The Top Ten Songs About London

London's Tower Bridge, 2002
London's Tower Bridge, 2002 | Source

London has been in the spotlight this summer with the Olympics and Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. The city has also provided inspiration for several pop songs written over the last 50 years. Ten of these tunes make up the list of my favorite songs about England’s capital:

1) London Calling by The Clash (1979)-“London Calling” was the title track of The Clash’s 1979 double album. The phrase “This is London Calling” was used on air to identify the BBC World Service’s shortwave radio broadcasts during World War Two. Written by the group’s Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, the song reached number 11 on the UK singles chart in December 1979. In the U.S., “London Calling” ended up as the “B” side to the band’s first American hit single, “Train in Vain”.

“London Calling” paints a post apocalyptic view of London. Strummer sings such lyrics as ,“The ice age is coming, the sun’s moving in/Meltdown expected, the wheat is growing thin” and “A nuclear error but I have no fear/’Cause London is drowning and I live by the river”. The nuclear error line refers to the U.S. Three Mile Island partial meltdown in 1979. Surprisingly, “London Calling” was heard in commercials advertising Jaguar cars in 2002. A decade later, NBC used the song in its promos for their London Summer Olympics coverage. This wasn’t the first Clash song to appear in a commercial. “Should I Stay or Should I Go” was used in a U.K. Levi’s jeans ad in 1991.

London Calling music video,1979

2) London’s Brilliant Parade by Elvis Costello (1994)-This track and single from the 1994 album, “Brutal Youth”, was a mini London travelogue, but with Costello’s biting lyrics. In the liner notes to the “Brutal Youth” CD reissue, he explained, “Lyrically, it was a more affectionate look at the city in which I was born than I could ever have managed when I was actually living there.” Still, he doesn't sound totally positive when he sings, “Just look at me/ I’m having the time of my life/ Or something quite like it/When I’m walking out and about/In London’s brilliant parade". The song included references to such locations as Regent’s Park, site of the London Zoo; Kensington, where the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Albert Hall are located; and Camden Town, the northwest London district where Amy Winehouse lived a decade after this song was written.

“Brutal Youth” brought Costello and his band The Attractions together to record for the first time in eight years ,since the “Blood and Chocolate” album.

London's Brilliant Parade, 1994

3) Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks (1967)-Kinks lead singer and main songwriter Ray Davies said in a 2010 interview the song was originally titled “Liverpool Sunset”, but the lyrics are all about London. “Waterloo Sunset” reached number two on the UK singles chart , but wasn't a hit in the U.S. In his 2007 autobiography, “X-Ray”, Davies said the lyrics were based on memories of his childhood home on a hill overlooking the Waterloo underground (tube) station in London. As one line in the song describes, “Millions of people swarming like flies 'round Waterloo Underground." According to the song’s lyrics, the two protagonists Terry and Julie, meet every Friday night at the Waterloo station. However, the song’s narrator (Davies) isn't lonely or jealous. He sings, “ But I don't need no friends/ As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset/I am in paradise”. Davies is rumored to be singing this song as part of the London Summer Olympics closing ceremony.

Waterloo Station, 1988
Waterloo Station, 1988 | Source

The Kinks on Beat Club, 1967

4) Baker Street by Gerry Rafferty (1978)- Rafferty’s song sold four million copies worldwide, and was number two on the U.S. singles chart for six weeks. Andy Gibb’s disco hit “Shadow Dancing” kept “Baker Street” out of the top U.S. spot, but It did reach number one in Canada. Scottish musician Raphael Ravenscroft performed "Baker Street"'s distinctive saxophone parts. Rafferty wrote the song about his contract problems with his former band, Stealer’s Wheel. The group’s big hit was 1973’s “Stuck in the Middle with You”, co-written by Rafferty and Joe Egan, and produced by legendary songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Rafferty had a friend who lived in a flat off of Baker Street, and often visited him to talk or play guitar there overnight. Surprisingly, the song’s been covered by such varied artists as Foo Fighters, David Lee Roth, Waylon Jennings, and even the London Symphony Orchestra. Of course, such fictional characters as Sherlock Holmes, Basil from Disney’s “Great Mouse Detective”, and Danger Mouse all lived on Baker Street.

Baker Street music video, 1978

5) West End Girls by Pet Shop Boys (1985) –This synth pop dance smash from Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, Pet Shop Boys, had that late night feel of the mid 1980’s London dance club scene. In the booklet included with the pair's reissued “Please” CD, Tennant said “West End Girls” was inspired by Grandmaster Flash’s song,“The Message”. Tennant also explained,” I loved the whole idea of the pressure of living in a modern city, and I decided to write a rap which could be done in an English accent over this piece of music." In this case , the “West End Girls” lyrics deal with the class differences of people in London’s more affluent West End versus the city’s East End. Helena Springs, formerly a backing vocalist for Bob Dylan, provided the brief female vocals for the track.The video, directed by Eric Watson, went perfectly with the song. Tennant, dressed in a long dark overcoat, followed by Lowe, were filmed walking through the London streets and in a train station. Meanwhile, intercut with this footage were shots of a London double decker bus, aerial sequences filmed above Tower Bridge and Big Ben, and more.

