There are thousands of songs about London. Of course there are: musicians and poets have been inspired by London for centuries – but while many have just ticked off the landmarks, a few have managed to capture London life or their own time here in a way that has earned them a place in the city’s cultural history. From wide-eyed visitors and new arrivals, and from some of the greatest London bands and artists, here are the hundred best London songs according to us. You can use the comments box below to tell us all the classics that we missed.
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The song’s narrative arc – a lagered-up ladette experiencing a fizzy pop-induced emotional crisis at the top of her lungs – will be familiar to anyone who’s ever been out in Chingford on a Saturday night (or Tuesday brunchtime). However, the song makes this list largely thanks to its canny sampling of John Betjeman’s similarly dissolute masterpiece, ‘The Cockney Amorist’.
Many Americans view London as a happy place, where smiling bobbies help royals across the road to the jellied eel shop. Hip hoppers Why?, on the other hand, see it as a kind of urban Thunderdome, where ‘the rain comes down in late July’, ‘the sirens yelp like a helpless dog’ and ‘riders on the tube tie razors to their elbows’. Guilty as charged on all counts, guv.
‘If you’re a Londoner just like me, meet me in Battersea Park!’ sings an unreasonably chirpy Clark, who was obviously either living rough there or just really, really ahead of the curve when it came to the flashmob phenomenon. She promises ’music and dancing and a place for romancing’, all of which have sadly been outlawed by park ordinances in the intervening years.
Inspired by the band’s seemingly less than thrilling first trip to London, the song refers to ‘a rainy grey town known for its sound’ where ‘Small Faces abound’. London, for what it’s worth, wasn’t so impressed with The Byrds’ divaish ways back than, with the press openly mocking imperious guitarist David Crosby’s omnipresent green cape.
The lyrics, which refer to waiting for a lover on a bench in the titular micropark, are now engraved on the one nearest the south entrance, the result of a touching campaign by fans of the singer to commemorate her tragic death in 2000. MacColl devotees gather there to raise a toast to MacColl each October 10, on what would have been her birthday.
Manilow’s characteristically overblown ode to the world’s all-time greatest city bar none shoehorns in every possible cliche about the capital – from Big Ben to cups of tea to ‘dodging the rain’ into its four-minute running time – and yet still sound like… well, an Ocado order of clichés. But an affectionate and unaffected one.
On the surface it’s a simply ditty about London’s ample opportunities to hear amazing music and meet interesting people at fun parties. Under the surface? Same thing. But ‘I Love London’ scores extra points for actively suggesting the protagonists want to go to ‘Willesden, Harlesden, Watford Junction’. Now that’s commitment.
Dury wrote this song to mark an exhibition by Sir Peter Blake – his former tutor at the RCA – at the Tate Gallery in 1983. Blake spoke to Time Out about the late punk singer:
‘He was a great poet, wasn’t he? In the same vein as Betjeman or Roger McGough. He used words beautifully, because he was interested in words. He always had dictionaries around him. He loved words. I really admired his portrayal of characters in his songs, he could give you a sense of a person in very few lyrical brushstrokes.’
You could call Forest Gate’s Ben Drew a Renaissance man: he’s a versatile guy (as an MC, singer-songwriter, actor and film director), and there’s something of the Shakespearean tragedy about his pitch-black state-of-London film ‘Ill Manors’. This title song acts as the film’s chorus: in just under four minutes of doomy strings, breakbeats and vicious rhyming, Drew drags you round his ends for a whistlestop tour of David Cameron’s ‘Broken Britain’.
Heavily inspired by Ralph McTell’s busker classic ‘Streets of London’ (see our Top Ten), and recorded at Abbey Road Studios, Meuross’s sweeping, bittersweet glance at the city takes in London’s wealth and poverty, its triumph and tragedy. No, it doesn’t exactly capture the zeitgeist – this is the town of Dick Whittington and cheeky cockneys rather than Boris Johnson and tech-city hipsters – but if ‘My Name Is London Town’ doesn’t bring at least a tiny lump to your throat, you may wish to reconsider calling yourself a Londoner.
Although little talked about these days, the industrial dispute which began at Willesden’s Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories paved the way for the 1979 Conservative election victory, the miners’ strike and all the hilarity which followed. London reggae producer Bovell’s dub instrumental (released under the name 4th Street Orchestra) doesn’t have to spell out its fury with words. Unless we’re misinterpreting it and he was all in favour of breaking the unions – in which case, maybe this isn’t as good a song as we thought.
Hampstead Way was the location of a commune where Linda Lewis lived, and which was where she first learned to play the guitar and began writing songs. Fortuitously, among the other residents were Robert Wyatt (singer and drummer for The Soft Machine), promoter/America manager Jeff Deter and Warner A&R Ian ‘Sammy’ Samwell, who would ultimately be instrumental in the (still hugely underrated) soul sensation signing to the label.
