Off and on since 1982 I have thought about the role of rock and roll/punk covers of songs and how they can change the form and/or meaning of the song. One of my favorite cover songs of all time is The Streets of London. Originally written by English folk singer Ralph McTell, it is a beautiful and haunting song about walking through the Streets of observing and relating the sadness (and beauty) of old age and poverty as it may relate to troubles and relationships of someone younger (a child or a potential lover?).
Have you seen the old man in the closed down market.
Kicking up papers with his worn out shoes?
In his eyes you see no pride and held loosely at his side.
Yesterday’s papers, telling yesterday’s news.
[Chorus] So how can you tell me that you’re lonely,
and say for you the sun don’t shine?
Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the Streets of London,
I’ll show you something that will make you change your mind.
Have you seen the old girl who walks the Streets of London.
Dirt in her hair and her clothes in rags?
She’s not time for talkin’
she just keeps on walkin’
Carrying her home in two carrier bags.
In the all night café at a quarter past eleven.
Same old man sitting there on his own.
Looking at the world over the rim of his tea cup.
And each tea lasts an hour and he wanders home alone.
Have you seen the old man outside the seaman’s mission,
Memory fading with the meal ribbons that he wears?
And in our winter city
the rain cries a little pity.
For one more forgotten her and a works that doesn’t care.
So how can you tell me that you’re lonely.
And say for you the sun don’t shine?
Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the Streets of London, I’ll show you something to make you change your mind.
Less than a decade later, the Anti-Nowhere League flipped the switch on the meaning of the song by, among other sings making the music burn and changing the lyrics, including converting “I’ll show something that will make you change your mind,” to “I’ll show you something that will make you really sick.” By doing so, the League transformed the song from reflection to angry disapprobation of society. Looking at old, poor, forgotten people shouldn’t cheer anyone up—all the images conjure up is decay, and disdain for the political, social and economic system that created the situation.
I interviewed Nick “Animal” Culmer, the leader of the Anti-Nowhere League about the creation of the League’s cover song and how he reacted when Metallica covered the League’s own punk anthem “So What?”
OP1: What made you choose Streets of London as a song to cover?
Animal: I chose ‘Streets of London’ as a cover because I wanted to destroy something musical that people loved….but this was the late seventies\early eighties and Punk’s byword was ‘destroy’ but in truth I grew up listening to all styles of music…..I started with Reggae and as I grew so did my music knowledge and ‘Folk’ music played a part so in truth I wanted to cover ‘Streets of London’ because I loved the song and seeing the ANWL were just starting out we played the song with a bad attitude cutting it down to fit with our guitar work.
OP1: What impact does the change in the music alone contribute to the effect you and the band were trying to achieve.
Animal: As young(ish) punks we were disillusioned with everything and the words of the original song was meant to be sad but we took it to another level with 2 fingers up…..a ‘welcome to my world of shite’…although back then we thought the song would fizzle out within a year it has proved us all wrong, it still preaches despair at me but with a smile on it’s face, goes to show a good song is timeless however you change it around.
OP1. Did you think about who the song is intended for (for Ralph McTell, it seemed to be sad, lonely person)–was it the same for you?
Animal: As all punk bands we thought we would be well dead and gone in a couple of years so there was no amazing future plan, only your last show you play dictates how long you have in this business.
OP1: You changed the lyrics of the chorus– to “I’ll show you something that will make you really sick” from “I’ll show you something that will make you change your mind” What, if anything was that intended to say?
Animal: Ralph [McTell] I think was writing a sad song which cut deep and made you think….we turned it on its’ head and made you ‘not think’ but drink!!!…..but that was always the punk attitude then….fuck ’em.
OP1: Who were you trying to tell something to? The listener, the government, the person in Mr. McTell’s song, Mr. McTell?
Animal: To me it [the song] meant ‘despair’….there is nothing we can do about the way this over crowded world was heading so let’s just stick our fingers up and tell the world ‘go fuck ya self’ I will not droan [sic] on about politics but the small man will always be ‘fodder’ for the money men even if it means destroying the whole planet just so they can get fat.
OP1. What were you trying to tell them.Nothing really…we were just starting out in the music business and could not play our instruments very well….he was obviously a professional muso so there wasn’t much you could say to him….especially when deep down you always liked his music and of course I couldn’t tell him that!!.
OP1. Do you think Mr. McTell’s and your version of the song are still relevant today, and if so how?
Animal: I think his version will always be relevant….but our version?….at a punk gig rammed with sweat and beer and crazy guys’…yes….three and a half minutes of ‘fuck ’em all’…but after the show?…..they probably will not remember their own names let alone the song they were shouting!
OP1: Metallica covered a song you co-wrote So What. What was/is your and the band’s reaction to that?
Funny really…as a punk band we were always in trouble with that song….mothers demonstrating outside our shows and police shutting our shows down…as we all know there is no money in punk so we could never fight the legal shite that song brought to us….Scotland yard took the records, we were banned from everywhere and ‘branded’ as foul mouth yobbos…..but then….a few years later one of the biggest bands in the world cover it with all their financial backing and the song suddenly becomes a great rock song!!…..the English tax system welcomed it with open arms and I will not grumble because Metallica has always been good to me and of course the money is well appreciated and I do get to play the song with them now and again……putting my small punk song onto a massive stage is always a buzz.
OP1: Do you think Metallica’s version changed in any way the meaning of the song, either through the sound, lyrics or total performance? If so, how?
Animal: They are the biggest metal band in the world it is obviously going to sound different than us….we play our song with a four piece band usually in shit holes over a shit PA and they play the song with a five piece band in
stadiums…..over the years I have had many young bands asking permission to record it….the song is more than a song….it is a starting block to many….I suppose it has the same feel as young metal bands of the past must have started by playing the ‘smoke on the water’ riff…. young punks still love the ‘rebellious’ feel of ‘So What’…..long live punk eh?
OP1: Are you familiar with other punk cover songs. Can you contrast other punk covers with what the League and Metallica did?
Animal: I like all covers if they are original…..great fun to do….there (as we know) is no point playing a cover if you try and do it more clever than the original….that is dangerous territory you will be slagged from here to eternity if you try…..to risky…best to give it your twist and hope for the best….if it is shite then it will just disappear…..I think bands that play a few covers never really expect great things from them just recognition that you have come up with a ‘version’.
OP1: Anything else you would like to add or that I should have asked?
Animal: ….summing up….I am a great believer of punk music…..it may not have the punch of years ago and doesn’t pull the punters that metal bands do but it is a great place for up and coming bands to start….they will always get a gig at a punk show even if they are still ‘wet behind the ears’……as we all know….if the all the people of the world could play gigs then there would be no wars!!!……well you know what I mean, it is good therapy…..music means so much too so many for different reasons…..our own personal god’s.
……enjoy every minute of life….we will all be dead soon and no-one will give a fuck anyway……ANIMAL