“It is difficult to speak adequately or justly of London. It is not a pleasant place; it is not agreeable, or cheerful, or easy, or exempt from reproach. It is only magnificent.” — Henry James
For centuries, London has been one of the world’s creative hubs. From Charles Dickens to Mary Poppins and everyone in between. There’s not a single blade of green grass in the Big Smoke that hasn’t been trodden by a member of the artistic royal family. Books, films and, of course, songs have all gathered inspiration from one of the world’s oldest modern cities. To this day, London is still the epicentre of Britain’s creativity, no matter what people tell you. Below, we’ve picked out the ten best songs inspired by the city.
There are quite literally thousands of songs written about London. Inspiration is a curious thing, and it can strike when you least expect it. However, when you take yourself to a hotbed of human activity that a major city is, you will find yourself dazzled by depravity, intrigued by infestations and compelled to create by the cultural spike. Poets and musicians have suffered this affliction for centuries when visiting cities like New York, Paris or London.
It makes for some of the most inspiring music around. Whether written as a part of the very fabric of the city itself or penned as the congratulatory moment of a wide-eyed newbie taking their first steps on hallowed ground, songs about London town are always poised and ready for action. Here, we’ve picked out ten of our favourites with a few provisos in place. Firstly, we haven’t got any doubling up of artists.
This was a big sticking point because some bands adore London. Whether it’s The Kinks, who can attribute most of their records to the bristling swinging scene in London during the 1960s or The Clash, who have two tracks that are perfect for this list — we’ve ensured there is only one band per entry. We’ve also opened up the gates a little to what is determined as a “London song”. Rather than simply being about the city, we’ve included tracks that speak about the city as an inspirational theme in their work.
Without further ado, we’re bringing you the ten best songs inspired by London.
10 greatest songs inspired by London:
10. ‘Up The Junction’ – Squeeze
One of the greatest titles in pop music, Chris Difford and Squeeze cannot take credit for ‘Up The Junction’, which was actually lifted from Nell Dunn’s 1960’s short story about the slums of south London. However, with that title in mind, Difford and the band created one of the most accurate songs of the day.
Released in 1979, the Squeeze song tells a tale many of us will be familiar with. A tale of young love, idealistic dreams, having babies and setting up a home only to find our protagonists drifting apart and finding love in the arms of another. The fact that Squeeze manages to deliver this heart-wrenching tale in a colloquial tongue while also managing to rhyme “happen” and “Clapham”, “common” and “forgotten” is pure magic.
There’s a good chance this is your dad’s favourite song of the seventies. A classic.
9. ‘For Tomorrow’ – Blur
Now, let’s get one thing straight: Blur are not from London. Though they ended up representing the city in the Battle of Britpop against Oasis and Manchester, the band largely hail from Essex. Which is akin to telling a New Yorker that Bruce Springsteen is from NYC. However, that didn’t stop Damon Albarn from penning a near-perfect tune reflecting on life in London in the mid-to-late ’90s with ‘For Tomorrow’.
“‘It’s about being lost on the Westway… it’s a romantic thing; it’s hopeful,” recalled Albarn about the song in 2005. “The nicest thing about that song, that I love, is the bit at the end where it goes on about someone going into a flat, and having a cup of tea in Emperor’s Gate. That comes from when my parents first moved to London – they had a flat in Emperor’s Gate, right next to The Beatles. For the whole of my life, I had this image of my parents living next to The Beatles, so Emperor’s Gate, to me, is a romantic thing. Then the person in the song gets in a car and drives all the way up to Primrose Hill and says, ‘It’s windy here and the view’s so nice.’”
To confirm its place in our hearts and on our list, Albarn continued: “If you go to the top of Primrose Hill, someone’s written the lyric there – it’s been there for what, 12 years now, which is fantastic. So it is very much a London song; it has its own landmark now.’”
8. ‘Hong Kong Garden’ – Siouxsie and The Banshees
This song was Siouxsie and the Banshees’ debut single, released in 1978, one year after the group started touring, and it’s hard not to think of it as their best. The song was named after a Chinese takeaway in Chislehurst, in the suburbs of London.
