The West End of London is a flexible term. It can mean that shopping area round Oxford Street and Regent Street, the focus of the Everything But The Girl Oxford Street song in which teenage Tracy Thorne, growing up in Hatfield, dreams of escape to the West End. It can mean more specifically the theatre district round Leicester Square and Shaftesbury Avenue, the equivalent of On Broadway. Or it could be a more general term , the posh opposite of the East End. Oddly, though, whilst individual parts within the West End have been the topic of songs – Soho, of course, or Trafalgar Square – there haven’t been that many about the West End as such. The best known is the first Pet Shop Boys hit, West End Girls, though that is about universal class and urban divisions as much as about a geographical place. Somehow, the West End has often seemed more suited either to musicals or to songs from a long bygone era than to pop songs: A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square or Lets All Go Down the Strand (have a banana)
The song here –Wild West End from Dire Straits debut album in 1978 – shines a totally different light on it, however. Like Squeeze and the Police, Dire Straits came at the tail end of British punk, too musically sophisticated for punk and too lyrically sophisticated for mainstream rock. However, their later mega success, especially with the 30 million seller Brothers In Arms album, left them rather unfairly with a very 80’s image: coffee table CDs, Princess Diana approval and merchant bankers donning a Mark Knopfler headband to be a guitar hero in front of the mirror, much like a previous generation had copied Hank Marvin of the Shadows
It’s quite a multi-layered song. The lazy summer mood and the sound of Mark Knopfler’s National guitar gives a feel of strolling down the main street of a small North Carolina town and the whole song mythologises the ordinary in the manner of Bruce Springsteen. Listening again to the early Dire Straits sound I was also reminded of another track I couldn’t place at first, then remembered - Dion’s Written On the Subway Walls from his Yo Frankie album. However my memory of this was incorrect. I had mentally placed it as around 1976 and assumed that Dire Straits were making a rather obscure nod in his direction. The album actually dates from 1989 so the influence was the other way round – and, in fact, I noticed that Terry Williams, the second Dire Straits drummer, played on it. So the to and fro of music across the years is even more tangled – a singer who made his name in the first era of American rock n roll and doo-wop shows the influences of a post-punk British group which itself drew on a variety of music past, including early rock. There is another tangential link between the songs. The 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' segment on the Dion track is sung by Paul Simon. One of his memorable lyrical images is the opening of Graceland: ’The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar’, the lead instrument on Wild West End (Another British exponent of that guitar was Tom McGuinness of Manfred Mann, who played it with effect on hits like Pretty Flamingo and Just Like A Woman).
Wild West End is an interesting song in other ways. With its story set round Shaftesbury Avenue and China Town it is a little historical snapshot of a patch of London past: Angelucci’s, the coffee merchants, is no longer in Soho’s Frith Street by Ronnie Scotts but moved to East Finchley. The mythologizing also casts a romantic glow on the rather mundane. In many musical accounts, a conductress on the Number 19 bus (which goes from Finsbury Circus to Battersea via Holborn and Piccadilly Circus) would be a comic figure a la On The Buses: here she is a honey with pink toe nails and an easy smile. Chinatown too takes on a rather more exotic and mysterious air than the one you might get from going to Mr Wu’s, the cheapest Chinese buffet in town.(All you can eat for £4)
Mark Knopfler apparently wrote the song after watching a girl cross Shaftesbury Avenue –by such trivial moments can the inspiration for a song come. I may well have been such a catalyst myself. I once had a conversation with Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac. It was in Reading and went something like this:
Christine McVie (leaning out of a van window):’Excuse me, could you tell us how to get to the university’ Me: ‘Yes. Keep going straight on to the next set of traffic lights, turn right, go for about a mile and you’ll see it on your left’ Christine McVie: ‘Oh, thanks very much. Me: ‘Don’t mention it’.
I expect that when Christine McVie later sat down and wrote You Make Loving Fun and Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow for Fleetwood Mac, this incident probably popped into her mind as a creative prompt.
Earlier columns have seen different versions of London created through the medium of song. With Cath Carroll it seemed a rather shadowy, dark and haunting place, its secrets just beyond the corner of your eyes. With St Etienne it’s a sunlit watercolour of a place. With Dire Straits, songs like Wild West End or Sultans of Swing somehow manage to transplant London to a mythical America whilst remaining distinctly English, with the small-scale and ordinary given a romantic hue. Like the St Etienne London, it’s a parallel universe sort of place - sometimes as real as the one in front of your eyes.