to play regularly in Belfast during the troubled seventies, Ralph McTell was quietly, in every sense, doing the same thing as a folkie. He has continued to service a dependable audience in Ireland, north and south, ever since, with one song in particular, ‘From Clare To Here’, having all but entered the Irish tradition.
Red Sky, the first album of new material that Ralph released after the Independent interview reproduced below, was pretty uninspiring stuff. Perhaps, as he seemed to be saying to me, he really had run out of ideas. But Ralph’s a survivor – a tough guy, with a sanguine attitude to life and a deep well of passion for his craft. His next album, National Treasure (2002), was not only a fabulous return to form but, in my view, his best ever. I wrote a much-relieved review for Mojo which, alas, like a number of previous reviews, got lost in the never-ending double-commissioning confusion between myself and fellow folk-ish contributor, Colin Irwin – an impressively crisp and well-informed writer of long-standing in the folk field (no festival joke intended). Although I never seem to ‘win’ whenever these double-commission fiascos happen, I did once get a cheque for Colin – particularly amusing in that it was payment to him for a review of my book. (The cheque was, of course, returned…)
On the subject of that book, I have to say that Ralph has been one of its most fervent champions. In the crowded bar of some grand hotel in London, immediately after the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards ‘do’ in February 2002 – and long after Dazzling Stranger had been published – I was accosted by a very slightly inebriated McTell (an imposingly big man at even the mellowest of times) and told in no uncertain terms how impressed he was with the book – and just what was I doing to promote it? Unsatisfied with my polite thanks and self-deprecating mumbles on the necessarily limited appeal of its content, he then accosted the producer of Mike Harding’s radio show and demanded that some kind of review be broadcast at the earliest opportunity. The producer, suitably subdued, somewhat sheepishly asked me to send him a couple of copies. I did. There was, of course, no review – I never believed there would be – but that didn’t matter. What did matter was that Ralph McTell, one of the great song-writers of the age, had read something I’d laboured over for a year, thought I’d done a good job and was prepared to say as much to me and to anyone else he bumped into. And if they didn’t like it, well, perhaps he could tell them something to make them change their mind… He is, himself, a national treasure.
Published: The Independent, 13 September 1997
Tomorrow night in Huntingdon Ralph McTell begins a 46 date tour that marks, refreshingly without a single anniversary product or cursory mention in the advertising, 30 years in showbiz. It is with an irony as subtle as the artist’s own work – dealing as it so often has, in its own quiet way, with everything from old age to homelessness, autism, addiction, injustice and racism – that such radical barnstorming, however sheepish the clothing, kicks off in the very heartland of conservative values. It comes as no surprise to find that the image of Ralph McTell as becardiganed heir to the undulating throne of Val Doonican in the family entertainment stakes is one that’s been exponentially depressing to the man himself since ‘Streets Of London’ was a worldwide smash in 1974:
‘It’s a shame when a good song becomes a cliche and people are embarrassed by it,’ he sighs, and obviously not for the first time. ‘But, by any criteria, I have to say that it is a good song, even if I didn’t particularly like it at one time, because the world knows it, it gets played in schools, people learn to play guitar to it and maybe some of them get a perspective about alienation and loneliness through it. I can’t knock it.’
Which doesn’t stop other people. But what other people? Not that long ago French and Saunders memorably rounded up a squad of rock guitar heroes for a TV sketch revolving around the premise that McTell, in the dock, with Dawn French attired in judgemental robery, had conned a generation with a play-in-a-day guitar book that didn’t work. John Williams had turned the gig down. Ralph was duped into being there and couldn’t wriggle out of it, but a nation of twenty- and thirty-somethings marvelled sympathetically at the man’s sheer good-bloke-ishness for months thereafter:
‘The funniest thing was, straight after we’d done the thing in one take, and I was trying to find my manager to break his nose, Lemmy out of Motorhead went up and asked for his money – and it was only a 30 quid appearance fee – and they said, “Well, er, it’s the BBC Lemmy, you’ll get the money in due course…” “I want it now!” he said. And they actually had a whip round amongst the camera crew to get him his 30 quid! So I was standing there just staggered by this – it was real rock’n’roll, and it took the heat out of it. And of course when the show went out people would point at me in the street and shout, “Guilty!” I couldn’t believe how well the whole thing went off.’
Credibility’s a slippery cove. It’s taken as read that Ralph, writer of gentle melodies, careful words, delicate sentiments, doesn’t have any. But random listening to his albums reveals a powerful craftsman whose best work transcends its period. A straw poll amongst friends and colleagues reveals some surprising results too: musicians, from heavy metal guitar players to Irish traditional singers, have absolutely no hesitation in calling him top man; young women (and I have no explanation for this) have simply never heard of him; media folk chortle, and good-natured banter concerning cabaret acts and Radio 2 isn’t far behind.
