This Saturday is National Busking Day, a series of events across the country proving that Britain’s arts establishment just don’t get it. The whole point of busking is that it’s free-spirited, independent, individualistic – exactly the sort of enterprise that doesn’t need or want a national day. ‘Let’s take something that lots of people do spontaneously, without any wish to be organised,’ goes the thinking, ‘and then organise it.’
First prize for Not Getting It goes to Gareth Powell of London Underground. ‘Busking on the Underground network,’ he says, ‘has been a rite of passage for London musicians for generations.’ Yes, Gareth – one that they pursued in spite of the Tube trying to stop them. When I moved to London in the early 1990s my Fender Stratocaster and Peavey Solo amp were regularly packed up at the request of Tube staff, though they almost always added (as they did to other buskers) that if it was up to them they’d have let me carry on. Arguments about safety were bogus – buskers want to keep their audience on side, so would never stand in people’s way. The odd moron who did, or who made a racket, could have been dealt with using public order legislation. My busking career led to an appearance at Great Marlborough Street Magistrates Court: as a libertarian I was delighted to have a criminal record, then years later was gutted to learn from a barrister friend that actually I didn’t. These days the Tube allow buskers to grace their stations, though you have to complete an application form and attend an audition and get a license and do all the things that rob busking of its inherent charm.
Busking was a fantastic lesson in the audience always being right. If you wanted to eat, you played what they liked. It was never going to be a long-term career for me, even if that had been the aim – my vaguely adequate Chicago blues playing made no sense without a backing track, and many people who saw the cassette player (parents – please explain this reference to your kids) no doubt assumed I was miming. But with the addition of a few staples (Georgia on My Mind, Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross) the bread line remained in the distance. My one really bright move was to busk outside Eric Clapton’s gigs at the Albert Hall. He always finished at 10.20pm - I’d get there at 10.15pm, set up by the tree on the way down to High Street Kensington and watch the coins and occasional note roll in. The record was 90 quid in 15 minutes. Seeing your work produce results in cash like this is the most satisfying feeling you can imagine.
If that was the best busking had to offer, the worst came one day outside the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. The weather was good, people were being generous. Then I noticed a policeman approaching. ‘OK,’ I said, ‘I’ll move on.’ ‘No, mate,’ came his reply, ‘carry on. I just wanted to ask if you knew any T-Bone Walker?’ Ten minutes later, however, he re-appeared. ‘Afraid I have got to move you on after all.’ Why the change of heart? Workers in the Opera House had opened their office windows, and were complaining about the noise. There was I, doing well in a free market, thwarted by people who received tens of millions of pounds in taxpayer subsidies every year.
The same sort of people, no doubt, who organise things like National Busking Day.