London: The Urban Plastic Utterance

“The city is heard as music as much as it is read as a discursive writing”
— Henri Lefebvre “Continuities and Discontinuities,” Writings on Cities.

Listening to Jamie, the lead singer of Hepburn, mangling the phrase ‘Have you ever been down? / Deep deep down?’ recently, you might have been forgiven for thinking that London has finally lost its privileged place in the geography of British music. Has the London accent ultimately come to this terrible mewling end? More Dick van Dyke than Van Dyke Parks, Hepburn strut upon the stage of British pop like a load of lovable chim-chimeree moppets in the kind of greasy, sooty rags last seen in a boutique in West Kensington. It’s all very well for a lantern-jawed American vaudevillian to parody the trusty Londoner, but when we do it ourselves it is not only embarrassing, but shameful. Hepburn don’t even have any animated penguins to bring relief.

‘T Ain’t Cock-er-nee
Reassuringly, we seem to have sufficient self-respect not to buy any of Hepburn’s records, which would be inoffensively sub new-wave enough were it not for the pre-pubescent Leyton chirrup affected by their singer. However, theirs is not the only body of work to carry the taint of the Cock-er-nee. We can go back at least as far as Charles Dickens, with his parallel parades of lovable urchins and crooked East End rogues, to see the beginning of the parodisation of Londoners. In the name of social commentary he assailed us with such supposedly pathetic scenes as the death of Little Nell and the apparently heart-rending episode of Tiny Tim squeaking over the Christmas dinner ‘God bless us everyone’ before tripping on his crutch and wheezing with the characteristic dramatic timing of the jolly invalid. Dickens is, perhaps, the only author to benefit frombeing adapted by The Muppets.

From the Nineteenth Century onwards, through Kipling, Shaw and Marie ‘Stone me If I ain’t ‘alf a music hall legend’ Lloyd the cultural image of the Londoner has been infantilised until the Cockney now has the profile of an animated, squawking monkey, eager to please, full of song and with the delightful ability to play the spoons. This tradition, ratherthan being stamped out by the very real and horrific sufferings of the Blitz, was regrettably intensified by the experience: or at leas those in the position to yank on the strings of culture. People in the East End pulled together in their communities, built bomb shelters and struggled to survive; Tin Pan Alley felt that the appropriate response was ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’. This is not to say that the appropriate response would have been a swathe of four-hour long operas about the unbearable burden of life and the impossibility of hope — the Russians had already cornered that market. Surely, however the people of London deserved better than Chas and Dave’s great-uncles playing two-fingeredpiano and bawling like walruses?

Things got worse before they got better with the arrival on the West End stage of Oliver!, in which Lionel Bart saw fit to entertain the world with: smiling, singing, starving children; smiling, singing, East End psychopaths; and a smiling,singing cartoon Jew. Dickens is, perhaps, the only author to benefit from being adapted into a family musical. The enormous success of this show further embedded in the cultural consciousness an image of the brave little Londoner, ready with a quip, a joke and a high kick, especially when being horribly carved up by one of his cheery fellows. In this carefully staged half-light, it’s not hard to understand the continued veneration of the Kray twins. If you dub ‘You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two’ over the killing of Jack The Hat it all seems rather quaint andcharming.

Joe Brown and Irene Handl: a Reactionary Tableau
If you add to the tableau the smiling figure of Irene Handl you have a full family show. The estimable Ms Handl, often accompanied by Harry H.Corbett, single-handedly fought the Blitz for years after the war had finished and was drip fed jellied eels on her sick bed. Seen in late 50s rock’n roll films usually starring the equally Cockney but slightly rebellious Joe Brown, she was the constant counterpoint to the new music and culture. In the archetypal scene, Brown would be playing his latest song on the gramophone, Corbett would be shouting ‘No son of mine is goin’ out with hair like a nonce’, and Handl would be sipping a cup of tea and looking like Churchill. She was, indeed, a reactionary force to be reckoned with.

By the 1960s the connotations of the London accent in popular music had become fixed. Those bent vowels and glottal stops immediately conjured images of good humour, earthy resilience and light criminality. Joe Brown, exhausted from the fight with Irene Handl, did not offer much hope of change. Fortunately, at just this time Michael Caine almost single-handedly rescued the Londoner from The Hall of the Pearly King. His performance in Alfie added a streetwise intelligence and a barely concealed sadness to the Cockney archetype, and by the time he was exhorting Benny Hill to ‘blow the bloody doors off’ in The Italian Job half the world was wearing horn-rimmed specs and buying suits from bespoke tailors in Brick Lane.

