Live Music + Gig Reviews

Songs In The Key Of Old London @ Barbican, London

9 March 2010


It’s not exactly Meltdown or Ether, and it’s certainly not going to win any awards for being super cool, but Chris Difford‘s modern take on the cockney knees up is at least an evening of good, clean fun as he welcomes a stage full of stars, who either hail from London or have made it their home over the past four decades, to sing songs dating from even further back.

As one might expect, the bill is dominated mostly by Difford’s direct contemporaries: his former Squeeze bandmates Glenn Tilbrook and Jools Holland, Chas Smash and Suggs of Madness, Chaz Jankel and Derek Hussey of The Blockheads and Robyn Hitchcock, once of The Soft Boys but long since better known in his own right. The legacy from which they come – the gentler end of punk, the playfulness of late ’70s/early ’80s white boy cod reggae and ska – is what really sets the tone for the evening.

Though Difford has put the bill together, old Blur mucker Phil Daniels MCs. With the scars of Parklife seared forever on our eardrums, his presence makes it harder than it might have been to take the evening completely seriously and also highlights what it lacks: a real exploration of the spirit of London through songs and songwriters that would have done better to include some more modern, and more urban, performers such as Mike Skinner, The Mitchell Brothers, Dizzee Rascal or even Pete Doherty.

There are more recent faces, including Mystery Jets‘ Blaine Harrison, Kathryn Williams (who is hugely pregnant but also, we have to point out, from Liverpool with no discernible London credentials), rapper Natty and assorted members of the prog-folkers Tunng, but their presence seems to confuse the proceedings rather than enhance them. Twenty years ago, ska was the new genre of choice for bored, suburban English youth; today it may well be folktronica, but without some deliberate link the two seem uneasily thrust together. Grime is surely a more obvious heir?

The result is a staggeringly naff, almost comical sheen of middle-aged, middle class Guardian-reading cardigan-ness, a mockney vision of London nestled comfortably in the Barbican because it wouldn’t last two seconds in the Dagenham working men’s club the older half of it so desperately wants to impress. And if all this didn’t sound mad enough on its own, not quite hiding at the back you’ll find Seb Roachford on drums.

Even weirder, it’s so mad it just about works, once you recover from the shell-shock of realising that someone let Peggy Sue think a shoegaze version of The Clash‘s Guns Of Brixton would be a good idea. This is the most bizarre of a series of covers served up tonight, from Tunng’s version of the John Martyn tune London Conversation and The Pogues‘ Rainy Night In Soho, through Blaine Harrison’s take on Elvis Costello‘s Man Out Of Time, to Natty doing Damon Albarn‘s lines from Parklife (with Daniels doing his business this barely counts as a cover), and Glenn Tilbrook running through Itchycoo Park (which is about… um… about Oxford… oh, don’t bother).

And then on comes Rico Rodriquez. Yes, that Rico Rodriquez, best known for playing with The Specials, that famous … er… Coventry band. Ah, but he’s a mate of Jools Holland, and there’s a ska thread running just beneath the surface of this altogether insane evening, so that’s all right then.

Amid everything, there are two moments that actually do stand out. One is the contribution by local schoolchildren Difford has tasked with writing their own songs of London. The first winner of this rather sweet competition is an X-Factor hopeful presenting a pedestrian R&B number but the rap trio who follow her are sassy, fun and fully deserving of a life beyond this evening. Unfortunately, the fact that their target audience is about 40 years younger and three social classes lower than the crowd in front of them may hamper their chances of further success, but if it does they’ll have been robbed.

The other highlight is a genuinely moving rendition of Our House by Suggs and Chas Smash which, performed with the cheeky charm that made Madness stars in the first place, comes across as a shared love song, sung by childhood best friends who cannot quite believe the extent to which they’ve lucked out.

As if to cement the idea that the evening hasn’t quite decided what it is, after the full-cast finale of Parklife, who should come out for the encore but Elvis Costello, making his first appearance of the evening. A quick run through of Hoover Factory and New Amsterdam, and back comes everyone to belt out Waterloo Sunset, or at least they would if half the microphones weren’t malfunctioning.

I wish I was making most of this up. I can only half believe I’m not. It was mad. It was fun in places. It was a nice idea. Let’s not do it again anytime soon.

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Songs In The Key Of Old London @ Barbican, London