For the holiday season, this is a departure from my usual history-themed writing, but still very much about London. It reveals my favourite songs about London, with a link to a YouTube playlist at the end.
This first of a two part post presents what I think are the best songs that include the word 'London' in the title, while part two will feature my pick of other songs that are about or inspired by London (part two can be read here).
Ranking songs is a bit like choosing between your children. They all offer something different, equally valid in their own way. There are too many criteria on which to assess a song - melody, lyrics, beat, rhythm, mood, feel, associated memories - so it's like comparing apples with pears.
However, I am not going to shy away from the challenge, so here is my ranking (of songs, that is, not my children, who both occupy the joint number one spot). There should be something in the list for everyone, but readers will no doubt also have other choices - something to consider over the Christmas break, perhaps.
In reverse order, my top 10 favourite songs with 'London' in the title:
10. Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner by Hubert Gregg
Written in 1944 by BBC broadcaster Hubert Gregg when on leave from World War Two, the song achieved popularity as performed by Bud Flanagan in 1947. The Flanagan version is a bit too sentimental for me, so I have chosen a recording with a bit more oomph for the play list (by The Business). Reversing the first line, "Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner that I love LondonTown" to say "It's because I love London Town that I'm a Londoner" works equally. That, more than someone's place of birth, defines a Londoner.
9. London Lady by The Stranglers
Released in January 1977 as the B side to The Stranglers' first single (Get A) Grip (On Yourself), London Lady is 2 mins 22 secs of energetic knockabout. It deals with an encounter in Dingwall's, the Camden venue that was popular in the pub rock and punk scene at the time.
8. You Can't Have My London by Bloke In A Hat (Trevor Barham)
Trevor Barham's catchy love letter to London is heartfelt, but written with the awareness of a local who knows its weaknesses and loves it all the more: "This city isn't paved with gold, but there are diamonds in the rough". Trevor, who performs under the name Bloke in a Hat, wrote the song around 2013 (that's when he posted a recording of the song on YouTube) and is the only unsigned act in my list. The song tells us some of his favourite London places, but advises the listener: "You can't have my London, you have to find your own - people and the places that make you feel at home". Trevor should know - he is also a qualified City of London Guide.
7. London Bridge is Falling Down by anyone
For many of us, our first musical encounters with London were through nursery rhymes and other traditional songs. The origins of London Bridge is Falling Down are not certain, but its ubiquity is a powerful illustration of how London is engrained in our national folklore. One possible inspiration for the song could be the destruction of London Bridge by King Olaf of Norway in 1014 when he was helping the English king Ethelred to fight the invading Danes. More likely, the song arose during the time of the stone-built Old London Bridge, which was almost permanently in need of repair during its more than 600 years (1209-1831). The 'fair lady' of the song may be Eleanor of Aquitaine, consort of Henry III in the 13th century. She had the rights to the bridge revenues, but she did not keep the bridge in good repair. In 1263 Queen Eleanor was pelted with eggs, stones and mud from the bridge when attempting to pass under the bridge in her barge. But this is not a history post, so let's just enjoy the song, best sung by the whole family, especially the children. When that's over, how about a few rounds of London's Burning?
6. London Boys by T. Rex
Glam rock king (and native of Stoke Newington Common) Marc Bolan's 1976 piece of mod nostalgia was intended for his rock opera that wasn't, The London Opera. Propelled by strings, saxophones and rock guitar riffs, its musical layers disguise a thin lyric that doesn't progress much beyond repetitions of "Oh yeah, we're the London boys!". A proud claim, Marc, sung with such swagger and conviction that I can believe nothing else matters!
5. Werewolves of London by Warren Zevon
The 1978 hit may have been performed and co-written by America's Warren Zevon, but it describes a werewolf walking through London's Soho looking for Lee Ho Fook, a Gerrard Street restaurant. This was the first Chinese restaurant to receive a Michelin star, but it closed in 2008. The rhythm section on Zevon's recording comprised Mick Fleetwood and John McVie of Fleetwood Mac, which started life as a London-based blues band in the 1960s. Ahoooo!
4. A Foggy Day (In London Town) by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
Written by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin, the song first appeared as sung by Fred Astaire in the 1937 film A Damsel In Distress. Many of the great American singers of the mid 20th century recorded it, but the Ella and Louis version of 1956 has two of the greatest for the price of one (and you also get Louis on trumpet, plus Oscar Peterson on piano, Herb Ellis on guitar, Ray Brown on bass and Buddy Rich on drums!). The song harks back to the days when fog, or, more accurately smog (ie pollution), regularly obscured London (although perhaps not quite as regularly as Hollywood believed). Things must have been bad on this particular day if, as the lyric says, even the British Museum lost its charm. Thank goodness the sun eventually shone through - and this recording swings!
3. Streets of London by Ralph McTell
First recorded in 1969, folk singer Ralph McTell re-recorded the song for release as a UK single in 1974, when it reached No. 2 in the charts - his best selling song. It paints a picture of homeless, ageing and lonely people on the streets of the capital and asks the listener to reflect on their own predicament by comparison. McTell initially planned to call the song 'Streets of Paris', but changed his mind to create one of the most captivating London songs.
2. London Is The Place for Me by Lord Kitchener
From its foundation in AD43 by the Romans, who attracted people here from all across their empire, London has been a city of immigrants. This calypso song looks at London from the point of view of a post-World War II immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago. Its writer Aldwyn Roberts (stage name Lord Kitchener) performed the song after arriving at Tilbury Docks on the Empire Windrush on 21 June 1948 for Pathé News, but did not record the song until 1951 (more recently, it was covered by D Lime for the 2014 film Paddington). Infectiously joyful, the song can also be read as heavily ironic. That also sums up London: you can find anything you want here.
1. London Calling by the Clash
The Clash were one of the best bands to emerge from 1970s punk rock in London or anywhere. The title track of their London Calling album, released in December 1979, captured them in their transition from punk to a more nuanced and varied sound. However, it retains the raw energy of earlier records as singer Joe Strummer rants about the concerns of the time, ranging from the risk of the Thames flooding to drugs, nuclear accidents, climate change, police brutality and the limitations of seeking answers from musicians (ironic, or what?).
So there it is, my top 10 songs with 'London' in the title. Below is a link to a YouTube play list with all 10 songs (it plays all the songs from 1 to 10).
Please let me know your top 10 in the comments section below, or via social media (London On The Ground is on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram - see the footer below).
Click here for part two: my top 10 other songs that are about or inspired by London.
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