We’ve rather enjoyed choosing our favorite songs about a different city every Friday. But thus far we’ve only looked at cities in the US — namely New York, Chicago, and Detroit — so this week we’re hopping on a plane and heading across the water to Europe. Our first stop on the other side of the Atlantic: London. Of course, England’s capital has had innumerable songs written about it, and as ever, this isn’t some futile attempt to define the “five best” — it’s just our five favorites. What are yours?
The Clash — “London’s Burning”
You could choose a bunch of Clash songs here — “London Calling,” “The Guns of Brixton,” “(White Man In) Hammersmith Palais,” or many others — but we’re especially partial to this song, a snarling portrait of the experience of growing up in a tower block under the Westway. It’s a song that encapsulates pretty much everything about the genesis of London punk — the boredom, the nihilism, the frustration, and the social and economic divides that fueled these things — in three sneering verses.
The Kinks — “Waterloo Sunset”
This writer used to live just on the south side of Waterloo Bridge, so this song — written by Ray Davies from a hospital bed at St. Thomas’s, apparently — has a kind of personal resonance. But even beyond that, its lyric seems to somehow evoke the essence of a certain something about the city — London can be a harsh place, but sometimes, just as the sun sinks beneath the horizon, casting brilliant autumnal highlights off the Thames, you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
Burial — “South London Boroughs”
While we’re on songs that manage to capture the atmosphere of London… If “Waterloo Sunset” embodies the stately beauty of the city, then “South London Boroughs” embodies exactly what its title suggests — it captures the faintly ominous atmosphere and the hint of latent violence in those districts far from the bright lights of Leicester Square and Piccadilly. It’s the sound of shivering on a bus stop as you wait for the night bus under those peculiarly London yellow street lights, trying not to catch the eye of the two kids in hoodies on the seat next to you.
The Jam — “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight”
On a similar note: it may be hard to believe now, but Paul Weller once wrote songs that were genuinely frightening. Like this one, for instance.
Suede — “He’s Dead”
This song isn’t really about London per se, but it does contain our favorite ever one-liner about the city: “All the love and poison of London.” Someone once told us that you can’t really understand Suede until you’ve lived in the city, and we’re inclined to argue that they’re right — after a year of shivering in basement apartments, scrounging money for tea and cheap cans of import Stella Artois… well, suddenly the desperate, seedy glamor of Suede and Dog Man Star made perfect, perfect sense.