But for some brief period around the 1970 Isle Of Wight Festival, Ralph was well on his way to the land of the Nick Drakes and the Tim Buckleys – those doomed Adonis types who reside in a posthumous netherworld of boxed sets and glittering retrospectives in Mojo. He was, as contemporary reports confirm, the popular sensation of that whole vast, end-of-swinging-sixties event. Surely the biggest audience of his career?
‘Yes, apart from episode ten of Alphabet Zoo, when we hit 7,000,000,’ he muses, with a dead-panningly profound grimness. ‘But it’s a shame really that I couldn’t have gone on seamlessly from the Isle of Wight ‘cos it couldn’t have got more cred than that, could it? I mean, there I was in front of 250,000 people with an acoustic guitar, two mics and absolutely no crowd manipulation powers, just the songs. I was on for 35 minutes, it went down a storm, I got an encore and it was just amazing…’
He can remember exactly what he was wearing on the day too. But no, the great god of rock iconography had other plans for the young man from Croydon – and who is to say they haven’t had their own quieter, subtler rewards? Certainly, Ralph isn’t denying his gratitude for an enviable career that’s maintained concert hall audiences over three decades and still encompasses, at his live shows, three generations. Others may have burned out only to live on in the imaginations of biographers and dream-seekers years hence, but Ralph has just dealt with his muse in a less sensational, but no less passionate, manner:
‘I really don’t try to offend and shock,’ he says. ‘I want people to be stimulated by what they hear from me and maybe discuss it. I’d never say to somebody, “You’re talking a load of shit you fascist bastard”. That’s not my way. I take ‘em on but I do it in a different way. With Tim Buckley and some of the others that passed on I always felt they knew everything too soon and wrote with a certainty that leads to a finality. What would they have done at 45? What would they have done at 50? Whereas me, I didn’t know, I suggested, I put some things across – very gently, perhaps too gently for some people – but I’ve been finding out. I’m 52, I’m still not entirely certain and I’m still looking to back up my theories and opinions through the response of others as I share them in songs… I think I’ve just put that rather well!’
His communicative powers are at their height, he works out every day, his memory is razor sharp but he knows his time is coming: ‘I can’t bear it when people talk about legendary players and say, “Yeah, he was okay but he was a bit tired”. You shouldn’t be tired, you should be on the ball. I hope people never say that about me – but it’s getting harder and harder to gain the fitness for these long tours. It’s a young man’s game.’
There may be no box set, but a biography is imminent and, right now, an autobiography is absorbing all the man’s creative energy. He’s written only one new song in two years. A worrying trend?
‘Well, it used to worry me tremendously,’ he says, ‘but then the kids aren’t breaking down the doors to get the latest Ralph McTell album and I also think that I should only write when I’m really moved to. But I started to write a little memoir about growing up in the fifties and it’s still going on! I’ve written pages and pages and I know it’s going to be okay because I go into a kind of daze when I know I’m writing good stuff. I mean, right now I could get up from my word processor, walk out the front door and meet someone I knew when I was seven years old and not be surprised – I’m right there, really there, like a catharsis, and I’m really excited about it. I’m also much more interested in working hard and getting a good show across than when it was easier – when I was ‘current’, when the audiences were guaranteed. I carried my nerves and insecurities onstage and it all rushed past. Now I actually go out there and love to work.’
Published: Mojo, December 2000
Bar the title (borrowed from a song) there is nothing in this first volume of autobiography –extraordinarily rich in detail and cathartically honest in tone – to reveal its author’s ultimate career. While Ralph may not be the most enigmatic performer among Britain’s folk milieu, his booze’n’drugs free life (unless, of course, volume two has something to reveal there) has clearly helped to maintain an exceptional power of recall – not only for the facts, but for the very sights, sounds and smells that accompanied them. Given Ralph’s already celebrated qualities as a storyteller, it is the dreamlike objectivity – almost as if writing about someone else – that most surprises and impresses. This poignant, compelling tale of post-war poverty through adolescence and ultimately towards a rationalisation of life through music is essentially that of every British troubadour of a certain age. Yet an interest in music from the reader is actually not at all necessary to become wholly involved in a work that should be regarded alongside the social history of Angela’s Ashes as much as the cultural history of British music.
Commissioned by Mojo, early 2002, but unpublished
During the cathartic process of writing Angel Laughter, his recent two-volume memoir of childhood and pre-music youth, McTell mused seriously on whether the world really needed another Ralph McTell album. Truth be told, it didn’t need one like last year’s Red Sky – a stodgy collection of below-par originals with a full band. McTell could well have called it quits at that, but having since bought a National Steel resonator guitar he has rediscovered, and found a flair at reproducing brilliantly, the sound and repertoire (Robert Johnson, Son House, et al) that first turned him onto music. Recorded largely solo in his kitchen, National Treasure displays the stature and humanity of classic McTell but adds an edge, a swagger and even (with a fabulous crack at Eric Bibb’s ‘Saucer And Cup’) a sexiness that has never been there before. In simple terms, he went down to the crossroads and, blimey, didn’t he flag a ride… Unreservedly: his best in decades.