Everyone, that is, apart from Michael Caine, who was opening restaurants and buying houses in L.A. He was later to transfer his professional Cockney character to the self-same Muppet/Dickens effort referred to above, in which a real Londoner is surrounded by hundreds of fake Americans built from latex. This not only reminded our doughty ex-pat of strolling down Hollywood Boulevard, it also saw him become trapped in his role as a bastard Movie Cockney and therefore embroiled in the whole process ofcultural degradation of which I speak. This a heavy burden for a pigeon-toed man with a stoop.

Patronise the Provinces
London’s pop music benefitted hugely from Caine’s influence, as well as from the capital’s postwar rebirth as a cultural and social centre. As Henri Lefebvre has it ‘Yes, this city which has gone through so much adversity and so many metamorphoses, since its archaic cores so close to the village, this admirable social form, this exquisite oeuvre of praxis and civilization, unmakes and remakes itself before our very eyes’ (Writings on Cities 126). Suddenly, the London accent became the voice of urban, sophisticated cool, quite at odds with the heart-strong pluck embodied in the Liverpudlian brogue of The Beatles (or the annoying squeak embodied in the Liverpudlian whine of Gerry and the Pacemakers).

Ray Davies of The Kinks sang a number of wistful songs devoted to the capital in a sardonic Camden tenor. He also sang a number of wistful songs devoted to country villages in the same accent, but that’s beside the point; the capital is allowed to patronise the provinces. Mick Jagger, originally from the polite groves of Kent, fought back for those provinces by taking on the self-aware tones of Caine’s Londoner and winning. When he unleashed his amazing, distorted twang, fully-formed, on ‘Sympathy For the Devil’, he was voicing a new cultural profile of London; detached, decadent, cunning, socially aware, morally inert: ‘Please allow me to introduce myself/ I’m a man of style and taste’. Nowadays one might think of Peter Stringfellow when hearing these lines but at the time it was really something. Honestly. And Stringfellow’s has never claimed to have killed the Kennedys.

Do Me a Lefebvre
Jagger was not alone in assuming the London accent in the ’60s and ’70s. Genuine Londoners, such as Roger Daltrey, were assuming American accents, partly in homage to their musical influences and partly in an effort to be accepted on the U.S. scene. Meanwhile, performers from the fringes of the city were more likely to plump for the faux-Cockney twang, which is another example of how annoying it is when tourists try too hard to fit in with the locals. David Bowie, art school reprobate from Beckenham, appeared on the pop scene proper in 1969 with ‘Space Oddity’, a song about an astronaut inspired by the Apollo missions, sung in a voice more Euston than Houston. His continued use of a nasal London screech throughout the early ’70s can be seen as something of a snook cocked at America. Revelling in his alien persona, he played to packed stadiums across the States and greeted the crowds in the mixed tones of Max Miller and Barbara Windsor. No wonder they thought he’d fallen from outer space.

America, as much as Britain, lapped up Bowie’s definably British rock which, in the face of Elton John’s pseudo-Californian delivery, looked as authentic as it was in fact elaborately artificial. Britain, and especially London, found its identity celebrated on the world’s popular stage, until the chameleonic Bowie discovered black soul records in the late ’70s and started to sing like Barry White’s asthmatic sister.

Rat Scabies’ Postmodern Osculatorium
By this time, though, London had found another voice, one which escalated Bowie’s polite rebuttal of American virtues into all-out dissent against capitalism, the Establishment and people who don’t fire rivets through their earlobes — Punk. Although The Sex Pistols started life as animated mannequins for Malcolm Maclaren’s shop in the King’s Road, Johnny Rotten’s London howl was a genuine cry of urban rage. Nobody knew quite what he was saying — ‘Ayyayyywannabeeeeeeyanarkeeey-a’ — but they knew he was pretty flipping angry. He also took part in the dramatised oral exchange of culture(s) as enacted by the revolutionary interplay of saliva between performer and audience. In this way, an act previously reserved by conventional stars for the privacy of the hotel osculatorium became a free-form long distance event and a treasured part of every gig. In the interests of rigour, the author should note that this expression of somatic sympathy was initiated by Croydon’s Rat Scabies, drummer and accountant of The Damned.