This song commemorates a legendary psychedelic all-nighter at Alexandra Palace. Time Out’s former art editor Sarah Kent remembers the night:
‘The bands were up on a platform in the middle of the room, so there wasn’t a separate stage area and audience area, it was all mixed up. Also everybody was pretty stoned, so that made it even more confusing. In the main area people were hanging about but not dancing – I don’t remember any dancing at all, which was strange. It was a much more freaky, slightly alienated sort of atmosphere. In the side areas I remember a lot of people sitting around on the floor; it became a kind of happening, and it just seemed to go on and on and on. I remember thinking: This is really weird, but I’m obviously in the right place.’
In the late 1970s Squeeze were masters of the London song, responsible for the ageless rhyme ‘I never thought it would happen with me and a girl from Clapham’ (more on that one later). ‘Piccadilly’ is a tour of London’s bustling nightlife through the eyes of a couple on a date to the theatre, followed by a curry. Much of the song still rings true, although the internet might have put paid to the ‘neon club lights of adult films’.
The ‘Special Relationship’ distilled into R&B form. Estelle is fascinated with the suave glamour, boxfresh style and exotic travel potential of her 5'7" suitor. Meanwhile, for all his complimentary chatter about the stylish suits and peacoats that the ‘London blokes’ are rocking, Kanye is all about the Ribena.
The titans of twee pulled off a neat lyrical coup by using GLR’s traffic report as a metaphor for the singer’s desperate attempts to reach his girl, as night falls heavy and dark in The Big Smoke. ‘The traffic’s caused a roadblock in my heart,’ he laments, later adding rather sweetly, ‘and on the radio I hear the evening news, but all I think of is you.’ The song is also a declaration of his faith in and love of London – ‘this is my home, this is where I want to be,’ he affirms. Aw gee, shucks.
More grandly known as The Church Of The Immaculate Heart Of Mary, Brompton Oratory is one of London’s most spectacular churches and would likely be more famous if it weren’t situated right next the still more imposing V&A. Cave captures both its majesty and loneliness in this typically baroque eulogy with lines like, ‘Hail this joyful day’s return/Into its great shadowed vault I go.’
The iconic palace/prison isn’t the only landmark in this punchy synth-pop number, which is as much an ode to the (perceived) wealth and glamour of the capital in the mid-1980s. ‘Let me take you to Trafalgar Square,’ offers Martin Fry in the opening line, where ‘every street’s a catwalk, everyone’s debonair.’ Promising to whirl whoever down St James’s Square and Mayfair, the man in the gold suit then proclaims his love for ‘the Tower.’ Repeatedly.
Everyone knows someone who moved to London to find themselves, only to discover someone completely different and not as nice. Here Jim Kerr muses about the wayward antic of his party-centric, increasingly soulless former friend. Before you get any ideas: it was recorded in 1979, 13 years before his marriage to Patsy Kensit.
In 2011 Ed didn’t look old enough to have left the Scouts, let alone the bosom of his family. But in this song he’s a streetwise character with a cynic’s eye for the pleasures and pitfalls of the big city, which he credits with informing, inspiring and ultimately improving his music. Nice work, London.
‘I’ve been walking around Soho for the last night or so,’ sighs broken folkie Paul Simon. And what has he learned from his excursion? ‘Blessed are the meth drinkers, pot sellers, illusion dwellers… the penny rookers, the cheap hookers.’ Don’t mean to show you up here, Paul, but it sounds to us more like you’ve been wandering round Thamesmead.
It’s not all flat whites and fixies out east. Lower Clapton may have gentrified itself out of the Murder Mile sobriquet, but Upper Clapton is still what estate agents would be refer to as a ‘vibrant’ and ‘developing’ area where ‘a few weeks ago a bullet missed and struck a minor’. (Spot which one of these quotes is from Pro Green rather than Felicity J Lord).
It’s micturating it down in central London, and – surprise surprise – Shane MacGowan has had a skinful. But for once, this hasn’t put him in a maudlin mood. ‘I took shelter from a shower, and I stepped into your arms’ croons the pseudo-Irish Islingtonian of meeting his lifelong love in one of his most tender recorded moments.
Yes, this really is a Chas & Dave cover version – longtime Muswell Hill resident Amos has clearly gone native. Rather than compose her own tribute to the capital’s ladyfolk, she chose to cover the rockney duo, but her slow, breathy delivery makes Chas & Dave’s celebration of the city’s gooseberries (ie women) sound more like an exercise in romantic eugenics.
London-based rising dubstep trio LV keep it bassy while poet/MC Idehen freestyles his thoughts on the tube line’s most famous stops. ‘What do you know about Moorgate? Does anyone know about Moorgate?’ asks Idhen with a snigger. Safe to say that’s a no then. But it’s good to know what he gets up to in King’s Cross.
London: the best place on Earth to be miserable. Although Fitzgerald’s forlorn rendition is easily the most affecting version of this much-covered standard, the original – recorded for 1937 musical ‘A Damsel in Distress’ – brought together the talents of George and Ira Gershwin with writer PG Wodehouse and leading man Fred Astaire, a confluence of greats which made it the ‘StreetDance 3D’ of its day.
One of those Genesis numbers that just would never have happened in the Phil Collins era, this sprawling, over-ambitious and occasionally confusing epic is based on a news story about a real-life battle between various London gangs fighting over East End protection rights. Only the names were changed to protect the guilty. And Peter Gabriel.
