And the dude played on

Ralph McTell's street cred may have taken a knock back in 1974, but he can still sing you a song that'll make you change your mind.
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Tonight in Huntingdon, Ralph McTell begins a 46-date tour that marks, refreshingly without a single item of anniversary merchandise or even a passing mention in the promotional advertising, his first 30 years in showbiz. It is with an irony as subtle as the singer-songwriter's own work - dealing as it so often has, in its own quiet way, with everything from old age to homelessness, autism, addiction, injustice and racism - that such radical barnstorming, however sheepish the clothing, should be kicking off in the very heartland of Conservative values.

It comes as no surprise to find that the image of Ralph McTell as cardiganed heir to the tottering throne of Val Doonican in the family entertainment stakes is one that's become increasingly irksome to the man himself ever since "Streets of London" was a worldwide smash in 1974. "It's a shame when a good song becomes a cliche and people are embarrassed by it," he sighs, and obviously not for the first time. "But, by any criteria, I have to say that it is a good song - even if I didn't particularly like it at one time myself - because the world knows it, it gets played in schools, people learn to play guitar to it, and maybe some of them get a perspective about alienation and loneliness through it. I can't knock it."

Which doesn't stop other people. But what other people? Not that long ago French and Saunders memorably rounded up a squad of rock's guitar heroes for a TV sketch revolving around the premise that McTell, arraigned in the dock before a judicially attired Dawn French, had conned a generation with a play-in-a-day guitar book that didn't work. John Williams turned the gig down, but McTell was duped into being there and couldn't wriggle out of it. The result? A nation of twenty- and thirtysomethings marvelled sympathetically at the man's sheer good-blokishness for months thereafter.

"The funniest thing was, straight after we'd done the thing in one take, and I was trying to find my manager to break his nose, Lemmy out of Motorhead went up and asked for his money - and it was only a 30 quid appearance fee - and they said, `Well, er, it's the BBC, Lemmy, you'll get the money in due course.' `I want it now,' he said. And they actually had a whip round among the camera crew to get him his 30 quid! So I was standing there, just staggered by this - it was real rock 'n' roll, and it took the heat out of it. And of course when the show went out, people would point at me in the street and shout `Guilty!' I couldn't believe how well the whole thing went off."

Credibility's a slippery cove. It's taken as read that Ralph, writer of gentle melodies, careful words and delicate sentiments doesn't have any. Yet even random listening to his albums reveals a powerful craftsman whose best work transcends its period of creation. A straw poll among friends and colleagues reveals some surprising results too: musicians, from heavy metal guitar players to Irish traditional singers, have absolutely no hesitation in calling him top man; young women, and I have no explanation for this, have simply never heard of him; while media folk tend to chortle and launch into good-natured banter concerning cabaret acts and Radio 2.

But, for some brief period around the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, Ralph was well on his way to the land of the Nick Drakes and the Tim Buckleys - those doomed adonis types who reside in a posthumous netherworld of boxed sets and glittering retrospectives in Mojo. He was, as contemporary reports confirm, the popular sensation of the whole vast, end-of-swinging- Sixties event. Surely the biggest audience of his career?

"Yes, apart from Episode 10 of Alphabet Zoo, when we hit seven million," he muses, with a deadpanningly profound grimness. "But it's a shame really that I couldn't have gone on seamlessly from the Isle of Wight 'cos it couldn't have got more cred than that, could it? I mean, there I was in front of 250,000 people with an acoustic guitar, two mikes and absolutely no crowd-manipulation powers, just the songs. I was on for 35 minutes, it went down a storm, I got an encore and it was just amazing..." He can remember exactly what he was wearing on the day too.

But no, the great god of rock iconography had other plans for the young man from Croydon - and who is to say they haven't had their own quieter, subtler rewards? Certainly Ralph isn't denying his gratitude for an enviable career that's maintained concert hall audiences over three decades and still encompasses, at his live shows, three generations. Others may have burnt out only to live on in the imaginations of biographers and dream- seekers years hence, but Ralph has just dealt with his muse in a less sensational, but no less passionate, manner.

"I really don't try to offend and shock," he says. "I want people to be stimulated by what they hear from me and maybe discuss it. I'd never say to somebody `You're talking a load of shit you fascist bastard' - that's not my way. I take 'em on but I do it in a different way. With Tim Buckley, and some of the others that passed on, I always felt they knew everything too soon and wrote with a certainty that leads to a finality. What would they have done at 45? What would they have done at 50? Whereas me, I didn't know, I suggested, I put some things across - very gently, perhaps too gently for some people - but I've been finding out. I'm 52, I'm still not entirely certain and I'm still looking to back up my theories and opinions through the response of others as I share them in songs... I think I've just put that rather well!"

His communicative powers are at their height, he works out every day, his memory is razor sharp, but he knows his time is coming.

"I can't bear it when people talk about legendary players and say, `Yeah, he was OK, but he was a bit tired.' You shouldn't be tired, you should be on the ball - I hope people never say that about me. But it's getting harder and harder to gain the fitness for these long tours. It's a young man's game."

There may be no box-set, but a biography is imminent and right now autobiography is absorbing all the man's creative energy. He's written only one new song in two years. A worrying trend? "Well, it used to worry me tremendously," he says, "but then the kids aren't breaking down the doors to get the latest Ralph McTell album any more. I also think that I should only write when I'm really moved to. But I started to write a little memoir about growing up in the 1950s and it's still going on! I've written pages and pages and I know it's going to be OK because I go into a kind of daze when I know I'm writing good stuff. I mean, right now I could get up from my word processor, walk out the front door and meet someone I knew when I was seven years old and not be surprised - I'm right there, really there, like a catharsis, and I'm really excited about it. I'm also much more interested in working hard and getting a good show across than when it was easier - when I was current, when the audiences were guaranteed. I carried my nerves and insecurities on-stage and it all rushed past. Now I actually go out there and love to work."

Ralph McTell plays Hinchinbroke Arts Centre, Huntingdon, tonight (tel: 01480 452119)