‘If it happens anywhere, it matters not’ – it’s a mantra that many of the best storytellers have clung to since time immemorial. The notion of narrative, even in music, is deeply entwined with location. The same tale of star-crossed lovers in Peterborough, UK just takes on a different tone altogether if it is transposed on Paris, France. In short, the importance of geography is a self-evident ever-present, and musicians have always exploited this fact.
In fact, geography can even be an indelible filter that colours an artist’s entire work. When Bruce Springsteen talks of jumping in a Mustang and driving through the night until the engine gives out, you can really get behind the sincere romanticism of the story. The image of The Boss eating through the unspooling open road that spills out from New Jersey to the West in one huge rolling bulge of possibility to be plundered, is as visceral and present in the song as the howling harmonica in the background. However, the same story in northern England involves a lad getting behind the wheel of an economical family hatchback and driving two hours down the motorway, where he picks up an overpriced service station sausage sandwich, has second thoughts, and trundles on back home.
With three chords and a chorus, a great song can be crafted; there’s not all that much to them in reality. But at the risk of stating the most obvious sentence since a bear shitting in the woods asked the pope if he was a Catholic, some songs capture something that others lack. That indefinable quality is not always musicianship or craft or any other technical trait, but the nebulous tag of feeling. And nothing quite propagates a depth of feeling like the perfunctory miasma of place.
In some cases, it’s a bang on the money ‘New York, New York’ job, that croons skyscrapers and twinkling street lamps directly into your mind’s eye, but there are other examples where the place in question is so obscure or specific that you thought the images summoned belonged to a realm of the imagination.
We’re revealing ten real-life locations behind these far-removed lyrical hat tips.
10 brilliant songs inspired by places you never knew were real
The Memory Motel: ‘Memory Motel’ by The Rolling Stones
‘Memory Motel’ is actually one of The Rolling Stones’ best songs, and that is a scientific fact that you can look up for yourself by giving it a listen and then giving your head a wobble if you disagree. The atmosphere it conjures of yearning, the equanimous unspooling of drunk-mellowed melancholy that it captures, and the smooth sonic cacophony that it sails on (particularly Charlie Watts less is more drum fills) are scintillating if it finds the right moment.
Although the choral utterance of “Memory Motel” sounds like a poetic metaphor, the place is actually real, as you might have guessed already based on its inclusion in this list. The Memory Motel is in Montauk, Long Island and you pass it en route to Andy Warhol’s Church Estate where the band stayed a few times.
Mick Jagger presumably passed the motel a few times and was stirred up enough by the beguiling name that he saw a use for it in song.
The Love Shack: ‘Love Shack’ by The B-52’s
‘Love Shack’ is a song that you simply cannot begrudge. You can try. You can call it an annoying novelty, but it’s harder to resist than the last cookie in the pack. Central to this mystically beguiling spirit at its core the notion of a place as fun-loving as The Love Shack.
Where is this numinous edifice to liberation? Well, sadly, it’s burnt down, but it was in Athens, Georgia. The shack was as real as any, and it genuinely had a tin roof to boot. It belonged to band member Kate Pierson and it was within this fated cabin that the band crafted their second biggest hit an inexplicable 11 years earlier, ‘Rock Lobster’.
Apparently, the band had a frankly wonderful sounding time there and found the need to eulogise it in song.
Dino’s Bar & Grill: ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ by Thin Lizzy
If you can imagine a world without ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ then you’ve either got one hell of a fevered imagination or you’ve been steadfastly avoiding all music since 1976.
It’s one of those songs so ubiquitous and uncompromised that it seems to have been snatched from the ether of lingering fate instead of being written by conscious design.
Although Dino’s Bar & Grill sounds like the sort of name place too on the nose to be real, it is, in fact, highly likely that the lyric refers to Deno’s nightclub in Manchester, UK. The boys in question that the song refers to is the infamous local gang, The Quality Street Gang.
The ‘QSG’ used to frequent Deno’s, plotting their nefarious schemes, and, unbeknownst to them, Phil Lynott had his beady eye on them and was about to cast them into the annals of rock ‘n’ roll history.
Hunter’s Bar: ‘Fake Tales of San Francisco’ by Arctic Monkeys
If archaeologists should happen upon the ruins of our civilisation in a thousand years from now, and, for some reason, they should wish to know what nightlife was like in England circa 2006, and they should find a surviving copy of Whatever People, Say I Am That’s What I’m Not then the only way that they could consider themselves more fortunate is if an unopened can of Red Stripe was buried somewhere nearby. The record is just about as transportive as any in history with its unfettered encapsulation of those always wet but never rainy nights under the streetlight glow.
Within the album is a slew of genuine references, but perhaps the most peculiar is Hunter’s Bar which refers to a roundabout. Perched in the centre of said roundabout is the 19th-century toll bar that gives it its name. In many ways, this epitomises the beauty of the album – it’s hard to think of a full-throttle indie song with a more utterly banal reference in it.