And you thought the retro-soul phenomenon was a huge coincidence rather than a major label strategy? This tear-stained ode to escaping a relationship by tube to Little Venice was written with the ‘serious pop’ dream team of Eg White (songwriter for Adele) and Jimmy Hogarth (ditto, for Amy Winehouse). All of which may explain the clinically catchy appeal of its chorus.
Getting the tube was a dangerous business in the ’70s, or at least that’s if you believe Paul Weller. On his way home with a curry in a bag, the hapless protagonist here gets knocked out by some National Front thugs, and his suburban life flashes before his eyes as he blacks out staring at an advert for cheap holidays. Simple enough – but we haven’t been able to find any convincing theories to explain the baffling line ‘I put in the money and pull out a plum’, let alone why anyone would bring a curry on the tube. The skinheads probably just took offence at him stinking up the carriage.
Jerry Only of The Misfits explains how the band ended up getting slammed in an actual London prison:
‘During our early years we tried to do an English tour with The Damned. When we completed our first three shows we walked off the tour after not being paid. We went to London, and after that I went to Canterbury with Sid Vicious’s mom Anne. Our singer Glenn Danzig and guitarist Bobby Steele went to see The Jam at The Rainbow. A bunch of skinheads started a fight with Glenn, who turned to watch Bobby run down the block! To protect himself, Glenn pulled a piece of glass from the Rainbow’s broken window and got arrested. In Brixton jail, he put the lyrics together for “London Dungeon”.’
Dubstep pioneer Skream gets dewy-eyed about the DMZ club night, held at Brixton Mass, which was a crucible for the development of London’s currently thriving bass scene. Not that you can tell he’s being affectionate – as with practically all dubstep, it still sounds like the theme tune for a snail being chased by a hungry tortoise.
Despite what the faux-oriental arrangement might have you believe, the Hong Kong Garden which inspired this number was in fact a Chinese takeaway in Chislehurst, frequented by the band and (sadly) groups of racist skinheads who would terrorise the owners. Siouxsie Sioux’s sympathetic lyrics haven’t aged particularly well in the PC era, but her sense of frustration remains apparent.
Chas Hodges explains how London slang gave them a hit:
‘We sang “Wertcha” initially. It was a phrase we remembered from childhood, something yer dad would say before he slapped you one. It was part of what we called “rockney”: singing rock ’n’ roll about things we understood in our own accents. By the time we recorded it as “Gertcha!”, we changed one lyric: “When me rock ’n’ roll records wake him up” became “When me punk rock records wake him up.” Then it got used on a beer ad and made us some money. But there was always that London accent that gave it punk energy.’
After crossing the Atlantic on a tanker ship during World War II, Trinidadian musician George Browne arrived in London and started to forge a career as a calypso singer. His eyewitness song about the Queen’s coronation was broadcast on the BBC on the evening of the event. It was a hit, but it was also a white lie: tipped off about details including the Queen’s outfit and the parade route, Browne had written the lyrics weeks in advance so that the record could be released in time for Liz’s big day.
Among normal society, this song is best known for the repeated ‘Wahooo’ of its chorus. Ask any pub bore about it, though, and they’ll delight in telling you that the werewolf of the title is searching for Gerrard Street Chinese eatery Lee Ho Fooks. However, if he had any sense, he’d have headed to 72 Shaftesbury Avenue to the rather more fitting, four-star-rated-by-Time-Out budget Mongolian hotpot establishment, Little Lamb.
Everyone knows that your first few jobs in London will find you largely living in your overdraft, barely scraping enough change for a pint. The Rakes’ two-minute pop juggernaut simultaneously celebrates reaching a wage where you can (just about) afford to exist in the capital and pokes fun at the mundanity of an office-bound existence. Make sure to check out the video, which eagerly encourages choreography in the workplace. As do we.
He might be from Birmingham, but Mike Skinner’s breakthrough tune smacks of London’s gritty streets long before he name checks his TFL journey (taking in Mile End, Ealing, Brixton and Bounds Green). His lyrical snapshots of the capital’s urban jungle are sharply observed and delivered over the now classic mix of sparse beats and that distinctive, looped piano line.
‘I am so Bow E3… I’ve been doing this stuff for so long,’ asserts Wiley on this gruff, grimey, bass-wobbled track. A kiss off to any who dare question his East End authenticity, Wiley name drops his local Chinese (Moon Lee), various E3 estates and streets, eager to prove that he’s the king when it comes to repping his old ’hood. It remains unclear whether he’s receiving a kickback from the Bow tourist board.
Bob Dylan fan Donovan broke the mould by making British pop’s first explicit drug reference – ‘violent hash smoker shook the chocolate machine’ – in this 1966 single. Unsurprisingly, this was swiftly followed by a drugs bust which resulted in a £250 fine. However, the arrest was more likely the result of the singer’s documented drug use in the TV documentary ‘A Boy Called Donovan’ than by the Drugs Squad poring over his lyrics.
There are dozens of songs about the tube, but most pale in comparison to Lord Kitchener’s 1950s calypso classic. The optimistic sun-always-shines-in-subterranea music disguises lyrics about getting lost in the crowds below ground. Spookily accurate, considering Lord Kitchener wrote the tune before he had ever even seen London and played it to a camera crew at Tilbury Docks upon his arrival from Trinidad.
