Going For A Song: ‘Dark Streets of London’

The Pogues – Dark Streets of London

I’ve always associated the song ‘Dark Streets of London’ with the summer. This only recently struck me as odd given the title.

It’s a testament to the first line I suppose – a good one can easily colour your whole perception of a song – that this is the impression I’m left with. So in the first line of ‘Dark Streets of London’ the singer begins by telling the listener how he likes “to walk in the summer breeze / down Dalling Road by the dead old tree”. That ‘dead tree’ gives us a clue that this song isn’t going to be some idyllic summertime stroll a la Mungo Jerry. Though by the sounds of the certain type of summer fun to be had in the bars of the Hammersmith Broadway this song certainly shares similarities with that radio summer time staple. How it differs is on this point: where the listener of ‘In the Summertime’ can settle, the listener of ‘Dark Streets of London’ can’t; with one line (“And the winter comes down and I loved it so dearly”) the listener is moved from summer to winter. Suddenly the listener is snug in the pubs and bookies with the singer, listening to old men yearn for the summer “when the roses bloom again”. However, this comfort is temporary and the chorus finds the singer cursing the streets he now has to walk huddled, broke and cold. He doesn’t dwell, however, and the listener is taken back (or forward?) to “that first day of summer”. This being a MacGowan song though what the singer associates with this particular time is “the place where they gave me ECT […] and the drugged up psychos with death in their eyes”. And this being MacGowan he makes this recollection sound as joyous, as much a part of summer, as when the Fresh Prince recalls going from the mall to the basketball court because in the summer it “got girls there”.

It’s not all MacGowan’s lyrical unstudied cleverness that the excitement of a new summer, its potential, is felt. The music of ‘Dark Streets of London’ is best described by concentrating on what it’s not wholly: it’s not Irish folk, not punk, not pop. Thanks to The Pogues’ playing and the production it’s a whirl, a scrum of instruments. It’s like being in a busy pub; instruments as snatches of overheard conversations. Sometimes heard is Spider Stacy’s whistle, the acoustic guitars, Andrew Ranken’s snare, but nothing is up at the front; it’s all perfectly snagged down by the simple walking bass line of Cait O’Riordan.

So the lyrics push the listener around, from winter to summer, and then back again, but the music carries the listener and the singer through. And despite the singer’s perfect nihilism (“And all of this really means nothing to me”) the song becomes something that does matter, that conjures up time and place – summer, London. And when the song fades out, and because it’s an odd uneven fade out, some instruments sticking around longer than others, it’s as if you’re watching the song leave, going off back down the Dalling Road – until you both meet up again.

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