The Sex Pistols perfectly reflected the tense atmosphere of late ’70s London. The frustration in Johnny’s voice overflowed (sometimes literally; see above) and soon other London bands arrived to mop up the spillage. Most notable of these was The Clash, whose seminal work of militant discontent, ‘London Calling’, made them heroes amongst the urban youth. Their refusal to compromise made them idols for the critics. They knew they’d really made it when one of their songs was used on a Levi’s ad.

Frederic Jameson has noted the subjugation of the counter-culture by the capitalist Establishment: ‘The shorthand language of co-optation is…omnipresent on the left, but would now seem to offer a most inadequate theoretical basis for understanding a situation in which we all, in one way or another, dimly feel that not only punctual and local countercultural forms of political resistance and guerilla warfare but also even overtly political interventions like those of The Clash are all somehow secretly disarmed and reabsorbed by a system of which they themselves might well be considered a part, since they can achieve no distance from it’ (‘Postmodernism’ p49). Strummer’s voice was an extraodinary career-long turn as Oliver Reed’s version of Bill Sykes, to Rotten’s more celebrated Artful Dodger. It certainly found itself disarmed and absorbed throughout a dark following decade.

As Jameson implies, after this brief burst of London glory the situation worsened once more. The Jam, Mod favourites and political guerillas, split up and Paul Weller, while retaining his old haircut, took a new route into the backwaters of whiteboy soul and beyond. He spent the ’90s refining his craft and now sounds like a bathful of dried peas. The Sex Pistols and The Clash fell apart in circumstances of varying turpitude and fatality. The London pop accent, once the sound of anger, sorrow and rebellion, was, in the ’80s, the ‘sound of my soul’ — that is, the sound of Spandau Ballet’s rather tinny little soul on their No. 1 hit ‘True’.

A Victim of Geography Teachers
There was no longer a dominant London voice, as Tony Hadley sang in a Transatlantic accent and Billy Bragg, who bawled like a Cockney but was in fact from Essex, only sold records to geography teachers. The music scene was increasingly overwhelmed by jerky plastic Americans, all of whom seemed to be related to each other unless they were Prince, who related only to the voices in his head. Thatcher’s corporate London had no voice of its own and instead chose to ape the States. The result was Junior, about whom nothing constructive can be said, and if you can’t say something nice you shouldn’t say anything at all. Most significantly of all, that old behemoth Irene Handl was back, doing her own creaky Lambeth walk across the set of Metal Mickey. This nostalgic piece of barely imagined futurism twinned the babyboomerbanality of flaky ex-Monkee Mickey Dolenz with Handl’s now fading and chair bound cor lummyisms to produce the Thatcherite cybercockernee sitcom in essence.

This brings us right back to the present day, because the only really significant band since the late ’80s to use a London accent is Blur. They really are the ones to watch, and also to stop. Like Bowie and Jagger, Damon Albarn, for all his Camden Good Mixer-ishness, is a suburbanite. While not cut-glass in the classic Edward Fox style, his speaking voice does not come anywhere near the barrow boy, apples-and-pears ‘ow’s-yer-father argot which he employs on Blur’s records. Incidentally, Fox played Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady a few years ago, in which his character was engaged in drumming the ungainly Lisson Grove vowels out of Eliza Doolittle. In that musical, the London accent is Eliza’s authentic voice and a badge of identity. For Albarn, who has clearly not seen My Fair Lady (and he really should, because it’s quite entertaining and says some very clever things about human nature, but in rhyme, obviously), the London accent is a vehicle for his scorn and disdain for himself, other people and, it would seem, his listeners.

The most notable Blur album, in terms of Albarn’s accent, is The Great Escape. We must assume of this album that the version which was released had been accidentally remixed by Chas’n’Dave in the belief that it was a compilation of Jim Davidson theme tunes. Everything obnoxiously East End is present; pub pianos, market barkers, fairground jingles, comedy basslines, and probably those old spoons again if you listen carefully enough. The old, chirpy pre-’60s Cockney is back, and Albarn is using him to express a modish world-weariness and a desire to sound like Albania’s favourite cockney, Norman Wisdom. Exhausted by his punk days, no longer a swinger or a louche social menace, the Cockney is back in the pie’n’mash shop,munching on eels and sewing pearl buttons on his jacket.