As local historians, students of former resident Christopher Marlowe and fans of Madness will know, the area bordering Shoreditch was once an autonomously governed ‘liberty’ controlled by St Paul’s Cathedral. The parish, its theatre, shops and pubs were sadly merged with Shoreditch in 1900, leaving Inner Temple and Middle Temple the only surviving extra-parochial enclaves in London.
‘Light up your spliff/Light up your chalice/Mek we a burn in Buk-in-hamm Palace’… said Alice. Actually, it was rebel reggae star Peter Tosh, torching his chances of a knighthood. When this ultra-funky reggae-meets-disco single was first released, the just the thought of ‘toking’ on a ‘doobie’ in the royal residence was enough to get you executed for treason, although it’s now known that MBEs including The Beatles have done just that (although not, as you might expect, Prince Harry).
Originally created as a comic answer song to the noirish ‘One Night In New York City’ by The Horrorist, this unfussily pounding brick of techno tells the story of young visitor to London stumbling into a world of warehouse parties, oddly dressed natives and and serious, heads-down raving. And a lot of drugs and Stella. A less generously spirited, hipster-skewering ‘Shoreditch Remix’ also exists.
Not everybody loves life in Hampstead. Few would have picked classic, old-school rockers The Wildhearts as denizens of London’s chi-chi NW3, but it seems they once were. In this rather less than affectionate portrait of the leafy Heath ’hood, singer Ginger scathingly reveals that ‘the euthanasia dream brigade are melting in the Hampstead shade’, and describes how ‘all my neighbours disappear the moment [I] get too near; I stick out like elephant ears on misery street.’ One imagines a local petition was started to move him on.
Written by future ‘Crossroads’ theme composer Tony Hatch, this chirpy number opens with the image of a rain-lashed platform full of commuters jostling for space on a crowded train. The whooping, joyous chorus is at odds with the crushing routine and appalling manners depicted in the lyrics – but then it would be, ear-gouging death metal not having been invented in the 1960s.
There are artists called Whitechapel, Angel and Rixton (close enough), but we had to find a place on this list for the only singer we can think of who’s actually named after a London station. Will Doyle was staying near East India DLR when he started his one-man synthpop project, and – naturally – namechecked the Docklands in this bubbling hymn to good old urban isolation. We can testify from personal experience that it also makes a great soundtrack for sitting at the front of a DLR train pretending to drive. Fun!
Chase And Status are better known for their tartrazine dubstep workouts than their pithy lyrics, but this recent outing is worth a listen just for the delightful novelty of hearing Georgian supersoul singer Cee Lo using phrases such as ‘beautiful birds’, ‘blokes… get a Chelsea grin’ and ‘tell the old bill fuck off’.
David Tomlinson’s big number from this children’s musical presents the West London bric-a-brac market as both a wondrous cove of occult mysteries and the epicentre of the faux-vintage rip-off trade. Voicing that sentiment there these days is likely to earn you some beaky stares from the well-to-do artisans who now throng its pavements, but we kind of preferred it the old way.
Who’d have thought a song about a flower could so succinctly represent the indomitable spirit of the city? Like London itself, Saxifraga x urbium aka ‘London Pride’ is a hardy perennial, which became a symbol of London’s fortitude thanks to the ease which it colonised bomb craters during the Blitz.
Typically, this cut from the Scottish twee-poppers starts out all nostalgic for an era which never existed, eulogising ‘men in their bowlers, kids with their spats… dogs wearing hats’. Then it gets down to some serious polyamory, which is far more befitting NW1.
Recorded as a follow-up single to ‘Space Oddity’, this underexposed gem was originally written by Bowie in the 1960s, the title taken directly from a West Indian family waving goodbye to relatives catching a train from Victoria Station. The pro-diversity sentiment was unusual for the era: Bowie’s first take on the song was recorded just weeks before Enoch Powell made his less edifying ‘Rivers of blood’ contribution to the immigration debate.
While this album track was overshadowed by the pop trio’s singles, the sharp lyrics to this sugary song skewered the self-satisfied youth of the early 1980s. London’s nightlife is described as a seedy jungle with ‘Girls in the corner, boys looking for a fight’, while the underlying conservatism of the hip is addressed with the pay-off ‘When you get engaged you know you’ve reached your goal.’ Ouch.
It’s little wonder the US bluesman tried to settle in London: during the 1960s blues boom, Williamson was treated like a god by London’s awestruck young rock musicians. After recording with The Yardbirds, he accidentally set his hotel room on fire by trying to cook a rabbit in a coffee percolator. Then he stabbed a man during a street fight and had to leave in a hurry, hence the visa issues that stopped him from permanently swapping the Mississipi for the Thames.
Today’s young whippersnappers don’t have the monopoly on rioting. Back in 1982, Eddy Grant was singing about ‘violence in the street’ because the protagonist ‘can’t afford a thing on TV’ or ‘get food for them kid’. If only we’d paid attention to the verses at the time instead of just singing along to its insanely catchy chorus.
