BBC2's The Route Masters showed us the real London: not flat-out amazing, not all-the-way terrible

Who knows the city better than a night bus driver?

Growing up and watching telly, I wasn’t held in a kung-fu grip of fascination by the city I was born in. The London on television was not that far from the real thing back in the late 1980s and early 1990s and it was not pretty. Everything looked grey and manky to my child’s eyes. I grew up in deep, dark east London – a place as unlovely as anything a city planner has ever dreamed up. I could not understand what type of great art might be born of such an unrelentingly dour environment, when the colours in artists’ palettes are reduced to only slightly different shades of grey. For me, New York and all the other shiny cities in the US that were beamed to me via the bountiful four channels (!) at my disposal were it.

The US was the land of cheerleaders, of exciting politics and courtrooms, of crazy stunts and passionately raised voices. By contrast, the London on my screen was filled with gruff East End characters, men in heavy leather jackets, their faces like grim masks. All the cop shows were steeped in depressing “realism” and the car chases were small scale, the cars knocking over carefully dressed sets of fake, wooden boxes. Men were called Terry and Razor and Dave.

The US detective shows were a glimpse into another world, full of maverick cops with a sideline in quirky little “just one more thing” habits. The everyday world of London life on London telly was just not exciting. The main problem was that it was all I had access to. You never want what you consider to be workaday, do you?

Then something changed. By the mid-to-late 1990s, between plain, old teenagehood and the not-so-plain Cool Britannia, between Britpop and SMTV Live, the internet and yet another “British invasion” of Hollywood, London reopened itself to me. It became a place to see and explore, worthy of being the subject and location of every television programme on earth.

Money poured into what had seemed like the symbol of a broken city, the Docklands, and reupholstered away the rough edges until there were steel-and-glass towers and unaffordable homes.

The London on the screen made the Tube romantic, a magical portal to a city of endless possibility. Youth TV shows such as As If assured me that adventure was right around the corner because I was young and foolish and beautiful. Hollywood portrayed London as a sleek cosmopolis, where everyone spoke only one of three very different dialects: the plummy tones of the Home Counties, broad and common Cockney or cut-glass villain. This system lacked nuance, sure, but it did the job for a long time.

These days, the London on television has evolved again and is very different from the one of my childhood. Now, it’s a marvellous mix of grit and glamour, nowhere more beautifully portrayed than on BBC2’s The Route Masters: Running London’s Roads. This documentary covers all of London – from the wealthy neighbourhoods of west London to the commuter towns of Ilford and Croydon – and shows a normally quiet but all-seeing minority, transport workers, finally breaking their silence, telling Londoners who we really are.

One recent episode, about the night-bus network, was simply excellent. “You want the right one to come in and the wrong ones do,” said the flirty but also weary and wary bus driver Duane, who was driving a bus from Brixton to the West End, about his attractive passengers. “The ones that should come over don’t.”

We met Jeff, whose life was a reminder that the things we consider permanent have a nasty habit of turning out not to be: having lost his business, he was homeless, one of the many people who use London’s night buses as a moving shelter every night. “You’re one pay cheque away,” he said with a laugh. Another driver, Tommy, had his shift interrupted by some young men causing trouble and called it into the office; his description of “a group of black guys” over the radio rubbed some of the passengers up the wrong way. One woman rolled her eyes and asked how their race was relevant – a fare dodger is a fare dodger. Tommy looked a little hurt and told the camera he wasn’t racist –his wife is black. On top of that, he’s half-Asian.

This is London, I thought. Not flat-out amazing, not all-the-way terrible. Just another city of humans, trying to get home at the end of the day.

Westminster Bridge by night. Photograph: BBC.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.