Music

I don’t think this song means what you think it means

Today, I went to Canary Wharf to meet some friends at a pub, in order to collectively celebrate Mother’s Day. It was one of those very modern, family-friendly chain pubs where the menu features British standards such as fish and chips alongside twists on dishes from other countries and cultures. Vietnamese spicy chicken wings. Harissa prawns. Monkfish with tarkha dahl.

It was a lovely day here in London. The pub was was loud and lively, and children played happily around us as we ate. At one point though, I happened to notice the music that was faintly playing in the background. The song was “Across 110th Street,” a 1972 Bobby Womack soul track that he wrote for the obscure 1972 blaxploitation film of the same name.

Across 110th Street
Pimps trying to catch a woman that’s weak
Across 110th Street
Pushers won’t let the junkie go free
Across 110th Street
Woman trying to catch a trick on the street
Across 110th Street
You can find it all in the street

I don’t know if you have ever been to Canary Wharf, but it is not a place where you are especially likely to see a pimp trying to catch a woman that’s weak. It’s quite a bit nicer than that. The things that you will find in the street in Canary Wharf will likely not be women trying to catch a trick, but rather global banking establishments, upscale clothing stores and chain pubs and restaurants selling things such as Vietnamese spicy chicken wings (which are delicious, by the way. I’m a big fan).

In fact, Canary Wharf might be London’s most thoroughly sanitised neighbourhood. A manufactured place with no history, filled with buildings constructed in the 1980s and 90s, where everything is as corporate and sterile as possible, even the music playlists. Chain establishments here do not play songs at random – everything is planned out and put together by someone in an office, who vets each song to match the mood of the restaurant and its clientele and then distributes the playlists to regional managers who make sure that they are played in particular sequences at particular times of day.

Hey brother, there’s a better way out
Snorting that coke, shooting that dope man you’re copping out
Take my advice, it’s either live or die
You’ve got to be strong, if you want to survive

I agree that it is good advice to be strong if you want to survive, and I do imagine that there were likely to be many bankers nearby with an interest in cocaine. But other than those two facts, as I sat there listening, I couldn’t help but think about how Across 110th Street was a song that was thoroughly out of place for this environment.

Maybe it was a misunderstanding. Some corporate drone somewhere assembling a “Motown” style music mix for the restaurant chain who wasn’t paying attention to the lyrics. People misunderstand songs all the time. Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” was used as a patriotic anthem by some politicians, who were oblivious to its real meaning as an ode to America’s downtrodden and forgotten working class.

The family on the other side of town
Would catch hell without a ghetto around
In every city you find the same thing going down
Harlem is the capital of every ghetto town

Who cares if “Across 110th street” is about junkies and pushers, pimps and prostitutes? It sort of, kind of reminds me of Marvin Gaye. Or Curtis Mayfield, or some other Motowner. Was Bobby Womack part of Motown? Doesn’t matter. I just love faintly hearing sort-of Motown music in the background while I eat sort-of Vietnamese spicy chicken wings in a clean, family friendly corporate restaurant.

But I really don’t think this was a mistake as much as a case of music being stripped of its meaning and context, shipped across the Atlantic ocean and turned into a commodity. Isn’t that what corporations do?

So I was wrong earlier. There is a history to Canary Wharf that I had overlooked. This area used to be the location of the busiest docks on the planet. A place where clipper ships went out all over the world in the name of trade, collecting products from every corner of the globe, all brought back to London to be labelled, sold and re-sold. Tea and spices of course, but also alcohol, opium, guns and  and slaves.This was the very heart and soul of the British Empire – the centre of an exploitative regime that stripped much of the rest of the world of its dignity and its resources, generating unimaginable wealth as well as huge amounts of human misery, all in the name of corporate profit!

Woah.

Sorry about that rant.

I didn’t mean to make a connection between London’s docklands and a song capturing the hardships of black people living in the ghettos of 1970s America. Nope. Those docks have all been torn down and replaced with shiny, clean office buildings. Everything is fine now.

I’m just here for the Vietnamese spicy chicken wings and the Motown music.

The family on the other side of town
Would catch hell without a ghetto around
In every city you find the same thing going down
Harlem is the capital of every ghetto town

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