The Swish Chef Burbles
Unfortunately, Albarn’s affected London drawl has become endemic thoughout popular culture.The lizard-tongued TV chef, Jamie Oliver, lives in a swish pad in West Hampstead and burbles like a Ray Winstone character. Dexter Fletcher, has given up the squeaky American of Press Gang and now barrels on like a 60-fag-a-day market porter. That infantile puppet, the Cockney sparrow, purveyor of vapid good cheer and player of spoons, is back. Just look at Eastenders. Those people can’t go for more than half-an-hour without being interrupted by some idiot on drums. It’s like being in a circus.

Hepburn are just the latest in a long and dubious line of aspirants who want to appear street-smart without actually leaving their loft conversions. Maybe now that London has a Mayor — Ken Livingstone, a real Londoner who, despite his love of newts, has not an eel about him — the city will regain a little bit of civic pride and consign these pantomime Cockneys to our fevered collective memory. Livingstone’s otherwise bewildering campaign promise of a free Enya concert in Hyde Park suggests a slash and burn tactic regarding the enunciated politics of the voice: perhaps this really is a year zero for Londoners, after which we will be free to talk as we will, not as scheming culture would have us. Our flow will not just be Orinoco’s, perhaps, but Tomsk’s and Madame Cholet’s as well.

Probably, however, we’ll get free public transport for three years and then taxes will go through the roof as the infrastructure self-destructs. But that is quite another matter altogether.

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Damon Albarn – cocky art-school shyster with long lashes.

Lionel Bart – Maudlin balladeer and advertiser of building societies.

The Beatles – four Liverpudlians melodically bestride the world.

David Bowie – transgressive rock-monster clothes-horse with terrible teeth.

Billy Bragg – impassioned, implacable, one-man soapbox outfit.

Joe Brown – whey-faced proto-rocker gargoyle.

Chas’n’Dave – two cement fisted dustmen and a piano.

Harry H. Corbett – a smoked herring treads the boards.

Roger Daltrey – having talked about his generation, retired to fondle fish.

Jim Davidson – end of the pier man of the people. Or bigot, depending on which people you represent.

Ray Davies – the little acid drop of whimsical pop.

Charles Dickens – Victorian kiddy-fiddling slush pedlar.

Dick van Dyke – stilt-legged teatray jawed showbiz hack.

Dexter Fletcher – rubber-lipped no-mark youth actor.

Edward Fox – posh actor with mouth in side of cheek – a miracle of serendipitous deformity.

Gerry and The Pacemakers – four Liverpudlians distressingly bestride their front yard.

Tony Hadley – flare-nostrilled New Romantic crooner.

Irene Handl – impish, chimpish old dame of the theatre.

Hepburn – hit Top 40 like mice being thrown against a cheese grater.

Mick Jagger – polymeric wizard of lip.

Elton John – princess-loving weave-scalped lug-eared schooner of weak fizz.

Junior – imagine MC Hammer’s uncle in stone-washed jeans. With a plastic head.

Rudyard Kipling – whiskered, blinkered, balding, galling.

Ken Livingstone – amphibian loving Mayor of London.

Marie Lloyd – beloved pudding of the music hall.

Malcolm MacLaren – would claim invention of the wheel if it got a recording contract.

Max Miller – lewd, crude, unfunny and hence legendary 1940s comic.

The Muppets – omnipresent animated cultural guerillas.

Jamie Oliver – reptilian television chef. Suffers from Mittyesque delusion that just ‘whacking something in the oven’ is sufficient for a feast.

Van Dyke Parks – faceless floating orchestrator.

Oliver Reed – bladder of wine strutted like a Colossus on the world stage.

Johnny Rotten – head Pistol and bucket of ginger bile.

Rat Scabies – punk rodent and chop-haired scallywag.

The Sex Pistols -haven’t you heard? Genesis ends with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

George Bernard Shaw – polyglot, polymath, bearded, boorish.

Peter Stringfellow – club owner. Leathery priapic nuisance.

Joe Strummer – angry, angry, shouty little man, handy with a riff.

Paul Weller – dull curmudgeonly grey porridgey mass.

Barry White – enormous libidinous tectonic plate.

Barbara Windsor – dwarvish floss-haired frightener and actress.

Ray Winstone – aggressive sweating bullfrog actor.

Norman Wisdom – ’50s Brit comedy irritant.