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Top ten London songs

The NS's pop critic picks the ten best songs about the capital.

Warren Zevon - Werewolves of London (1978)

Zevon’s portrait hung in Lee Ho Fook at 15 Gerrard Street, the restaurant favoured by the “hairy-handed gent . . . with a Chinese menu in his hand”. The song’s about as English as the 1981 John Landis movie but there’s nothing better than an American take on our bright lights. Also features the greatest tongue-twister in pop: “lil’ ol’ lady got mutilated late last night”.

St Etienne - Mario’s Café (1993)

This chic hymn to the humdrum, set in a Kentish Town greasy spoon, delights in a classless London society where the workman rubs up against the art student. “Starbucks doesn’t have all different sorts of people mixing. But in the proper London café you’ll get City workers, workmen, bohemians, all together,” says Bob Stanley.

Ralph McTell - Streets of London (1969)

Songs that made you cry as a child generally make you cringe as an adult but McTell’s threadbare ditty is as much a part of London’s history as Tiny Tim and his crutch. Glen Campbell, touched by its international application, sang “The Streets Of Boston” but it never had the same ring.

Eric Maschwitz and Manning Sherwin - A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square (1939)

This magical London romance was written in a tiny commune in southern France as the crucible of international politics hit melting point. Maschwitz went on to become the head of BBC TV Light Entertainment. A city song should break out in your head the moment you see the street sign. It doesn’t always work, though (cf, Donovan’s “Sunny Goodge Street”).

Madness - The Liberty of Norton Folgate (2009)

Pertaining to an area between Bishopsgate and Shoreditch that fell under the jurisdiction of St Paul’s and was, for centuries, a den of vice and sin. Taken from the concept album of the same name – a mad cavalcade of misfits, drunks and strays cutting a chaotic path though the capital (and that’s just the band etc etc).

The Jam - Down in the Tube Station at Midnight (1978)

Banned by the BBC, Weller’s protest song about National Front thugs on the last train home never fails to send shivers down the spine. Its mysteries – does the guy with the takeaway ever see his wife again? What’s the “plum” he pulls out of the ticket machine? – will haunt message boards for years to come.

Lily Allen - LDN (2006)

Every Londoner has watched their city turn from glorious technicolour dreamscape to rancid cesspit at the hands of one unaccommodating bus driver, light-fingered youth or sudden change in the weather. Allen nails that tension between love and hate, her joyful chorus – “Sun is in the sky/Oh why, oh why would I wanna be anywhere else?” – breezing into tales of mugging and “slappers”.

The Clash - London Calling (1979)

Claustrophobic and doom-laden, Strummer’s anthem is named after the wartime World Service address and the banks of his Thames are bursting. It’s a cry of alienation from the city and a call-out to other estranged souls with that last line (an echo of Melvin Endsley’s Singing The Blues) “I never felt so much a-like, a-like . . .”

Gerry Rafferty - Baker Street (1978)

The flailing sax riff now vies with the deerstalker as a symbol of Baker Street. Throughout the 1980s in playgrounds all over the country, it was rumoured to be the work of Bob Holness. Rafferty’s eulogy to hope-dashed creatives took on fresh poignancy when he disappeared into obscurity before his death in 2011.

The Kinks - Waterloo Sunset (1967)

While the hordes of commuters on London Bridge looked like the walking dead to T S Eliot, Ray Davies seems to stand on the fringes of rush-hour in a pool of shimmery magic, lovingly surveying the chaos, “too lazy” to go out and get a girlfriend. That’s how people felt before Guardian Soulmates. A true love song for London.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's pop critic.

The NS team has added their own London song recommendations to this Spotify playlist. You can listen to Kate's recommendations and ours there - let us know what you think in the comments or send us your own ideas on Spotify (our username is NewStatesman).


Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's features editor. 

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue