“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” So said the poet Samuel Johnson in 1777, and while the capital is obviously a very different place these days, with a population of eight and a half million instead on an estimated 750,000, and rather less horse shit all over the place, it remains one of the most vibrant and exciting cities in the world. Frankly, it’s also vastly overpriced, overcrowded, grey, dirty, and, in some areas, downright dangerous.
Either way, London is the rock ‘n’ roll capital of the world. It may seem like rather a bold statement, but it is nonetheless true. Don’t argue; it’s simple logistics. Aside from the multitude of bands who call it home – many of whom have migrated there for just that reason – London is also where touring bands generally fly in to start their European tours, often playing there as many as four times a year, while other cities only get one show.
As such, there are countless songs about this ever-changing metropolis, the city itself having infused itself into just about every music genre from punk and metal to reggae and pop, always mutating and cross-pollinating to form wild new hybrids. Its venues may be closing at an alarming rate, but London is still the beating heart of rock.
London Calling – The Clash
Few tunes about London are as instantly recognisable as this, the title track of The Clash’s platinum-selling third album. Indeed, Joe Strummer and his band wrote a good few songs about their home town, including London’s Burning, White Man In Hammersmith Palais, and Guns Of Brixton, but none so evocative or quite so brilliant as this gem from 1979, the video for which was filmed on a boat on the Thames in the pissing rain. Any Londoner who’s ever sat in a dive bar on the other side of the world when this has come on the jukebox knows the true meaning of homesick. A classic in every sense of the word.
Greetings From Shitsville – The Wildhearts
On The Wildhearts 1993 opus Earth Vs The Wildhearts, Ginger and crew were somewhat disgruntled at having to pay a fortune to live in squalor, with wallpaper hanging off the walls and threadbare carpets. “Why do we stay here? God only knows – it’s not the scenery!” And this is NW3 they’re talking about, one of the nicer parts of London! Ginger has also recently released the single If You Find Yourself In London Town, a cautionary tale to his younger self about moving to the capital from the north east of England: “What to avoid and what to look out for.” Presumably this includes flats with nicer carpets.
Down In The Tube Station At Midnight – The Jam
Before London Transport introduced all-night tubes, the last train home was a wonderful thing to behold. Unless, of course, you’re alone on one of those sketchy platforms that echo with the sound of aggressive drunks, in which case those three minutes before that last train could be an eternity. On The Jam’s Down In The Tube Station At Midnight, we find just such a scenario, with the protagonist getting a kicking while trying to get home to his wife, with a takeaway curry. “They smelt of pubs, and Wormwood Scrubs, and too many right wing meetings,” sings frontman Paul Weller, conjuring all too vivid images of a journey gone horribly wrong. This is, as they say in Cockfosters, the end of the line.
London Is The Reason – Gallows
While it’s a phenomenon that is by no means exclusively confined to the capital, London has more than its fair share of seemingly feral kids who will stab you as soon as look at you. Take a wrong step, particularly near one of the bigger council estates, and you will rapidly find yourself ‘on their manor’, and, as Gallows point out on this scorching track from the aptly named Grey Britain album of 2009, they will not be afraid to take you on. “We have no fear. We have no pity. We hate you. We hate this city.” Gallows, as ever, hit the nail on the head; these little bastards, meanwhile, will hit you on the head.
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Rainy Night In Soho – The Pogues
A stone’s throw from where Stiff Little Fingers sang about a stabbing in Picadilly Circus, we find The Pogues in a rather more melancholy mood, drifting around, as the title suggests, on a rainy night in Soho. Originally released in 1986 on the Poguetry In Motion EP, the song has been featured on every greatest hits album by the band and covered by several artists, including Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds. By all accounts there are around 13 versions by the Pogues, each featuring different mixes and different instruments, with frontman Shane MacGowan preferring the cornet mix.
West One (Shine On Me) – The Ruts
Tragically, West One (Shine On Me) was the last single by London punks, the Ruts, released posthumously, in August 1980, after frontman Malcolm Owen died from a heroin overdose a month earlier. He was just 26 years old. As with many Ruts tunes, West One touches on the singer’s battle with drug addiction, and finds him lost and alone among the bright lights of the city, “out in the night, where traffic wardens roam”. Completed and made perfect by a mournful saxophone, this is a stark reminder that the most populous places on earth can be the most lonely.
Gather Round – King Prawn
Borrowing from the aforementioned poet, Samuel Johnson, with the line, “tired of London, tired of life” this brilliant funk-infused tune from ska punks King Prawn is a perfect example of the capital’s melting pot of cultures, as were the band themselves, varying in ethnicity, style and influences. As such, Gather Round tells of moving to The Big Smoke looking to make a living, and “make a better day”, an underlying feeling suggesting that the streets weren’t, as advertised, paved with gold but with old chewing gum and cigarette butts.
East End – Cockney Rejects
Cor blimey, guv’nor, apples and pears. Love it or hate it, the East End of London has always had a character of its own, even if that character was often likely to put a Mars bar on your boat for looking at him funny. “Take a walk around Bethnal Green,” insist the Cockney Rejects. “Meet the Mile End mob, well, they’re mean!” Indeed, and easy to find; just follow the trail of blood from the pub to the kebab shop. This is, of course, a horrible generalisation, not least since the East End has been mercilessly gentrified by yuppies, but one would still be wise to avoid Upton Park at closing time on a Saturday night. Then again, Nando’s in Bethnal Green is still the best greasy spoon in London.
Another Night In London – DevilDriver
There is a rather unfair stereotype that London audiences are stuck up and unresponsive, but as anyone who’s felt the floor bouncing at Brixton Academy will attest, the fact is that they are some of the best in the world, and, frankly, if it’s not kicking off then maybe it’s because your band is shite. Certainly DevilDriver have had no such problems as evidenced by this rabble rousing ditty, which, according to frontman Dez Fafara, is only ever played live in London. “Let’s start a riot while the night is still young,” he growls. And judging by the video for the song, London is only too happy to oblige.
Waterloo Sunset – The Kinks
If some of these songs have painted a rather ugly picture of London then perhaps we should leave you with something truly beautiful, and it doesn’t get much more so than The Kinks classic Waterloo Sunset, once described as “the most beautiful song in the English language.” A glorious moment of calm amid the hustle and noise of the city, it was first released in 1967, reaching number two in the charts, and then re-released in 2012 after composer Ray Davies performed it for the closing ceremony of the London Olympics. Granted, it took a little of the shine off when Davies revealed that it was originally going to be called Liverpool Sunset – kinda like Elton John writing Candle In The Wind for Marilyn Monroe and then changing it to Princess Diana – but, still, if this divine masterpiece doesn’t touch your soul, then you probably don’t have one.