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12 Songs That Define the Spirit of London

Lily Allen sung about the capital in her hit song 'LDN' | Alamy stock image
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Updated: 15 May 2019
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Countless musicians have paid tribute to London over the years. There have been dance floor bangers about its vibrant nightlife, soulful odes to its tube lines, and pop hits about its diverse neighbourhoods. A city this iconic demands its own soundtrack.

Hundreds of songs have been written about London. There are tracks plucked from personal experience and songs that weave a fictional story. Some focus on a particular landmark or location, while others pay homage to the city in all its glory. Regardless of the music genre and style, each song encapsulates the spirit of the capital and the vibrancy of its people.

The Clash – ‘London Calling’ (1979)

Punk band The Clash vented all their fury about the state of the world in their apocalyptic anthem ‘London Calling‘. The song’s title refers to BBC World Service’s station introduction during World War II: “This is London calling …”.

The rockers touched on their concerns about police brutality (“We ain’t got no swing / Except for the ring of that truncheon thing”), their worries about the River Thames flooding (“London is drowning / And I live by the river”), and even whether punk was over (“Now don’t look to us / Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust”) in this incendiary rant fuelled by the spirit of rebellion.

The Kinks – ‘Waterloo Sunset’ (1967)

Considered one of the greatest songs ever about London, The Kink’s bittersweet hit ‘Waterloo Sunset‘ captures the melancholic heart of the city. But the track was initially written by frontman Ray Davies about Liverpool.

The singer decided to change the location – where the two lovers, Terry and Julie, meet at Waterloo – after reflecting on how significant the area was in his life.

As he explained in an interview: “I was in St Thomas’ Hospital when I was really ill, and the nurses would wheel me out on the balcony to look at the river. It was also about being taken down to the Festival of Britain with my mum and dad. It’s about the two characters in the song, and the aspirations of my sisters’ generation before me, who grew up during the Second World War. It’s about the world I wanted them to have”.

Pet Shop Boys – ‘West End Girls’ (1984)

Pet Shop Boys’ most famous hit, ‘West End Girls‘, is an infectious synth-pop banger that was inspired by Soho’s nightlife in the 1970s and T. S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Waste Land’. The socially conscious lyrics also touch on class and the pressure of inner-city life.

Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe filmed the video around the city’s landmarks including Tower Bridge, the South Bank, Leicester Square, Waterloo Station and the No 42 bus to Aldgate, because no London music video would be complete without a shot of a double-decker.

Lily Allen – ‘LDN’ (2006)

Initially put out as a limited edition 7″ vinyl in 2006, ‘LDN‘ was re-released a few months later after the massive success of Lily Allen’s first single, ‘Smile’.

The track, a summery ska pop track influenced by breezy Caribbean rhythms, is a blast of pure sunshine as the lyrics chronicle a bike ride around the city.

The singer’s perky lyrics poke fun at the grubby underbelly of pimps, muggers and prostitutes that lies not far beneath London’s glossy surface.

Adele – ‘Hometown Glory’ (2007)

Hometown Glory‘ is the first song Adele ever wrote, penned when she was only 16 years old. The track was written in just 10 minutes after an argument with her mother who tried to persuade her to leave where they lived in West Norwood to go to university in London.

The singer would later describe the track, a powerful ballad about her love for the capital, as a “protest song”.

M.I.A. – ‘Galang’ (2003)

M.I.A’s breakout hit, a riot of dancehall, jungle, electroclash and world music, reflects the vibrant multiculturalism of the capital as she references The Clash’s ‘London Calling’ in her lyrics while using Jamaican slang for “go along” – galang – in the chorus.

The song is set in a post 9/11 London, which is mired in weed, paranoia, street battles and the police. The singer later claimed the track chronicled advice from friends on how to survive in the city.

Pulp – ‘Mile End’ (1996)

As jaunty as this song sounds, ‘Mile End‘ actually charts what Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker calls “the worst nine months of my entire life”.

The singer found himself temporarily homeless in 1989 when he was a film student at Central Saint Martins after being kicked out of his flat in Camberwell. Forced to live in a grotty squat in Lewey House off Burdett Road, E3, he turned the experience into a plucky musical memoir.

The track featured on their fifth album, Different Class, as well as the soundtrack to Danny Boyle’s classic film 1996 Trainspotting.

Professor Green – ‘Upper Clapton Dance’ (2009)

Sure, gentrification has obliterated Lower Clapton’s former reputation as Murder Mile, but Upper Clapton still has a long way to go.

Professor Green’s track encapsulates the hidden violence that lurks on London’s streets if you’re not careful.

The Hackney-born-and-bred musician raps: “When I walk around here there’s a couple of rules / Don’t bling around here, tuck your jewels / Unless you wanna get done by the wolves / And don’t fight back, the knife can be so uncomfortable”.

Gerry Rafferty – ‘Baker Street’ (1978)

Scottish singer/songwriter Gerry Rafferty created one of the most iconic songs about London, as well a contender for sexiest saxophone riff ever, with his hit ‘Baker Street’.

The track, which featured on his second solo album City to City (1978), was named after Baker Street in London. The singer had been spending a lot of time in the area at a friend’s flat as he was involved in an extended legal wrangle with his old band, Stealers Wheel.

Its lyrics hint at turbulent times touching on drink, depression and casual sex. Released at the height of punk and new wave, its smooth jazz was an antidote to the abrasive spirit of the times.

Blur – ‘For Tomorrow’ (1993)

Damon Albarn wrote ‘For Tomorrow‘ on Christmas Day 1992 at the family piano in his parents’ house. The track focuses on Primrose Hill, a famous viewpoint in the borough of Camden, North London.

The ending also mentions Emperors’ Gate, Kensington, where John Lennon first lived in London along with his wife Cynthia and baby Julian. Albarn’s parents also lived on the same street when they moved to the capital, right next to the Lennons.

Underworld – ‘Born Slippy’ (1996)

Born Slippy‘ became one of the most iconic songs of the 1990s after it was included at the end of the movie Trainspotting.

The track, a slice of euphoric electronica, was created on a night out at Soho pub The Ship. Underworld’s Karl Hyde recalls how he had written the lyrics based on snippets of conversations that he had overheard after a heavy night of drinking.

He claims the song was a cry for help and the shouts of “lager lager lager” in the chorus were made in self-loathing, so he was baffled when it became a drinking anthem.

The Streets – ‘Has It Come to This?’ (2001)

Mike Skinner’s debut song ‘Has It Come to This?’ revolutionised the UK garage scene with his brutally honest depiction of a “day in the life of a geezer” rapped over minimalist beats and a simple piano line.

The Birmingham musician namechecks PlayStations, Rizlas, the dole and even his TfL journey from Mile End to Ealing in the track, the lead single from his debut album Original Pirate Material.

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