Willesden to Cricklewood - one rock star's love for forgotten London

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The Clash were a huge rock band in the late 70s and 80s, selling millions of records. Even though their music is before my time, their songs always seem to be there. Not long ago I was binge-watching Stranger Things on Netflix, set in the 80s of course, and their song ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ came up in scenes repeatedly. As an Arsenal fan, I often go to the Emirates Stadium and hear ‘London Calling’ play at the beginning of every game before the players come out. In Pamplona, I remember hearing ‘Spanish Bombs’ whilst out in a bar, a song about the Spanish Civil War. Joe Strummer was their lead singer and years after his work with the Clash, he wrote a very different kind of song - a light and mellow piece - with a title that caught my attention.

'Willesden to Cricklewood' was written and recorded by Joe Strummer and his last band the Mescaleros in 1999, three years before his death. The song title grabbed me for two reasons; the first is that I went to secondary school in Cricklewood and am always in nearby Willesden having grown up just down the road; the second is that Willesden and Cricklewood are areas of London generally not associated with glamour; far from it. Rock stars who sell millions of records don’t come here. In fact, no one comes here. An article in the Telegraph inaccurately described the area as

A North London suburb that has no library, no town hall and not even a solitary park bench.
This is a place where people perch on walls or else pester street corners.

© Photo: Adam L. Maloney (The 266 bus on Willesden High Road, North West London)

In the same article, Cricklewood is also referred to as ‘’dirty’’ with ‘’nowhere to go’’. This kind of snobbery is nothing new to me. What’s rare however, is to hear the likes of a multi-platinum selling rock star see a decrepit kind of beauty in this overlooked North West London area that only local people could understand; and to turn these observations into somewhat of an urban lullaby. This type of humble romanticism for the ramshackle is the same kind of sentiment found in songs such as ‘Dirty Old Town’ written by Ewan MacColl but made popular by the Dubliners, where romance occurs "by the factory wall". It’s a fondness for the unheeded, like that of ‘Penny Lane’ by the Beatles, a song in which they affectionately refer to the simple surroundings of their boyhood years in Liverpool, from barbershops to bus shelters and roundabouts.

© Photo: Adam L. Maloney (Mock-Tudor houses on the corner of Walm Lane & Willesden High Road)

So what connection does Joe Strummer have to this area? According to his biography 'Redemption Song', Joe Strummer would often walk from Willesden to nearby Cricklewood to meet someone there who would sell him cannabis. Along this short journey, he would take in his surroundings whilst reflecting on his life, as summed up in lyrics such as

From Willesden to Cricklewood. As I went it all looked good. Thought about my babies grown. Thought about going home.

© Photo: Adam L. Maloney (Willesden Green tube station beside more Tudor Revival architecture)

The Willesden to Cricklewood area of London has its own identity, one that snooty writers from the Telegraph would fail to appreciate; it was bombed heavily in the Second World War and became a home for Jewish refugees and Irish labourers, then migrants from the Caribbean, India and more. Following the footsteps of Joe Strummer, I took a walk from Willesden to Cricklewood, listing some of my favourite places; from the Romanian, Brazilian and Portuguese area of Willesden High Road to the village-esque Walm Lane by the tube station and finally onto the perhaps even more culturally diverse Cricklewood Broadway and its many pubs.

© Photo: Adam L. Maloney (The 332 bus on Cricklewood Broadway)

Places to check out on Joe Strummer's route

Willesden High Road

No. 8
No. 8
305 High Rd, London NW10 2JT, UK

Walm Lane

Cricklewood Broadway

“I don't have any other message than don't forget you are alive” – Joe Strummer (1952 - 2002)


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The author

Adam L. Maloney

Adam L. Maloney

Adam is a Londoner who travelled to over 20 European countries and lived in both Portugal and Spain for several years. Adam is a fan of exploring intriguing neighbourhoods and meeting locals.

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