LILY ALLEN AND THE LONDON ACCENT IN POP MUSIC
This was written for a special edition of Time Out magazine in 2006 entitled “London’s 100 Greatest Songs”. One of them was Lily Allen’s LDN, which had only just come out a week earlier. This piece uses that song as a vehicle to discuss the use of the London accent in pop music over the years.
LDN (Regal Parlophone 2006)
How Lily Allen, like a long line of singers, is making the London accent work for her
It’s November 1976. The Damned have just beaten their fellow Londoners the Sex Pistols in bringing out the first ever English punk single. It’s called ‘New Rose’ and it’s delivered by singer Dave Vanian in a suitably malevolent midatlantic accent. The Damned eagerly await the Pistols’ response. They huddle around a record player in the Stiff Records office to hear ‘Anarchy In The UK’. As the guitar chimes out and Johnny Rotten does his Sid James cackle, their jaws drop.
‘We couldn’t believe it,’ says Damned bassist Captain Sensible. ‘It sounded like fucking Black Sabbath with Old Man Steptoe wailing away over the top. We thought they were taking the piss.’
Thirty years ago, pop stars weren’t meant to sing like Albert Steptoe. Not even punk rockers. Pop was an American corporation, one that The Beatles and The Stones just happened to have bought some shares in early on. English bands knew their place, which was to dutifully sing in an American accent, bowing to its phraseology, its rhythmic cadences and its drawling, rhotic “R” sounds.
While many other regional accents of the British Isles were rediscovered in the folk revival of the early 1900s, the London accent remains largely absent from Cecil Sharp’s folk archives. Music hall remained the capital’s only musical antecedent, in particular the comedy ditties of Harry Champion (1866-1942) like ‘Any Old Iron’, ‘Boiled Beef And Carrots’, ‘Cockney Bill of London Town’ and ‘I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am’. Champion patented an idiom of cockney pop – densely written, filled with innuendos, often alternating between speech and melody – one that was carried down throughout the century by the likes of Marie Lloyd, Irene Handl and Lionel Bart.
Singing in a cockney accent became something of an embarrassment as American rock ‘n’ roll swept the nation in the ‘50s. London pop stars like Joe Brown or Tommy Steele would sometimes lapse into cockney as a cheeky nod to music hall – just as Ray Davies of The Kinks or Steve Marriott of The Small Faces would do a few years later – while theatrical songwriter Anthony Newley developed a slightly gentrified cockney accent which plotted a path for David Bowie. But the norm was for born-and-bred Londoners – Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Elton John, Roger Daltrey and so on – to sing like they’d grown up in the backwoods of Louisiana or the housing projects of Chicago. Even Chas Hodges – later to develop ‘cockney rock ’n’ roll’ with Chas ’N’ Dave – was still singing in an American accent as he toured the States with his band Head Hands And Feet.
‘I started to feel like a fraud singing with an American accent,’ says Hodges. ‘Particularly when we were touring the States. Every American rock ‘n’ roll star sang in his own accent – Little Richard in a Georgia accent, Buddy Holly in Texan, Fats Domino was New Orleans, and so on. So it seemed natural to do the same. Me and Dave made a conscious effort to sing rock ’n’ roll in a London accent. Cockney rock ’n’ roll. We called it “Rockney”.’
At roughly the same time, lots of other people were having similar ideas. Ian Dury was using pub rock, funk and jazz as a vehicle for surreal, half-spoken cockney doggerel. When he wasn’t impersonating Lou Reed or Anthony Newley, David Bowie – always a law unto himself – was lurching between exaggerated south London vowels and blue-eyed soul. Robert Wyatt, born in Bristol but brought up in the Home Counties, spoke and sang in an eerily blank estuary English that was to prove highly influential. And, of course, Johnny Rotten was borrowing from such curiously English sources as Max Wall and Laurence Olivier’s Richard III to create something of a musical revolution.
‘Before I saw the Clash and the Pistols, I tried to sing like Otis Redding,’ says Paul Weller. ‘It was only when I started listening to The Clash that I thought I should sing as naturally as I talked, and that The Jam should be a very English-sounding band.’
‘There was a definite punk agenda,’ says Billy Bragg, ‘which was to regionalise yourself, to give yourself a sense of place. In my case it was the idea that Barking in Essex was somewhere worth coming from. And there was a premium in sounding awkward. I once told Paul Weller that a particular song I’d written had been influenced by Smokey Robinson – he said I sounded more like Smokey fucking Mullard!’
Using in a London accent certainly forces a singer to approach melody differently. ‘You can’t sing something like “Tracks Of Your Tears” in a London accent,’ says Bragg. ‘Believe me, I’ve tried. The cadences, the rhythm of the speech, it’s all wrong. It’s also difficult to sing harmonies in a London accent. And you can’t sustain syllables for long. I learned that to my cost with “Greetings To The New Brunette”, which starts with that sustained “Shirrrr-LEY!” I sound like a fucking foghorn. So you end up with a higher density of words in a song. And I think this betokens a certain urgency. I certainly got that from seeing early Jam gigs. Weller seemed like he could hardly get his words out quick enough, as if he was just bursting with the energy of youth. You couldn’t really imagine punk developing in any other accent.’
Where Scottish, Irish and some northern English accents share many characteristics with American English – long rhotic Rrrrrrs, softer vowel sounds, a lazy drawl – the London accent shares few linguistic traits with the traditional dialect of rock ‘n’ roll.
London singer-songwriter Chris TT agrees. ‘American accents – like Scottish and Irish accents – have a slower pace, a warmer way of rounding off vowels and words. It allows greater sparseness in lyricism – they can linger on single syllables longer. The word “got” can last for a month when a blues singer sings it but only a tenth of a second when I do. If an American accent tallies with simplicity, isolation and distance, the English accent – especially a London accent – seems busier, more crowded, more urbanised.’
Nowadays, of course, it sometimes seems as if every indie band from within a 200-mile radius of the Bow Bells needs to sing with a London accent if they want to be taken seriously. The exaggerated sense of regionalism that emerged from punk and which got a second wind with Britpop has birthed a host of artists London accented artists who cleave to that Weller/Blur/Suede lineage. The Rakes, The Others, Selfish Cunt, Art Brut, Athlete, Hepburn, Carl Barat and Pete Doherty, Milk Kan, Jamie T or the Mystery Jets. Grime artists like Dizzee Rascal and Kano have developed a form of rap that exploits the mangled vowels and tight-throated diction of multicultural cockney English (‘there are kids from London who try and rap in an American accent,’ says Dizzee Rascal, ‘which is fucking stupid. We’re not American!’). Even plenty of American bands – Green Day, Pavement, Moloko – sometimes seem to adopt a London voice.
‘There are obvious political and cultural reasons as to why English accents are so common in pop music now,’ says Billy Bragg. ‘In the infancy of British rock ‘n’ roll, in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, America was seen as good, as exotic, as liberating. Singing with an American accent was a way of breaking with the boredom and rationing of postwar Britain. Nowadays, America is seen as a negative brand, so singing in an un-American accent, particularly a London one, becomes anti-imperialist and anti-American, although it also retains a certain Little Englander conservatism.’
Lily Allen’s flat suburban drone is the latest addition to this rich lineage. Watch her live and you know that she can barely carry a tune, but her skill is to convincingly project a peculiar London swagger that seems to tie up all the lose ends of London-accented pop of the last century, from Marie Lloyd to Damon Albarn.
‘LDN’ is a curious concoction. The calypso riff is actually directly borrowed from Tommy McCook and the Supersonics’ ‘Reggae Merengue’ but it is clearly a nod to ‘London Is The Place For Me’, a love letter to ‘the mother country’ that the calypsonian Lord Kitchener wrote while travelling on the Empire Windrush from Jamaica to Southampton. Lily Allen’s London of crack dealers, prostitutes and violent crime is the dystopian flipside to the fantasy London of Kitchener’s sunny Windrush anthem.
Allen’s declamatory delivery is close to rap – her deadpan delivery certainly invokes Mike Skinner, among others – and the way in which she exploits the slightly ugly, arrhythmic cadences of London speech patterns suggests a touch of Dizzee Rascal. But her poetic doggerel owes more to Ian Dury, particularly on lines like: ‘a fella looking dapper/and he’s sitting with a slapper/then I see it’s a pimp and his crack whore’.
What’s crucial is that Allen’s glottal stops and exaggerated cockneyisms have the opposite function to the way that Britpop’s Little Englanders used the cockney accent. Allen looks outside of that well-worn Kinks/Bowie/Weller furrow and her voice becomes a conduit for black music – both homegrown, American and Caribbean. It’s as much Smiley Culture’s ‘Cockney Translation’ as it is Ian Dury’s ‘Reasons To Be Cheerful’; as much Light Of The World’s ‘London Town’ as it is Blur’s ‘Country House’.
The great thing is that, nowadays, this is perfectly natural. People are allowed to sing in London accents these days, and nobody thinks they sound like Old Man Steptoe.