The Ivar Theatre: ‘Emotional Weather Report’ by Tom Waits
Of course, Tom Waits’ back catalogue is chocked full of place names, and you know he’s a wayfaring man, well lived-in enough to assume that they’re all real. However, what makes Ivar’s Theatre authenticity stand out as noteworthy is how inexplicably well it manages to fit the song. This hand in glove marriage seems so unfathomably perfect to be anything other than purposely crafted.
The song itself a masterful piece of sui generis songwriting that takes the form of a weather report that doubles up figuratively as an emotional forecast that even ties in the diegesis of the day that lies ahead. The line in question is the stupefyingly good couplet, “Colder than the ticket taker’s smile / At the Ivar Theatre, on a Saturday Night”.
Ivar Theatre was a Burlesque establishment in Hollywood, that presumably the songsmith was no stranger to. (He also mentions ‘Napoleon Pizza’ a few times, which is not only real, but he even worked there.)
The Char-Grill and The Cat’s Cradle: ‘Chapel Hill’ by Sonic Youth
Sonic Youth manage to capture something akin to nostalgia simply via the deployment of a distortion pedal. In ‘Chapel Hill’, the geographical references are throwaway and plentiful, which is exactly why you don’t really expect them to be genuine, particularly considering that its main focus seems to be on the political disparities of Chapel Hill.
The places mentioned are all in North Carolina where the band played many of their first shows outside of New York City. “Get the cradle rocking” refers to Cat’s Cradle, the NC venue that housed the band on several occasions, and “Char-Grill” is a restaurant in the area. But the most shockingly true to life reference is the unnamed “bookstore”. The song doesn’t throw in geographical ties just to muddy them in this notion of political polarity – in 1991 someone actually walked into Internationalist Books in Chapel Hill and assassinated the owner, Bob Sheldon, for his progressive beliefs.
The crime remains unsolved, imbuing the anti-fascism track with the visceral edge of reality.
The Scene: ‘Foxey Lady’ by The Jimi Hendrix Experience
New York natives might call us fools, but the majority of the rest of the world thought that “the scene” simply referred to the hip place to be as opposed to a literal hip place to be. The Scene was a nightclub owned by Steve Paul between 1964 and 1970 and it housed, what anecdotal evidence declares as, two of the best live shows of all time from Jimi Hendrix and The Doors respectively.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience even played both of their debut New York shows at The Scene on June 3rd and 4th of 1967. The list of stars that performed at the club (The Velvet Underground, Fleetwood Mac etc.) is the stuff of a sixties lovers wet dreams. It was located on Manhattan’s West 46th Street, but sadly it no longer exists.
According to Sterling Morrison, formerly of The Velvet Underground, its swift closure was owing to Steve Paul’s refusal to pay protection money to the Mafia – places don’t tend to stay open long after that.
Everywhere Mentioned: ‘Where Are We Now?’ by David Bowie
It is perhaps not all that surprising that certain places mentioned in ‘Where Are We Now?’ are real because why would you invent a place like Bösebrücke for rhythmic ease? What is surprising, however, is that the song traverses an actual journey through Berlin.
It’s a trick that elevates Bowie’s poetical look at mortality to rarefied heights. It resides as one of his greatest latter-day songs, and part of the reason for that is because there is so much unabated sincerity in the track. Any fools who yield the chameleonic tag in a derogatory sense ought to journey by the enormously imposing KaDeWe department store with this on repeat.
Silver Springs: ‘Silver Springs’ by Fleetwood Mac
Some places in songs don’t sound real because they’re just too idyllically named to have any dealings with reality.
Silver Springs sounds like a town that has too much to live up to, it’s set itself up to fail in a rust heap of trading estates and, seemingly, Stevie Nicks thought similarly when she wrote the song to “haunt” Lindsey Buckingham.
“I wrote ‘Silver Springs’ about Lindsey. And we were in Maryland somewhere driving under a freeway sign that said Silver Springs, Maryland,” she said. “And I loved the name…Silver Springs sounded like a pretty fabulous place to me. And ‘You could be my silver springs’, that’s just a whole symbolic thing of what you could have been to me.”
Jubilee Street: ‘Jubilee Street’ by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
In a very serendipitous twist of fate for the intro to the piece, sometimes even when an artist is working purely from imagination, the miasma of the location they’re crafting turns out to be real… in the end, anyway. As Nick Cave explained to The Sun regarding his little-black book-centric epic, ‘Jubilee Street’.
When Cave was asked whether he was referring to the Jubilee Street in his adopted hometown of Brighton, UK, he had this to say: “If people think they’re going to have a good time down Jubilee Street, I’d say forget about it unless they’re particularly interested in going to the library or Yo Sushi. When I was writing that, I had it in my mind that Jubilee Street was another, more colourful street.
“Then I was actually walking along it, looked up and went, ‘Oh no, this is f—ing Jubilee Street’. So let’s just say it’s a Jubilee Street of the imagination,” he continued. “But I can say, in a rather lovely, serendipitous way, that the song reflects how Jubilee Street used to be before they regenerated it — a very sleazy down-at-heel place.”