Siouxsie explained the idea behind the lyrics of the song with reference to racist activities that were carried out at the takeaway, saying: “Me and my friend were really upset that we used to go there and like, occasionally when the skinheads would turn up, it would turn really ugly.”
Adding: “These gits would just go in en masse and just terrorise these Chinese people who were working there. We’d try and say, ‘Leave them alone’, you know. It (referring to the song) was a kind of tribute.”
The song reached number seven on the UK singles chart and became one of the first post-punk hits with its innovative approach to the musical elements.
7. ‘Streets of London’ – Ralph McTell
It’s no secret that during the sixties, London quickly became the benchmark for the creative arts. Post-war Britain was beginning to find its feet once more, and with a new wave of optimism hitting the country’s younger generation, the city bloomed with decadence, dancing and demo tapes. The perfect encapsulation of the time doesn’t come from The Rolling Stones or The Beatles but Ralph McTell’s beautiful ‘Streets of London’.
However, like a few entries on our list, the song was meant for another city. “When I was a busker in Paris in 1965, when we were coming home from our little jaunts in the Latin Quarter, there were a lot of very impoverished people – they call them clochards – sat over the hot-air gratings in the Metro, and I formed this idea of writing a song about those people,” recalled McTell.
“The time was right for that sort of song because of the protest movement and that social awareness that was apparent in all songs. So I started writing ‘The Streets Of Paris’. But I thought: Wait a minute, these images are everywhere. So I wrote it as ‘Streets Of London’, to a tune that I’d already composed.”
6. ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ – Radiohead
Featuring on the band’s seminal album The Bends from 1995 and arriving as their first big hit after ‘Creep’, Radiohead’s ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ is, undoubtedly, one of their greatest songs. Regarded as a bonafide smash by their fans, the song was inspired by a very specific part of London — the plastic foliage on a Canary Wharf development.
The song’s inception came at a time when Yorke was at one of the lowest points in his life. As Yorke later said, ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ was “a product of a joke that wasn’t really a joke, a very, lonely, drunken evening and, well, a breakdown of sorts.” The creation of the song, as Yorke recalled, “Was not forced at all; it was just recording whatever was going on in my head, really. I wrote those words and laughed. I thought they were really funny, especially that bit about polystyrene.”
The song reflects on the continuous need for London’s property developers to regenerate the city at every possible turn. Happy to knock down history in favour of the unwanted skyline.
5. ‘A Rainy Night In Soho’ – The Pogues
If there’s one image endlessly associated with London, it has to be that of a downtrodden man, soaked by the rain, looking for love. In fact, if there were one man to sum up London, it may well be the Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan. Born in Islington with strong Irish roots, MacGowan was at the forefront of the city’s punk scene before making his own music with the Pogues.
“I took shelter from a shower, and I stepped into your arms,” croons MacGowan as he paints an accurate picture of London’s central creative hub, Soho. So often used as a by-word for debauchery, the London neighbourhood has long been the art world’s fascination and is rightfully immortalised in the Pogues song.
MacGowan parades as the drunken protagonist, trying to find his love amid a sea of beers as the heavens open. Pure perfection.
4. ‘Strange Town’ – The Jam
There are countless songs written by Paul Weller that are inspired by London. Whether it’s the pumping ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’, ‘In The City’ or ‘Eton Rifles’, it’s fair to say that the city is in Weller’s blood. That’s why we’ve opted for a lesser-known track that details exactly how he felt when he first set foot in the Big Smoke.
‘Strange Town’, written in 1979 as part of The Jam’s explosive start on the music scene, Weller opts to share his thoughts for the city, arriving as a wide-eyed boy from Woking. As well as noting the grandness of the city, he also seems infatuated with its inhabitants and that, unlike his suburban hometown, were uninterested in anything you had to say.
It beats out the previously mentioned songs on our list because it offers some keen advice for anyone touching down in London and hoping not to receive an ear-bashing from a pedestrian: “You’ve got to walk in a straight line”.
