London has had an affinity with rock music since the very beginning. Jimi Hendrix lived and died here; the Beatles recorded some of their most famous music here; and many of the most significant movements and artists were born on these very streets. The city has become a continuing source of inspiration as seen in the lyrical content of many popular songs. Whether positive or negative, the following places must have meant something to these artists.
‘West End Girls’ — Pet Shop Boys
‘You think you’re mad, too unstable
kicking in chairs and knocking down tables
in a restaurant in a West End town
Call the police! There’s a madman around’
This was a 1984 UK and US number one hit for the British synth-pop duo. Inspired by London’s iconic West End, the song explores the frantic atmosphere of the area and inner city pressures. It also discusses the differences in class and working class men meeting upper class women. It was performed at the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics. The track has continued to be an enduring hit around dancefloors and radio stations since its release. If you have ever walked around Soho on a Saturday night, it’s certain you can relate.
‘Waterloo Sunset’ — The Kinks
‘As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset, I am in paradise
Every day I look at the world from my window’
Back in 1967, the Kinks stuck gold with this track. It concerns a narrator watching over a couple meeting at Waterloo Station and the River Thames; it deals with issues of loneliness and isolation. Songwriter Ray Davies explained that the area meant a great deal to him after he spent time in St Thomas Hospital as a kid, as the nurses would wheel him out to look at the Thames. Pete Townend of The Who called it a ‘masterpiece,’ and it was featured in the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.
‘Down at the Tube at Midnight’ — The Jam
‘The distant echo of far away voices boarding far away trains
To take them home to the ones that they love and who love them forever’
This is not so much as a specific location as an entire network. The iconic Tube system gets its own anthem. ‘Going Underground‘ was also considered; however, this one really captures everything that is the Tube. The song is about a man coming home from work, looking forward to seeing his wife. But at the station, he gets beaten up by some right-wing drunken thugs and misses dinner. Hopefully not an experience anyone will have to go through but a catchy song nonetheless!
‘Fans’ — Kings of Leon
‘All of London sings
Cause England’s swings and they sure love the tales I bring
You know the rainy days they ain’t so bad when you’re the King’
This 2007 track by Kings of Leon is their love letter to the city. The US-born band cites London as the town that helped them break through. While they enjoyed modest sales back in the US, they had a cult following in London. Their first three albums received critical and commercial success in the UK, but it wasn’t until album number four, Only By The Night, that they broke America. Even their first live DVD was recorded at the 02 in London in 2009. The lyrics express their affection for the city.
‘Up The Junction’ — Squeeze
‘I never thought it would happen
With me and the girl from Clapham
Out on the windy common
That night I ain’t forgotten’
This 1979 track details a man’s romance with a young woman from Clapham. The Junction it refers to is, of course, Clapham Junction, the busiest train station in Britain. The area has long been a place for singles to drink and socialise; the colourful bar scene can count itself as one of the best in the entire city. The man in the story moves in with the girl, gets a job and has a baby. Soon his drinking takes its toll on the relationship, and she leaves him for a soldier. The story also mentions the Railway Arms, a pub that still stands today in Blackheath where the song’s writer, Chris Difford, lived.
‘The Guns of Brixton’ — The Clash
‘You see he feels like Ivan
Born under the Brixton sun
His game is called survivin’
Released in 1979, it predates the famous Brixton riots but displays feelings of discontent in the area due to violent police activity, which would soon lead to the riots. The lyrics refer to a Brixton-born son of a Jamaican immigrant and has a strong reggae influence reflecting the sound of the area. The Caribbean culture still resonates through Brixton, and it is the hometown for reggae music in London.
‘Parklife’ — Blur
‘All the people
So many people
And they all go hand in hand
Hand in hand through their parklife’
The 90s Blur anthem talks about runners, people and even pigeons in the parks of London. The song doesn’t say which park, but Damon Albarn recently explained he wrote the song while sitting in a park near Kensington Church Street where he lived; therefore, it is safe to assume it would be Kensington Park Gardens. The green spaces are an integral part of everyday life in the city, and every good Londoner has their favourite.
‘Common People’ — Pulp
‘She came from Greece she had a thirst for knowledge
She studied sculpture at St Martins College’
‘Common People’ centres around a Greek girl from a wealthy family who studies at the famous Central Saint Martins College, an art school in Kings Cross. She explains that she wants to get away from her privileged life and socialise with more regular people. This track is still a dance floor classic since its release in 1996. Jarvis Cocker met the girl that inspired the song while studying film at the college in the late 80s.
‘Who Are You’ — The Who
‘I woke up in a Soho doorway
A policeman knew my name
He said you can go sleep at home tonight
if you can get up and walk away’
This The Who track from 1978 tells the tale of a man who gets drunk and ends up in a fight in Soho. It also mentions his loving partner and dead-end job. The repeated chorus, ‘Who are you?’, possibly echoes feelings of anonymity present whilst living in a big city such as London and the longing to be somebody.
‘Itchycoo Park’ — The Small Faces
‘To Itchycoo Park, that’s where I’ve been
What did you do there? – I got high’
Another park on the other side of London was the subject of this 1967 hit. The song is about missing school to go to the park, feed the ducks and get high. The exact location of this park was uncertain until songwriter Steve Marriott clarified it to be Valentines Park in Ilford, East London. The ‘itchy’ refers to the nettles and wasps present there in the summer.
By Joe Thompson