When I first moved to London, one of my earliest experiences of the ‘Underground Busker’ was a chap slightly older than myself, in a tweed jacket, strumming away on a ukulele.
Now don’t get me wrong. It was later in the day, I was quite possibly not sober, and I really don’t like the ukulele. I briefly considered buying one when a broken finger made playing a normal guitar problematic, but I decided if I was going to retain any dignity I’d buy a bass instead. And fill my finger with several pieces of metal. Fingers crossed.
Anyway, here was this guy, amid a bustling evening’s tube travel, offering his rendition of ‘No Woman No Cry’. Given the only way he could have been more polite would have been to be in morning dress and stop mid-chord to doff a top hat to passing ladies, I wondered if his nanny taught him how to play. Either way, if you’d told me this before I’d moved to London, I would have assumed that the story ends with someone taking pity and breaking his two-strings-short-of-being-a-proper-guitar over his head, while someone else stole his money.
Alas, that couldn’t be further from the truth. What I saw was a sight to behold, something oddly British and entirely brilliant. Yes, it was a bold song for a pasty twenty something in tweed to go for on any day, but surrounded by girls dancing suggestively, backed by an impromptu escalator sing-a-long, for those returning from work – for everyone – here was a guy bringing a bit of spirit to the tube in an entirely unique way. People actually smiled in the underground. I thought this was something I’d only read about in books.
Of course, outside of London I’ve happy memories of busking brilliance. There’s the guy in York I remember playing AC/DC covers on an electric violin. The girl in Newcastle who, I remain convinced to this day, wrote Laura Marling’s songs. On one occasion, the band ‘The Automatic’ busked outside Leeds HMV playing songs including their monster-hit, ‘Monster’. Various people in suits passed asking why were so many people watching some students ruin that song off the radio. My favourite remains the guy sat outside the Smithsonian in Washington DC with a drum kit bigger than your average stadium rock band, assembled entirely from a shopping trolley, some traffic cones and enough Tupperware to open a shop. He then took to them with some improvised drumsticks – sticks, I think – in a way that made Keith Moon look relaxed.
The list goes on. Buskers add colour to our commutes, raise our spirits and remind us that music is for everyone, not just those with access to autotune. They don’t do it for the money, indeed success is far from a given. From baby Bieber to a disguised Paul McCartney or Chris Evans and Stereophonic’s Kelly Jones, even celebrity buskers haven’t enjoyed automatic success. Katherine Jenkins managed £16 in 45 minutes at Leicester Square. Would you sing opera at strangers for 45 minutes for three and a bit London pints?
However, dear reader, the point of this piece is that I am beginning to think all is not well. Recently I’ve passed through various tube stations to find someone slouched on a microphone stand (or against the wall) casually singing along to a backing CD. In one case they’d not even bothered to find a version without the vocal track on it.
This isn’t on.
I’m not sure what to make of this. My instinct is to blame X Factor and the ilk of singing-is-everything talent shows we’ve had to put up with for what seems like an eternity, or at least since 1998. It’s my birthday this week so the two feel essentially the same. I can’t think of another explanation. When did it become normal to want other people to hear what was normally saved for the acoustic melee of the shower cubicle, or if you really fancied having a go, a hairbrush?
Busking is not just public karaoke, however drunk your audience is. It’s more than that. It’s a musical tradition that remains as important as Glastonbury. It’s about giving people the chance to play their songs, their interpretation of songs or just really bad covers to an audience that might never experience live music any other time that day, week or even year. Yes, some of them will be out of tune. Some will play instruments that don’t work properly. Others will be frankly bizarre. But every one of them is putting themselves out there, asking for nothing but your time and your change, so let’s show them some love.
If all you want to do is sing along with some hits, there’s television. But this is our commute, they are our street corners, and they are far too important for that.