Saturday, 8 May 2010

Portobello Road Songs

The Groove Grove Graphics exhibition features the hive of activity in West London music scenes, and Portobello Road is certainly one of the most referenced streets in the area.  Portobello Road has changed a lot since I first remember it in the 80's and has witnessed even more change with layers of gentrification from the 1950's (the period Groove Grove Graphics starts with) to the present day.  The front page protests outraged with the chain store All Saints moving into the antique area of the market showed the determination people have to preserve a traditional idea of Portobello Road.  But that idea will always be quite subjective.  The ten songs I've selected express an idea of the street, and all explicitly name check Portobello Road in the lyrics or the titles (hence the recent Blur single release, although it describes a walk down portobello road, is excluded). 

1.  Let's start with the biggest one.  When I first saw Bedknobs and Broomsticks as a child I was convinced there must have been another Portobello Road market somewhere- the scenes in the movie bore such little similarity to the street I knew.  Watching this now I get the idea the Bedknobs and Broomsticks version is really a strange combination of all London markets, but at this point Portobello must have had enough pop cache to feature as the named street.  This section of the movie features a large multi ethnic dance sequence with a jazz band, dancing Sikhs, Highland dancers, a Caribbean steel band, a young (albeit non-dancing) Bruce Forsyth and plenty of stock tap-jazz dancers. This was in 1971 and the idea that Portobello Road was a multi-ethnic place where you could find just about anything you could think of seemed to be firmly established in the mainstream. 

2.  The Spectrum recorded their song "Portobello Road" at some point in the two years of their existence between 1967-1969 and included it on their only LP "The Light is Dark Enough" in 1970.  The song is a twee description of Portobello Road in a pop-psychedlic style. The group also recorded the closing credits tune for the sci-fi puppet show "Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons" while band member Keith Forsey later wrote "What a Feeling" for Flashdance, and produced Billy Idol and Psychedelic Furs. 

3.  Billy Nicholl's take on Portobello Road is taken from his 1968 album "Would You Believe".  The song describes screaming children and, in perhaps a 1960's LSD inspired moment, "people taking off the lid to see what's beneath".  It also continues the idea that "you can buy most anything- paperclips or Eastern European wedding rings".  Billy Nicholls probably knew the area well enough being a local from nearby White City.  Before recording "Would You Believe", Billy Nicholls was a staff writer for Andrew "Loog" Oldham's Immediate record label- Oldham apparently wanted the album to be a UK version of Pet Sounds, and it features the cream of the session musician from the time along with John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin and almost every member of the Small Faces.

4.  Cat Stevens released his song about Portobello Road before any other on this roundup as the B-Side to his 1966 single "I Love My Dog".  Again the song describes the street as a unique place where "nothing is weird, not even a beard". Although Cat is known as an impressive songwriter this was written by American Kim Fowley who later assembled and managed The Runaways. 

5. Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil both lived in London while in exile from Brazil. Although it seems Gilberto Gil had the better musical experience in West London (attending performances by Yes, Incredible String Band and being exposed to reggae with Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley and Burning Spear, while Caetano Veloso said "London felt dark and I felt far away from myself") Caetano Veloso recorded a song mentioning the area.  In "Nine Out Of Ten" he describes walking "down Portobello Road to the sound of reggae" and name checks the Electric Cinema.  While he acknowledges the effect the market meeting point of cultures has on exposing him to new sounds, the song is melancholic although this is probably more attributable to the reasons behind him being in London than the area itself. 

6.  I'm not a big Dire Straits fan so I wasn't aware of their Song "Portobello Belle" until I started a bit of research for this list.  The song describes the "Barrow Boys" and the market in much the same way as the first four songs in the list and as with "Nine out of Ten" the "Reggae Rumble" as now one of the most identifiable sounds in the area.  For the first time in the list, though, it describes another person separate from the singer who the singer identifies with the area. 

7 .  "Bunny Lee and the Aggrovators Presents Super Dub Disco Style" features a track titled "Portobello Special Dub"- Bunny Lee would doubtless have encountered Portobello Road at some point in his many trips to London but it is unclear whether this is a direct reference to an event on the street or a commercial move thanking some of the UK purchasers of his products. 

8.  Clifton "Larry" Lawrence moved to the UK from Jamaica in 1965, worked as a truck driver and launched a soundsystem, later producing local talent for Trojan subsidiaries.  In 1974 he launched the Ethnic Fight label, based out of the same premises as his record shop on Kilburn High Road.  "Portobello Dub" is on his LP "Out Of One Man Many Dubs" which indeed features many local-named dub tracks with "Harrow Road Dub" and "Kilburn High Rock Dub" also among the titles. 

9.  Damon Albarn describes writing the songs for "Modern Life Is Rubbish" as "in a classic English vein" and using "weird caustic lyrics about England as it was at that moment" and certainly mentions the area of London in which he was living in the track "Blue Jeans".  Not a celebration of the area, just a nonchalant mention of buying some "air cushioned soles" on Portobello Road within a rather melancholic song.  At this point it seems the image of the market has reverted to a commercial area, far from an inspirational creative place.  

10.  The Pink Fairies were one of the main acts in the London Underground scene which was centered around the Ladbroke Grove / Portobello Road area.  Portobello Shuffle is another storming track from their second album "What a Bunch Of Sweeties".


  1. Great post. I was listening to music and surfing the web, when I came across the text. Another song mentioning Portobello, but by Gilberto Gil (and mentioning, maybe, Caetano 'fellow of Portobello').


    (sorry my bad english)

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