3. ‘West End Girls’ – Pet Shop Boys
There’s perhaps no finer eighties addition to the list than Pet Shop Boys’ ode to nightlife in the city, ‘West End Girls’. The song has since become an anthemic moment on any dancefloor and was directly inspired by it. Neil Tennant remembers the song’s inception fondly: “‘West End Girls’ is a song that’s very specifically about London. I’ve lived in London since 1972, and the great thing about London is that people come from all over the world live here – even from Newcastle. When I was a kid in Newcastle I always dreamed of moving down to London. The first song [‘Two Divided by Zero’] on the first Pet Shop Boys album is about running away to London.”
Tennant was living the life that countless other artists had pursued over the years. “When I first moved down to London, we used to get all dressed up in our David Bowie imitation clothes, and clatter down the staircase at Seven Sisters tube station on to the brand new Victoria Line, and go down to Shadowramas on Neal Street,” he continued. “And that whole thing of being a northerner and coming down to London: I always had that feeling, and still do, of escaping into the West End. I don’t even know why really, but it’s the difference between day and night – people go mad at night, and they go mad in Soho.”
Adding: “For me, Soho symbolises that, although it’s a much tidier place these days. I love London and I’m inspired by it. It’s what we write songs about.”
2. ‘London Calling’ – The Clash
The Clash’s ‘London Calling’ is one of the most definitive songs of the 1970s. It changed the course of the band’s career as they went from underground sensations to bringing punk to the masses. It feels as part of the city as Big Ben (the bell not the clock) or Tower Bridge (not London Bridge).
The track is an apocalyptic anthem in which lead singer Joe Strummer details the many ways the world could end, which, during the current climate, feels more relevant than ever. It is arguably The Clash’s definitive song; it sums up everything great about their ethos wrapped up into three-and-a-half minutes as they stuck two fingers up at the establishment with their noted degree of intelligence.
A professed news junkie, the song originated from a taxi ride Strummer was subjected to, as the singer explained to Uncut Magazine: “There was a lot of Cold War nonsense going on, and we knew that London was susceptible to flooding. She told me to write something about that.” Mick Jones continued the sentiment when he spoke to The Wall Street Journal about how he helped Strummer complete the track: “Joe Strummer was living in a building along the Thames and feared potential flooding,” Jones said. “He did two or three drafts of lyrics that I then widened until the song became this warning about the doom of everyday life.
“Once we had most of the words down, I began creating music to fit the rhythm of the lyrics,” Jones added. “I wanted the urgency of a news report.” It would become undoubtedly one of the band’s most notable tracks and showcased both their intense interest in the world events around them and the beating heart of their city. While the song isn’t quite an ode to the Big Smoke, it has become a defining anthem.
1. ‘Waterloo Sunset’ – The Kinks
Few songs have accurately captured London’s quintessence in the sixties than the brilliant Ray Davies for The Kinks song ‘Waterloo Sunset’. The track climbed the charts and has gone on to be an anthem for the city, but it started as an ode to another location.
“Originally I wanted to call it Liverpool Sunset,” Davies revealed to Classic Rock. “I loved Liverpool and Merseybeat. But you know what they say as advice for writers – write about what you know. I knew London better than I knew Liverpool. So I changed it.” But soon enough the idea of reflecting on his own childhood in and around south London made more sense.
“Waterloo was a pivotal place in my life,” he continues. “And I saw several Waterloo sunsets. I was in St Thomas’ Hospital there when I was really ill as a child, and I looked out on the Thames. Later I used to go past the station when I went to art college on the train. And I met my first girlfriend, who became my first wife, along the Embankment at Waterloo.”
Davies also claimed the song was born out of his subconscious, awaking from a dream to have the song already somewhat formed, “’Waterloo Sunset’ came to me in a dream. I woke up and it was there.” It was this tone that transcended the song from an idiosyncratic pop tune to a new anthemic height as the group worked hard to add a dreamy sound and capture the pulsating London that surrounded them.
If there was one song to sum up the history of London, the purity of its persistence, then this is it.