Top 10 other songs inspired by London
Updated: Feb 13, 2022
My favourite London songs part two: top 10 songs about or inspired by London (but without 'London' in the title).
The first part revealed London On The Ground's Top 10 songs with the word 'London' in the title. Read the post here.
Choosing this second list was harder, since there are more songs to choose from and deciding whether or not a song is about or inspired by London is less clear cut than having 'London' in the title. However, after much agonising, here is my top 10, in reverse order:
10. Baggy Trousers by Madness
One of London's most enduring bands, Madness followed in the footsteps of The Kinks in documenting the ordinary life of Londoners, particularly North Londoners. Taken from the group's second album, Absolutely, this song was all about the band members' school days. Although famously a North London band, lead singer Suggs was initially brought up in Hastings and Haverfordwest, but moved to London in his teens and went to school in NW8. The lyrics to Baggy Trousers don't actually mention any locations, but the video for this 1980 hit was shot in Kentish Town. This song edged out the band's Driving In My Car from my list - it is more transparently about London (it mentions Primrose Hill and Muswell Hill), but just isn't such a good song.
9. (I Don't Want to Go To) Chelsea by Elvis Costello & The Attractions
A UK Top 20 hit from 1978, Elvis Costello wrote the song a few years earlier while working as a computer programmer. The lyrics were influenced by London-based films of the 1960s and trips to Chelsea with his dad (talking of his father, he sang the song on the R Whites Lemonade adverts in the 1970s, with Elvis Costello - real name Declan McManus - singing backing vocals). From its raw and urgent intro onwards, (I Don't Want to Go To) Chelsea needs to be played loud!
8. Up the Junction by Squeeze
Squeeze is the third London-based act that first came to prominence in the late 1970s to be featured in my list. Released in 1979, Up The Junction was inspired by a 1965 BBC TV play of the same name, which was written by Nell Dunn and directed by Ken Loach. It has the feel of an urban country song, set in and around Clapham and telling a vivid tale of a whirlwind romance, setting up home in a basement and having a baby daughter, before the relationship is ruined by the protagonists' drinking. This song just squeezed out another by the same band, Cool For Cats (which mentions Heathrow and Wandsworth).
7. Down in the Tube Station at Midnight by The Jam
The Jam also emerged in the late 1970s, but came from Woking. Combining the energy and much of the sound of the punk movement with the suits and ties of 1960s mod culture, The Jam's songs chronicled ordinary life in England, but from a suburban standpoint. Songwriter and lead singer Paul Weller's songs for The Jam that are inspired by London include In The City, Smithers-Jones, and - my choice here - the 1978 single Down In the Tube Station at Midnight. The threat of violent attack in a tube station, while waiting for the last train, is conveyed by the taut combination of music and lyrics.
6. Arsene Wenger on Bass by Don Sebastiano
Released in 2006, when most of the Arsenal 'Invincibles' team of 2003/2004 was still at the football club, this track has a funky groove and contagious rhythm. It's also hilarious, with a deadpan MC introducing the manager as the purported bass player, before giving each member of the squad a chance to showcase their (fictional) instrumental prowess. Highlights include 'Ralph' Lauren on lead vocal, Ray Parlour on banjo, Jens Lehman on tabla ("sehr gut, Jens") and Thierry Henry on lead guitar. (I won't mention Ashley Cole on shaker - he obviously didn't listen to the Elvis Costello song at number nine in my list.)
5. West End Girls by Pet Shop Boys
Pet Shop Boys' singer Neil Tenant, originally from Newcastle, has said he always dreamed of moving to London when he was a kid. When he did, he found that the West End is the place were people escape to. As the song says, it's where East End boys can meet West End girls ("rough boys getting a bit of posh", according to Tenant). First released in 1984, the song was partly inspired by TS Eliot's poem The Waste Land. The (much better) re-recorded version became a number one hit in 1986. "I love London and I'm inspired by it," says Tenant. That's what makes you a Londoner, Neil.
4. Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits
The original band members were from Newcastle and Leicester, but Dire Straits was formed in London in 1977 with the original name Café Racers. Sultans of Swing was their first single, about a Dixieland jazz band playing a near-empty pub in South London. More than four decades after its composition by singer/lead guitarist Mark Knopfler, it still sounds like no other record. It reached the Top 10 in both the UK and the US.
3. Kentish Town Waltz by Imelda May
Released in 2010 from her Mayhem album, Dubliner Imelda May wrote an autobiographical lyric for this song. It tells of the singer's life in Kentish Town when she first came to London with Darrel Higham (her husband and guitarist in her band). Gently lilting, melodic and romantic, it contrasted with the more manic rockabilly style that initially made her name. This underlines how well suited Imelda May's voice is to a wide range of styles. The song is also realistic about relationships ('it's when I see you're not perfect for me, it's then I love you more'). The declaration 'you're the one for all my life' is now all the more poignant given that she separated from Darrel Higham in 2015.
2. Baker Street by Gerry Rafferty
Another hit from 1978 to make my list, Baker Street grabs the attention right from the start with its epic saxophone riff. Scottish singer/songwriter Gerry Rafferty wrote the song in the period after his band Stealers Wheel broke up and he often stayed in a friend's flat off Baker Street (Rafferty also once played on a folk band with Billy Connolly). It presents a jaded view of London ('it's got so many people, but it's got no soul'), but is one of the greatest tracks inspired by the city.
1. Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks
Written by The Kinks' lead singer Ray Davies, Waterloo Sunset only reached number two in the UK charts in 1967. Shockingly, given that it is widely regarded as one of the greatest songs about London, Davies originally planned to call it Liverpool Sunset. Fortunately, he realised that the Thames and the area around Waterloo was very significant in his life. 'As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset, I am in paradise'. This sums up how I feel when out walking almost anywhere in London.
Restricting myself to only 10 songs for this post meant leaving out a lot of other songs that I love. The following strong contenders would make my Top 20 songs inspired by London (but which don't include 'London' in the title).
20. Warwick Avenue by Duffy
19. Don't Go Back to Dalston by Razorlight
18. Play with Fire by The Rolling Stones
17. Electric Avenue by Eddy Grant
16. A Poem on the Underground Wall by Simon and Garfunkel
15. The Wombling Song by The Wombles
14. Chelsea Girl by Simple Minds
13. Itchycoo Park by The Small Faces
12. Common People by Pulp
11. Mack the Knife by Frank Sinatra (and the live version by Ella Fitzgerald)
It's also worth making another mention of The Clash, whose London Calling topped my chart of songs with 'London' in the title. The band also recorded a number of other songs in both categories that could have made my charts, such as London's Burning, (White Man) in Hammersmith Palais, White Riot, Guns of Brixton and Capital Radio, but I decided to limit myself to one song per band across the two lists.
Please let me know your top 10 songs inspired by London in the comments section below, or via social media.
Here is a link to a YouTube play list of my Top 20 songs inspired by London (but which don't include 'London' in the title). Yes, I allowed myself all 20 for the play list!
For a play list of my Top 10 songs with the word 'London' in the title, look at the first part of this post here.
Walks available for booking
For a schedule of forthcoming London On The Ground guided walks, please click here.