Yeah, so I’ve kinda looked at this before (see box links), but I’ve never actually delved into songs about the city that is my home. And with it being six years last month since Daisy and I moved to Finsbury Park in North London (Daisy moving to London for the first time, me returning after a decade away), it seems an appropriate time to celebrate the city in music.
/Tuesday Ten/On Location
Especially as we seem to be going through an era where much of the old London is being cast out in one way or another, gentrified or simply replaced, and it is becoming even more expensive than ever. But I still love this city, despite its faults.
So this is songs about London, and specifically, by bands from, or who lived in, the city. There are a lot of them, too, and some obvious things may be missing, you might think – but this is deliberate to cover as many of the exhaustive list of genres and bands who are from this sprawling city. (Photos from my own collection)
A quick explanation for new readers (hi there!): my Tuesday Ten series has been running since March 2007, and each month features at least ten new songs you should hear – and in between those monthly posts, I feature songs on a variety of subjects, with some of the songs featured coming from suggestion threads on Facebook.
Feel free to get involved with these – the more the merrier, and the breadth of suggestions that I get continues to astound. Otherwise, as usual, if you’ve got something you want me to hear, something I should be writing about, or even a gig I should be attending, e-mail me, or drop me a line on Facebook (details below).
Of all of the Britpop bands, few were so clearly singing about life in London. Yeah, so Suede were too, but they spent their time doing so wrapped up in dreamy (and nightmarish) metaphor. Blur, on the other hand, had songs stuffed with various locations and events (and curiously, while I was researching this list, were one of at least five artists to have sung about Primrose Hill) in London, however this one seemed the most appropriate to open a Tuesday Ten about London. The synth-boosted rock of the track riffs on synthpop, post-punk and classic rock from the city, the background buzzes with the noise of traffic reports across the city, and Damon Albarn sings about how the city can chew you up and spit you up in the blink of an eye.
/London Can Take It
/The War Room EP
Of note recently was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the height of The Blitz – the last nights of 1940 were what was dubbed the Second Great Fire of London – and one of the few songs I can think of about that time is this early song by Public Service Broadcasting (and sounded amazing live, too, with the air raid sirens and spotlights sweeping the Brixton Academy). A more subdued song than many PSB tracks, the samples bring a gesture of defiance – an attitude many Londoners have used on quite a few occasions since.
/Born Slippy EP
As the story goes, the stream-of-conciousness lyrics on Underworld’s biggest hit were collated from snippets of dialogue heard on a night out in Soho, and I could well believe it – at least back in the mid-90s. Soho then still had a reputation for being a seedy, grimy part of town, where vice and the underworld were still prevalent – and you’d have the best nights out in many of the bars and clubs in the area. Sadly now much of that has now been ripped away, partly by Crossrail and partly by developers keen on making a whole lot of money – but by replacing what was there, they’ve taken away much of the attraction of the area. Cool areas, great bars, great food, good entertainment still remains, you just have to look for it now and otherwise there is the sad feel of what there was.
/The Great Stink
/This May Be The Reason Why The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing Cannot Be Killed By Conventional Weapons
Let us take a moment to celebrate, with The Men, the man who was responsible dealing with the fallout from The Great Stink of 1858 and providing London with a working sewage system – Joseph Bazalgette. Indeed, his remarkable foresight in building bigger sewers than was needed at the time has meant that his system has worked well (with expansions along the way as the city has developed), but the time has come for, er, relief – in the form of the Thames Tideway Scheme.
Quite possibly the most iconic song about this great city, The Clash created what initially sounds like a love letter to their home – but that’s only the case if you listen to the chorus. There are references to nuclear destruction, being washed away by the Thames rising up and swallowing his home, police brutality, drug abuse…hang on, what were they “celebrating” again? London – and the world – in 1979 was clearly not a happy place.
/Up The Junction
/Cool for Cats
Actually, a bit further upstream (and south), things weren’t much happier in the realms of Clapham. Squeeze manage to, well, squeeze pretty much a whole lifetime of an adult couple’s life into three minutes. Young love, work, pregnancy, poverty, failure, booze…but no redemption as another young life is wasted. Indeed, they also made the news just last weekend with a pointed rebuke of Cameron (while he was watching just feet away) and his policies toward the working poor – no less than thirty-seven years since the release of this.
/West End Girls
Interestingly, much of this list – not that I meant it – has the appearance of a eulogy for a city now vanishing. This song, particularly its video, really does do exactly that. Parts of the locations shown still exist, but many are much changed (Waterloo Station in particular, but also the near-desolate Petticoat Lane Market, nowadays a much-busier and “cooler” destination near my office). What’s interesting is the subject of the song – the clash of cultures and wealth in central London courtship and relationships – really hasn’t changed a great deal, it’s just where it happens that has changed so, so much.
/Killer On The Rampage
An immigrant to the city from Guyana, Grant’s probably best-known song from his solo work is this earworm, one of a number of furious responses to the 1981 riots and unrest across the country. This track is about Brixton (Electric Avenue being one of the core shopping streets in that area), and the trials of the local black population of the time struggling to survive, in the midst of poverty and violence. In addition, this is also detailing an area that is much-changed nowadays, with Brixton being much less a home of black culture nowadays, and instead just another expensive, “cool” district to live in.
The Taking of Peckham 123
Also a defiantly south-London act, and also from another era now pretty much gone, as gentrification begins to bite into Peckham now too. Peckham once was an area with a very negative image – most obviously shown by the death of Damilola Taylor fifteen years ago – but the problems ran deeper and for much longer before that. This song, it’s quasi-waltz rhythm and over-the-top imagery of violence, makes the area sound like the Wild West. Certainly not like that now – large amounts of outside investment, developers picking up on cheap land and the razing of old council flats, have put prices through the roof.
Ironic that they should sing about North London, I guess, being a band so associated with Croydon and points south, but in their early days they did spend a lot of time in inner North London (another old B-side is a character sketch called Archway People, and this details one tiny corner of it. Happily, the cafe still exists, in the heart of a fast-changing Kentish Town, and long may it remain so.