Every Friday, we take a look at the way various cities from around the world have been depicted in song, choosing five of our favorites about a given location. Having spent the last month across the Atlantic, we’re heading back to USA for a few weeks, and starting on the west coast this time. Specifically, we’re going to San Francisco, a city with a particularly fruitful musical heritage, and a place that’s been immortalized in song more times than you can poke a stick at. As ever, this isn’t meant to be a definitive list of the best songs ever about the city, just a selection of our personal favorites — and suggestions are always welcome.
Otis Redding — “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”
The bay is, of course, San Francisco Bay — although as it transpires, this song wasn’t written in the city itself, but in Sausalito. Apparently Redding’s record company didn’t want to release this because of its melancholy mood. Happily, common sense prevailed — and the rest, as they say, is history.
Girls — “Hellhole Ratrace”
You could argue that pretty much all of Christopher Owens’ songs are about life in San Francisco — this is a man, after all, who wrote a song called, um, “Life in San Francisco” — but if we had to choose one, it’d be this one, which was arguably the finest moment off Girls’ first album. The title certainly reveals a degree of ambivalence about the place, but for all Owens’ angst, this is ultimately a song of optimism: “I don’t want to cry my whole life through/ I want to do some laughing too…”
Sly and the Family Stone — “Luv n Haight”
The opening track from Sly and the Family Stone’s harrowing masterpiece There’s a Riot Goin’ On, “Luv n Haight” pretty much embodies the dark side of the hippie dream; it’s the yang to Scott McKenzie’s yin. It was released in 1971 — long after what Hunter S. Thompson called “the high watermark” of the counterculture had been reached — and cataloged the formerly positive and civic-minded Stone’s descent into drug-addicted introversion. “Feel so good inside myself/ Don’t want to move,” goes the refrain, while the title was a sly satire on the Haight-Ashbury scene that typified the optimism of the ’60s.
Joanna Newsom — “Autumn”
A quietly beautiful portrait of yearning for lost love against the backdrop fall in Northern California, featuring some of Newsom’s best lyrics and an understated arrangement that captures the atmosphere of the season beautifully. It’s both a paean to Newsom’s home and a reflection on how nothing lasts forever.
The Village People — “San Francisco”
Seriously, how can you not love The Village People?