Radio One DJ Tony Blackburn on this summery Brit-funk anthem, which he helped to popularise in 1980:
‘Light Of The World were one of a clutch of British funk bands who emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were putting a definite London accent to the soul music we all loved: a touch of reggae, a bit of rock. “London Town” was a cute and funky tune, something I was still playing well into the 1980s. DJs like Chris Hill and Robbie Vincent were the voices on the underground, but me and Steve Walsh were taking it to a bigger audience. We wanted housewives to hear this stuff, not just guys at the Soul Weekenders.’
On January 18 1981, 14 young black people were killed in a house fire which swept through a birthday party at 439 New Cross Road. Although the cause remains unknown, a racially-motivated arson attack was suspected, and the police were accused of covering up the truth. In light of the Macpherson Report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, LKJ’s brutally simple verses describing the party and ensuing horror seem more cutting today than when the track was recorded.
The judiciary may wish to disagree with the song’s May Day riots-inspired thesis that smashing stuff up is especially heroic, but this celebration of civil unrest pays homage to a grand London tradition: remaining polite until well past boiling point, and then exploding with omnidirectional fury.
The late Culture’s handy guide to translating between cockney and patois is now something of a museum piece, partly because computers can do all that sort of thing much more easily than reggae songs, but also because London has seen the two dialects merge more and more over the intervening decades. Still, it’s worth knowing this stuff: as Smiley says, ‘ya never when them might buck up a cockney’.
These days Mark Knopfler and co are mega-rich avatars of the overblown MTV era. There’s a certain irony in the fact that they named themselves after their financial circumstances while they were a struggling London pub rock band, and that they scoring their first major hit with a song sympathising with (and yet gently taking the piss out of) a struggling pub jazz band working ‘south of the river’.
The Bard Of Barking has made no secret of his love for William Blake, going so far as to name the album from which this is taken ‘William Bloke’. This single imagines Blake having a socialist epiphany on Primrose Hill, an activity we’d heartily recommend if you have a free Sunday afternoon.
Another paean to the itinerant musician. This one’s a busker sitting drinking cans of Tennant’s Extra in north London’s most chi-chi suntrap with his mangy dog, while watching the assorted bohemians, bourgeoisie and yummy mummies go by and dreaming of a bag of chicken and chips. We’ve all been there, surely.
The sheer size and sinister, murky sheen of the Thames mean it doesn’t immediately bring the concept of stoicism to mind. But this trad jazz classic, borrowed heavily from ‘Old Man River’, portrays London’s watery artery in a way that seems recognisable in its citizenry: placid and hard to read on the surface, but with some serious hidden depths.
‘Sailing downstairs to the Northern line, watching the shine of the shoes…’ Living in a Belsize Park bedsit in the early ’70s, and suffering heavily from the depression that would eventually lead to his death only three years later, on this song from his ‘Pink Moon’ album Nick Drake vividly tells us how lonely the city can be.
Lily Allen has a unique talent for making the best of times out of the worst of times. Pimps and crack whores enjoy the sun. An old lady is mugged by a bad samaritan. And let’s not forget Allen is only cycling around London to start with because she lost her driver’s license. But Allen finds the whole horror show to be glorious Bedlam-style entertainment, a sentiment the city’s legions of cynical people watchers can get behind.
The sprawling mutant folk collective tells the story of a young gent carousing through London’s streets, where he meets, pulls and ultimately does the wild thing with a fair maid. Then, he steals her money, watch ring and (only in a folk song) silver snuff box. This sort of thing is why Bellowhead are the moral winners of a billion Mercury Awards.
New arrivals are the cultural Gulf Stream of London. While native Londoners and longtime residents affect a world-weary air that suggests they’ve already done everything in town twice, life for newbies can vacillate between uncontrollable thrills and unignorable doubts. Here Morrissey, daredevil of the euphoric-melancholic tightrope, strikes just the right balance to nail the sensation.
Living in London isn’t (always) like a Richard Curtis film. But don’t take our word for it: you can trust a Mercury-nominated poet and spoken word artist from Peckham to get right down into the grit and sporadic soullessness of London life. ‘All over this city, people are hungry for things that they don’t know the name of,’ raps Kate Tempest in her stunning portrait of a lonely city of screens, police lights and concrete. Bleak? For sure – but as anyone who’s lived here knows, sometimes it really does seem like there’s nothing more to London than ‘waiting for trains home and waiting for trains in and waiting for life to begin’.
New Cross, Piccadilly Circus, Old Kent Road, Ladbroke Grove, Clapham, Brixton, Hackney, Seven Sisters… local rapper Blak Twang certainly wrings maximum value from his conceptual Oyster card on this track, which name-checks strands of London’s public bus and rail system and the diverse neighbourhoods they travel through. ‘Good work, London SE8,’ he says approvingly of his local ‘dettwork’, before repping other points of the compass with the (literally) old-school rhyme ‘never eat Shredded Wheat’.
In 1989, a young film student at St Martins found himself kicked out of his flat in Camberwell and temporarily homeless. Then he heard about an empty flat in Lewey House off Burdett Road, E3 – and so began what Jarvis Cocker has since described as ‘the worst nine months of my entire life’. This deceptively jaunty musical memoir (which ended up on the bestselling ‘Trainspotting’ soundtrack) starts as a description of a horrible squat, then widens its scope to a whole tower block before taking in the whole ailing East End. ‘Nobody wants to be your friend ’cause you’re not from round here,’ Cocker laments, ‘As if that was something to be proud about.’ Clearly he never visited the go-kart track round the corner.
‘I know she came to save you, but she knocked my drink over too.’ London isn’t just about big themes, high drama and comically oversized felt Union Flag top hats. One of its most consuming qualities is the knowledge that it’s home to almost eight million small and very human stories. Marling’s beautifully observed dissection of romance gone awry is one of the better ones, thanks to couplets such as ‘It’s all the bad things, I wish I hadn’t done/I know you’re all about the dancing but I just don’t find it fun.’
Inspired by Paul Weller’s move from Woking to the big bad city, and the general laissez faire brusqueness of London’s inhabitants, ‘Strange Town’ actually features some important advice to new transplants to the city. Especially the words ‘You’ve got to walk in a straight line’ – why can’t more people manage this?
This late-career classic rocker casts Dame Elton as a veritable Nelson’s Column of the music biz, observing the many changes in London’s social (and political) composition from on high. Disco gives way to punk which is replaced by new romanticism, and yet nothing really changes.
Marc Bolan’s mod-informed stomper touches on urban life, but is really just a pretty frame for its oft-repeated central refrain of ‘We are the London boys’. A glam terrace anthem if ever there was one, and a clue as to how burly hooligans could reconcile themselves to music made by fey wisps in glittery make-up and stack heels.
Curving its way through 25 miles of suburban north London, the North Circular is one of London’s major road arteries. The one thing most people have to say about it is that it’s a lot better than the South Circular. But seen through the eyes of young Londoners Real Lies on this dreamy single, the humble A406 becomes a rain-streaked avenue of hope, love and bleary-eyed romance: Pet Shop Boys meets The Streets meets LBC traffic news.
These days, Dizzee is known and loved as the all-round adorable purveyor of credible-yet-bouncy rap-pop. Once upon a time, though, he was the tortured prince of grime MCs. ‘Hype Talk’ details the chaotic period after Rascal won the Mercury, and Bow’s then-localised grime scene exploded around his a haze of rumour, innuendo and jealousy.
Finding rhymes for ‘Clapham’ and ‘Common’ in the first four lines of a song takes some skill, but one thing we can’t credit Chris Difford for is the title for this classic kitchen-sink tale: that was from Nell Dunn’s ’60s short story collection about the south London slums. The smelly basement where Difford’s narrator and his girl from Clapham shack up will have been converted into a luxury studio by now, of course.
Not just any old greasy spoon in Kentish Town, but the favourite of songwriters Bob Stanley (a well-known champion of such old-school gaffs) and Pete Wiggs – and celebrated in song on their album ‘So Tough’. It later inspired a compilation LP called ‘Songs for Mario’s Café’, featuring a collection of tracks by different artists all deemed suitable for playing in a café. Especially, one presumes, a café with ‘squeezy bottles under Pepsi signs,’ where ‘Joe and Johnny chew the bacon rind.’ If you fancy a bit of Pepsi ’n’ bacon rind yourself, you can find Mario’s at 6 Kelly St, NW1.
Wallace, Gilbert and Partners’ Art Deco triumph, built in 1932 on the edge of the A40, is the crowning glory of Perivale. Its splendour (‘Must have been a wonder when it was brand new’) is justly celebrated in this song, which mentions its ‘scrolls and inscriptions, like those of the Egyptian age.’ It’s surely the only song about a vacuum cleaner factory ever written – and who would have figured the bile-filled Costello as a fan of one of history’s frilliest architectural movements?
In this era of austerity, it’s good to know there’s one place in London you can go where you won’t need to worry about tightening your belt. That’s because SFC in Canning Town offers the Junior Special meal deal. Contents vary, but usually includes two wings and fries for just, as Red Hot Entertainment repeatedly inform us in this cult grime cut, ‘one pound and fifty pence’.
Younger readers may find it hard to wrap their heads around this pre-24-hour-licensing tale of a night spent clubbing ‘up west’ (when the West End had clubs), which ends with the narrator people-watching and waiting for the drugs to wear off in the iconic Old Compton Street cafe of the title. That was what they did in the 1990s, kids. Bar Italia has been dispensing caffeine to the city’s lost souls and night owls for decades, and Jarvis Cocker clearly spent a lot of time there when he was at St Martins College nearby.
The most memorable performance of this romantic London song took place in 1940, during the early days of the Blitz. Sylvia Harris was there:
‘It was the beginning of the air raids, but we went out, because we wanted to go out. The Shepherds Bush Empire had such nice shows. Judy Campbell was a successful young starlet then, and she came on in a satin evening frock, looking glamorous. “A Nightingale Sang…” just hit the right note for the time: it was so divinely escapist: “There was magic abroad in the air/There were angels dining at the Ritz…” It was nothing to do with air raids. And when she got to the point where she sang, “a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square,” she held up her hand and sang, “Hark!” – you know, for the nightingale. And then “Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!”: instead of the nightingale, we got the air raid siren! The theatre just fell about, they laughed so much, and Judy Campbell just died laughing on stage. It was just a yelp of laughter from the audience: they quite forgot the air raid!’
After the New York show where he was immortalised smashing his favourite bass by photographer Pennie Smith, this clattering, menacing Brit-dub anthem was Paul Simonon’s second finest hour. The Clash bassist spent a large part of his childhood in SW9, and ‘The Guns of Brixton’ (which he wrote and sang) suggests that he was well acquainted with the pressures which were to lead to the riots there in 1981. But the song was really just a south London retelling of the classic Jamaican film ‘The Harder They Come’.
Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley explains the genesis of this song about moving to London:
‘When we got together we’d all just literally moved to London, out of the suburbs into somewhere more central. Me and Pete [Wiggs] had this basement flat off Dartmouth Park Hill [near Highgate], which was really dark. It wasn’t grim, but I’m glad we moved out of it. That was what really inspired the song, just the rush of excitement when you first move to London and get a flat of your own.’
The lyrics to Radiohead’s alienation anthem – their second big hit after the success of ‘Creep’ – were inspired by the fake foliage of the Canary Wharf development, which was brand new at the time. It therefore represents a very British response to the post-Nirvana Gen X angst pouring out of America at the time, and it’s still frighteningly relevant: just look at the shiny CGI renderings for luxury towers and ‘mixed-use schemes’ that London’s property developers turn out on a weekly basis.
Speaking to Time Out in 2010, the late Bert Jansch recalled the ’60s folk scene that inspired him and John Renbourn:
‘Around the time of that song, there used to be a folk club in Greek Street called Les Cousins and most of the folk singers and players would meet there. I had a Tuesday residency there for about a year, and it was an all-nighter so you had to play right through the night. But the song itself is centred around Soho Square because, during the day, if it was nice and sunny you’d go and sit in the square. Mark Pavey and Davey Graham tried to reopen the place again a few years ago, but it’s now a restaurant. For a while, the 12 Bar Club in Denmark Street was a bit similar but it didn’t quite have the magic. And anyway, kids now will have their own versions of Les Cousins.’
This anthem for the Stella generation was assembled from snatches of a conversation heard on a night out in Soho. Underworld’s Karl Hyde remembers his state of mind at the time:
‘In truth, the song was me literally asking for help. I was describing a progressively despairing state of mind. I was using alcohol to numb the senses and thus arrived at the point where “Born Slippy” was written. I was saying, “I’m going to describe a typical night; does anybody think that this is no way to live, and could somebody throw me a lifeline?” There was one particular show I remember where a forest of lager cans was raised in the chorus and my heart sank – which shows how far my head was up my whatsit at the time, because I wasn’t in touch with the reality of the song. That was the only song of ours for years that we ever printed the lyrics for or explained and, once we’d done that, then it was okay if people wanted to use it as a drinking anthem. I really don’t mind at all, now. “Born Slippy” has become a folk song.’
This was the first release from the 2007 collaborative project by Damon Albarn, Clash bassist Paul Simonon, former The Verve man Simon Tong and legendary Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen. The name of the project is a reference to the spread of human life which can be found in the capital. “It’s a kingdom in itself, the city Of London,’ Simonon told Time Out in 2006. ‘Although these days it is like lots of villages combined. You can come from Bromley now and you’re a true Londoner.’ ‘Herculean’ itself combines dub, film music and folk into a downbeat but optimistic anthem for twenty-first-century London.
Veloso, a pioneer of the Tropicalismo cultural movement in Brazil, looks back on his song about London through the eyes of an exile:
‘The Brazilian military had forced me and Gilberto Gil to leave Brazil and we ended up in London in 1969. I sing about looking for flying saucers in the sky. I loved London and was obsessed by English rock music, but was very, homesick, very depressed, and initially I hated the music I recorded in London. Now I love that song. It sums up the emotions felt by an outsider in this big, beautiful, grey city.’
Although Paul McCartney maintains the song is about the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Apple Corps alumnus Alistair Taylor says the title was inspired by a strange encounter on Primrose Hill. While enjoying a stroll and chatting about God (possibly trying to work out whether or not The Beatles were bigger than him yet), the pair saw a man inexplicably materialise next to them, before promptly disappearing. McCartney went away and quickly wrote an all-time classic, because that’s the kind of thing that Paul McCartney does.
Written by BBC broadcaster Hubert Gregg in 1944, as he watched German doodlebugs passing over the city, this song represents a way of life for Larry Barnes, Pearly King of Thornton Heath:
‘If we are doing a pearly show and we don’t do it, people will always request it. They expect it, it’s as simple as that. What is it about the song that makes people want to sing along? It’s a good, rolling number, it’s down-to-earth with simple lyrics; he doesn’t try to be maudlin, he doesn’t try to be over-sentimental. He states a case plainly and simply – which is, I belong to London and London belongs to me.’
