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Does London have a musical soul? The sprawling city has inspired countless songs, but its identity h

London, according to the late Tony Wilson, has no musical soul. Wilson, a Mancunian, was the boss of Factory Records and so it was probably in his best interests to keep all the local talent away from the bright lights and the money men down south. Manchester has a musical lineage that you can hear in the nasal harmonies of the Hollies and the Stone Roses, as well as a love of leftfield dance music that stretches from Twisted Wheel to the Haçienda to Andy Votel's various clubs and record labels. London has Marie Lloyd. The Flamingo Jazz Club. Carter USM. The Libertines. It makes for more of a pre-school scribble than a straight line. You can imagine Wilson smiling at the prospect of anyone trying to make sense of it.

Still, no one would deny New York's musical soul. It is doo-wop, the sweet sound of street-corner harmony, echoing from Frankie Lymon's block through the Holland Tunnel to wherever Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons were dreaming of their rag doll. It is also the CBGB's blank generation - Television, Patti Smith, Blondie, the Ramones - defining attitude with a gormless stare and art-school irony. And it is Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Gerry Goffin and Carole King; all are valid and true.

Like New York, London is vast, with a fluid population and an ever-shifting demographic. And like New York, the sound of London shifts with time and place: Muswell Hill 1968, Notting Hill 1977, Clapton 1991, Dalston 2005. Go back to the late 19th century and things were more united - music hall ruled. While New York was wrestling for an identity with Irish and Italian balladry, Hoxton-born Marie Lloyd was flirting with double entendres to the point of being banned from entering America and spending a week on Ellis Island. When she was shunted from a Royal Command Performance bill in 1912 lest she offend Queen Mary with a knowing wink, Marie performed a couple of hundred yards down Shaftesbury Avenue with posters outside declaring "Every performance by Marie Lloyd is a command performance - by order of the British public". Royal-baiting pop did not begin with the Sex Pistols. What's more, Marie lay down a canvas of cheek ("When You Wink the Other Eye") and romanticism ("The Boy I Love Is Up In the Gallery") for the Small Faces, Squeeze, Madness and Dizzee Rascal to work on.

Meanwhile, