Playing pianos on the streets of London. By John Lewis. Time Out London May 2009
The frightfully well-spoken City gent is leering over me, arm around my shoulder.
‘Can you play the one about the old man following the van and not dilly dallying?’ he slurs.
It is about 3pm on a Friday and the City gent is refreshed after a long lunch, by which I mean he is shitfaced and stinks of whiskey.
He counts to four and I start playing ‘My Old Man’ in my finest cockernee stride piano style. The shitfaced City gent starts to dance a little jig while croaking out the half-remembered lyrics.
We’re right next to the Gherkin, in St Mary Axe, EC3, and I’m playing a knackered old upright piano that’s been chained to a lamppost on the pavement. I have spent the last two hours playing a variety of similarly knackered pianos located around random parts of the City.
They’ve been placed there by installation artist Luke Jerram who, following similar ventures in Birmingham, Sydney and Sao Paulo, has been funded by the City Of London Festival to install 30 ‘street pianos’ around the capital – 15 within the Square Mile, 15 more in the West End and beyond – tethering them to trees, railings and posts. A stool is tied to each one, as is a selection of sheet music.
Spray-painted across each one is the instruction ‘Play Me I’m Yours’. Throughout the Friday, a few people take up the offer. There are City boys playing half-remembered Grade Three pieces by Bach and Beethoven. There are stoned slackers banging out basslines. A slightly drunk woman in a business suit returns from the pub to stumble through ‘Chopsticks’; an unassuming-looking old man plays a perfect Scott Joplin piano rag; a glamorous Asian woman plays a song from a Sondheim musical; a struggling musician, sensing a bit of free publicity, is singing and playing Keane songs before leaving calling cards for his band. He might actually be the bloke from Keane.
The pianos are in pretty poor condition. Most have been detuned several tones – something that crafty piano dealers do when the frames are so knackered that they can’t take concert tuning. When I play the piano in front of the Bank Of England, it seems appropriate to bash out ‘Money Money Money’ by Abba, but I’m not helped by a piano with non-functioning pedals, jammed keys and a bottom two octaves that sound like a dog breaking wind. I change tack and decide to play a repertoire of London anthems. Ralph McTell’s ‘Streets Of London’ has little effect on tourists at the Royal Exchange, neither does the Small Faces’ ‘Lazy Sunday’ upon lunching City workers at Moorgate, although ‘Going Underground’ by The Jam gets a more enthusiastic reception at Liverpool Street station. At Leadenhall Market, a Chinese woman on a neighbouring textile stall cheerfully sings along when I play ‘Lambeth Walk’ and ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly’, and three pissed-up West Ham fans sing along to ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’.
I spent a few years, on and off, playing the piano in pubs, restaurants and working-men’s clubs, and have learned that the default response to any free, unwarranted music is indifference, something that only really changes when people are very, very drunk. To this end, I return to the City that evening on my way back from a concert at the Festival Hall.
I head across the Millennium Bridge and start playing a piano on the north side, in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral. Two merry foreign exchange students sing along to ‘Waterloo Sunset’ and applaud, before requesting ‘Hey Jude’. When I find out that they are Brazilian I play ‘The Girl From Ipanema’, and they excitedly sing along in Portuguese.
‘Now play me a song about London,’ they shout. I bash out the opening bars to ‘London Calling’ by The Clash, and they heartily join in, slapping the top of the piano and doing their best Joe Strummer impressions.
Emboldened, I make my way to Liverpool Street after midnight and try to entertain a crowd of pissed-up twentysomethings who’ve spilled out of the neighbouring McDonald’s by playing a medley of songs by Madness and David Bowie. Soon, arrogantly emboldened by the acclaim of drunk people, I move onto a rousing chorus of ‘Consider Yourself’ from Oliver before I realise that the last train to Walthamstow is about to leave, and I suddenly leap off the piano stool.
As I sprint to Platform Three, another pianist takes my place. I think I see a shitfaced City gent requesting a song about following a van and not dilly dallying on the way.
Play Me I’m Yours runs until mid July. See www.streetpianos.com/london2009