‘London calling – speak the slang now!’ Few songs are as representative of London’s multiculturalism as this. Not just for its estates-by-way-of-Jamaica slang dictionary, or the singer’s Sri Lankan/West London heritage, but also by virtue of this carnival-electro-bashment anthem having been co-written with former Pulp bassist Steve Mackey, west London indie princess Justine Frischmann and Sheffield electro-perv Ross Orton. Now that’s diversity.
If only every teenage rebellion could sound this good. While most kids her age couldn’t wait to get out of the house, Adele resisted her mother’s urgings to flee the nest for further education with this summary of all London’s myriad social and environmental wonders, written – according to Adele – in ten minutes flat.
Damon Albarn explains his chronicle of Britpop-era London:
‘It’s about being lost on the Westway… it’s a romantic thing, it’s hopeful. The nicest thing about that song, that I love, is the bit at the end where it goes on about someone going into a flat, and having a cup of tea in Emperor’s Gate. That comes from when my parents first moved to London – they had a flat in Emperor’s Gate, right next to The Beatles. For the whole of my life I had this image of my parents living next to The Beatles, so Emperor’s Gate, to me, is a romantic thing. Then the person in the song gets in a car and drives all the way up to Primrose Hill and says ‘It’s windy here and the view’s so nice.’ If you go to the top of Primrose Hill, someone’s written the lyric there – it’s been there for what, 12 years now, which is fantastic. So it is very much a London song, it has its own landmark now.’
The former Steelers Wheel man’s story of a struggling musician coming to terms to the grimly impersonal nature of London life is notable for two things. Firstly, employing an instrumental break as a chorus (though sadly the old myth about Bob Holness playing the sax line is just that). And secondly, for making London’s seedy cynicism seem impossibly sexy. ‘It’s awash with booze!’ thought a generation, ‘And one night stands! Let’s move there!’
If there’s a more delightful place in London to sit with your lover and watch the sun go down, we’d like to hear about it. Seriously – please let us know in the comments. But until we’re taught otherwise, husband and wife duo John and Beverly Martyn’s classic sums up the splendour of a view which takes in the capital’s greenest and glassiest extremes (and from where, if you’re lucky, you can hear the lions at the zoo roar).
Quite how drugs ended up with the bad reputation they have these days is a mystery when you consider the lyrics to ‘Itchycoo Park’, the first ever song to be banned for overt illegal substance references, and Small Faces’s celebration of smoking marijuana in Little Ilford Park, E12. Did this DANGEROUS DRUG send the band on an orgy of wanton destruction and ram-raiding? No. They simply lazed around the park, feeding the ducks and crying – yes, crying – at the sheer beauty of nature. This is the kind of behaviour that would get you laughed out of rehab by any self-respecting modern drug abuser.
Post-war poverty, drugs, love and redemption – the most recorded London song of all time isn’t what you think it is. Ralph McTell explains:
‘When I was a busker in Paris in 1965, when we were coming home from our little jaunts in the Latin Quarter, there were a lot of very impoverished people – they call them clochards – sat over the hot-air gratings in the Metro, and I formed this idea of writing a song about those people. The time was right for that sort of song because of the protest movement and that social awareness that was apparent in all songs. So I started writing “The Streets Of Paris”. But I thought: Wait a minute, these images are everywhere. So I wrote it as “Streets Of London”, to a tune that I’d already composed.’
Neil Tennant remembers Soho in the ’70s, which inspired his band’s timeless ode to London nightlife:
‘“West End Girls” is a song that’s very specifically about London. I’ve lived in London since 1972, and the great thing about London is that people come from all over the world live here – even from Newcastle! When I was a kid in Newcastle I always dreamed of moving down to London. The first song [‘Two Divided by Zero’] on the first Pet Shop Boys album is about running away to London. When I first moved down to London, we used to get all dressed up in our David Bowie imitation clothes, and clatter down the staircase at Seven Sisters tube station on to the brand new Victoria Line, and go down to Shadowramas on Neal Street. And that whole thing of being a northerner and coming down to London: I always had that feeling, and still do, of escaping into the West End. I don’t even know why really, but it’s the difference between day and night – people go mad at night, and they go mad in Soho. For me, Soho symbolizes that, although it’s a much tidier place these days. I love London and I’m inspired by it. It’s what we write songs about.’
To hell with the Sex Pistols – if any punk band captured the quintessential spirit of late-’70s London, it was The Clash. ‘London Calling’ is a neat counterpoint to their ‘London’s Burning’ and sees them shifting their focus from the personal and impressionistic (the yellow lights of the Westway, the wind howling around an empty tower block) to the forcefully political and more general – and from from a nihilistic look at the apathy of Londoners to an apocalyptic rallying cry, made so angrily urgent you can almost hear Joe Strummer’s spittle flying.
Ray Davies explains how he wrote the greatest London song of all:
‘I used to go past Waterloo every day on my way to Croydon Art School; when I was a kid my father took me to the Festival Of Britain; my first real girlfriend, we walked by the Thames; I was in hospital at the old St Thomas’s and my room had a balcony looking out over the river. All the imagery comes from memories like that. The song was supposed to be about the end of Merseybeat, called “Liverpool Sunset”. But when I was writing the lyrics I started to think about Waterloo and what it symbolised for me.’
Listen to the 100 best London songs
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