Marshall Fish is a remote trivia writer for Hasbro, Screenlife Games, and other pop culture websites.
London has provided inspiration for several pop songs written over the last 55 years. Ten of these tunes make up the list of my favorite songs about England’s capital.
Top Ten Songs About London
- "London Calling" by The Clash
- "London’s Brilliant Parade" by Elvis Costello
- "Waterloo Sunset" by The Kinks
- "Baker Street" by Gerry Rafferty
- "West End Girls" by Pet Shop Boys
- "Hometown Glory" by Adele
- "Werewolves of London" by Warren Zevon
- "London Town" by Paul McCartney and Wings
- "We Are London" by Madness
- "Up the Junction" by Squeeze
1. "London Calling" by The Clash
Album: London Calling
Year Released: 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 Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, the song reached number 11 on the U.K. 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.
The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in
Meltdown expected, the wheat is growin' thin
Engines stop running, but I have no fear
'Cause London is drowning, and I, I live by the river…
— The Clash, "London Calling"
2. "London’s Brilliant Parade" by Elvis Costello
Album: Brutal Youth
Year Released: 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.
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…
— Elvis Costello, "London’s Brilliant Parade"
3. "Waterloo Sunset" by The Kinks
Album: Something Else by The Kinks
Year Released: 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 U.K. 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.
Dirty old river, must you keep rolling, rolling into the night
People so busy, make me feel dizzy, taxi light shines so bright
But I don't, need no friends
As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset, I am in paradise…
— The Kinks, "Waterloo Sunset"
4. "Baker Street" by Gerry Rafferty
Album: City to City (Remastered)
Year Released: 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.
Winding your way down on Baker Street
Light in your head and dead on your feet
Well, another crazy day
You'll drink the night away…
— Gerry Rafferty, "Baker Street"
5. "West End Girls" by Pet Shop Boys
Album: West End Girls
Year Released: 1985
This is a synth pop dance smash from Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of the Pet Shops Boys. Pet Shop Boys had that late night feel of the mid-1980s London dance club scene. The booklet included 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.
In a West end town a dead end world
The East end boys and West end girls
In a West end town in a dead end world
The East end boys and West end girls…
— Pet Shop Boys, "West End Girls"
6. "Hometown Glory" by Adele
Album: Hometown Glory
Year Released: 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.
I've been walking in the same way as I did
Missing out the cracks in the pavement
And turning my heel and strutting my feet
"Is there anything I can do for you dear...
— Adele, "Hometown Glory"
7. "Werewolves of London" by Warren Zevon
Album: Excitable Boy
Year Released: 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 and was 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."
I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand
Walking through the streets of SoHo in the rain
He was looking for a place called Lee Ho Fook's
Gonna get a big dish of beef chow mein...
— Warren Zevon, "Werewolves of London"
8. "London Town" by Paul McCartney and Wings
Album: London Town
Year Released: 1978
This is 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. 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."
Walking down the sidewalk on a purple afternoon
I was accosted by a barker playing a simple tune
Upon his flute, toot, toot, toot, toot
Silver rain was falling down
Upon the dirty ground of London Town...
— Paul McCartney and Wings, "London Town"
9. "We Are London" by Madness
Album: The Liberty of Norton Folgate
Year Released: 2009
Their renditions of "Our House" and "It Must Be Love" (performed on the roof of Buckingham Palace, along with a great light show) were highlights of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert's 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?"
From Regent's Park mosque on to Baker Street
Down to the Cross where all the pipesmoke neat
To Somerstown where somethings never stop
The Roundhouse, The Marathon Bar and Camden Lock...
— Madness, "We Are London"
10. "Up the Junction" by Squeeze
Album: Cool for Cats
Year Released: 1979
This song is a great slice of life. It was written by Squeeze’s songwriting duo, including 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.
I never thought it would happen
With me and the girl from Clapham
Out on the windy common
That night I ain't forgotten…
— Squeeze, "Up the Junction"
Marshall Fish (author) on April 29, 2020:
Thanks for getting back to me. Yes, I'm the San Mateo Marshall Fish. Great times waaay back in the day in Mark Penn's Choir class. If it plays, I still have the cassette (remember those) of our Spring concert. If you see this, contact me on Facebook. I'd enjoy hearing about you living in the U.K.
Paul Strandoo on April 26, 2020:
Two years late, but yes, I’m the San Mateo Paul Strandoo. You’re the SM Marshall Fish, I presume. Small world!
Marshall Fish (author) on February 25, 2018:
Thanks for the comment. Would you be the same Paul Strandoo from San Mateo? If so, great to hear from you.
Paul Strandoo on February 25, 2018:
The Waif's 'London Still'. The view from a homesick expat.
Marshall Fish (author) on June 10, 2017:
JRF on June 10, 2017:
I don't want to go to Chelsea - Elvis Costello
Jim on June 10, 2017:
London Loves by Blur
Marshall Fish (author) on June 07, 2017:
Thanks for the input Adrian.
Adrian on June 04, 2017:
No 'Streets Of London' by Ralph McTell? Ludicrous.
Marshall Fish (author) on November 30, 2016:
Thanks for the comment ppowell.
ppowell on November 29, 2016:
Levellers - England my home, Made in England - The Clash. Best songs are usually ones by ordinary people fighting Tories selling off people and destroying society for only the upper classes and their tax dodging corporate donors to gain.
Marshall Fish (author) on December 09, 2015:
Shaloo Walia from India on December 09, 2015:
Marshall Fish (author) on October 14, 2015:
Thanks for the comments and the extra bits of info. Glad you enjoyed the hub.
Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on October 07, 2015:
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...