West End Girls music video, 1985

6) Hometown Glory by Adele (2007): The last track on Adele’s debut album “19”, the London tribute song “Hometown Glory”, was written by the singer herself. It was her debut single in the U.K., released in 2007 on the indy label Pacemaker Recordings. It was re released a year later on the XL label. Adele told Pete Lewis of Blues and Soul Magazine, that “Hometown Glory” was the first song she ever wrote from start to finish. The song is loosely based on Adele and her mother disagreeing on where Adele would attend university. Adele wanted to stay in London and go to school there, while her mother preferred she attend a university in Liverpool.

So, Adele wrote “Hometown Glory” as an ode to the town she's always lived in, London. “Hometown Glory” has the mostly vocal and piano (along with strings) backing that would work so well on “Someone Like You” from the "21" album. While “Hometown Glory” did not make the U.S. Billboard singles chart, it was used in such television shows as “One Tree Hill”, “Grey’s Anatomy”, and “So You Think You Can Dance”.

Hometown Glory music video, 2009

7) Werewolves of London by Warren Zevon (1978)-Zevon’s very witty song from his album, “Excitable Boy”, reached number 21 on the U.S. Billboard singles chart. The tune with the catchy piano riff also had Fleetwood Mac’s rhythm section of John McVie and Mick Fleetwood playing on it.“Werewolves” was part of the 1986 film “The Color of Money”’s soundtrack album and sampled in 2008 for Kid Rock’s hit single, “All Summer Long”. Zevon ‘s lyrics mention the Mayfair and Soho areas of London, as well as the horror movie acting team of Lon Chaney Jr. and Sr. “walkin' with the queen." And how can you not like a song with the lines, “”I saw a werewolf drinkin’ a pina colada at Trader Vics/And his hair was perfect.”

Werewolves of London music video, 1978

8) London Town by Paul McCartney and Wings (1978)-The title track of the 1978 album from McCartney’s post Beatles group, consisting at this point in time of Paul and his wife Linda McCartney and Denny Laine. While not made up of doom filled lyrics like “London Calling”, this song is not all cheerful, as the narrator sings the line, “Silver rain was falling down/Upon the dirty ground of London Town”. He also asks in the lyrics,“Oh where are there places to go/Someone somewhere has to know.” The “London Town” album reached number two in the U.S. (kept from the top spot by the monster selling “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack) and number four in the U.K. A bit of trivia is that most of the “London Town” album was recorded in 1977 on a boat in the Caribbean, far from the “silver rain” of London. Not a bad place for a “working holiday”.

London Town music video, 1978

9) We are London by Madness (2009):Their renditions of “Our House” and “It Must Be Love” on the roof of Buckingham Palace, along with a great light show, was a highlight of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert last month. 2009 saw The “Nutty Boys” release their strongest album in years with “The Liberty of Norton Folgate”. This track from “that album, would have been perfect for the opening ceremony of London’s 2012 Summer Olympics.

Like Costello’s “London’s Brilliant Parade”, the tune name drops a lot of London locations, the most of any of the songs on this list. But, it’s a fond tribute to London, and how the city’s residents should all be able to live together and get along. That includes the city’s Muslims (“From Regent’s Park Mosque on to Baker Street” as the lyric says), the gays of Old Compton Street, the band’s buddies from Camden Town, and the clubbers and rock fans going to shows at The Roundhouse. As Madness lead singer Suggs said in the tune, “You can make it your own hell or heaven/Live as you please/Can we make it if we all live together/As one big family?”

We are London, 2009

10) Up the Junction by Squeeze (1979)-A great slice of life song by Squeeze’s songwriting duo of Glenn Tillbrook and Chris Difford. While not overtly about London, it does have a couple of references to the capital. The song begins, “I never thought it would happen with me and the girl from Clapham”, a district in the southwest area of London. The “Junction” referred to here is the Clapham Junction railway, or train station. The song’s title came from a 1963 British novel, later produced as a BBC play, and then a feature film. The phrase Up the Junction can also mean in deep trouble or pregnant.

"Up the Junction" was almost a mini soap opera of lyrics in the guise of a three minute pop song. The narrator gets his girlfriend pregnant, so he takes a job working for Stanley (“He said I’d come in handy”). The girlfriend has a baby girl, but leaves the narrator for a soldier as the dad/boyfriend starts drinking heavily. So, he really is “Up the Junction”. The song reached number two on the U.K. Singles Chart.

Up the Junction music video, 1979

Comments 4 comments

alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 12 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

Nice piece here, Marshall. Takes you back a bit, in some cases right back as with 'Waterloo Sunset', although that was Waterloo Bridge, not the station (you can't see much from there except shops, office blocks and the Shell Centre). I've got Jerry Rafferty's 'Baker Street' album.

What about Kinks' 'Dead End Street', and Ralph McTell's 'Streets of London' ? (a bit folksy I know, but a 'London' song all the same and a big seller when it came out). Much of Kinks' output centred around London, including their 'Muswell Hillbillies' album back in the late 60s. Then there's another number about Baker Street, the 'Baker Street Muse' on the Jethro Tull (Ian Anderson's band) album 'Minstrel In The Gallery'. The Stones' 'Street Fighting Man' and 'You Can't Always Get What You Want' have references to riots in Grosvenor Square (US Embassy) and the Chelsea Drug Store on the King's Road.

Dig a little deeper and you never know what's on offer...

MarshFish profile image

MarshFish 12 months ago Author


Thanks for the comments and the extra bits of info. Glad you enjoyed the hub.


swalia profile image

swalia 10 months ago

nice playlist!

MarshFish profile image

MarshFish 10 months ago Author

Thanks swalia.

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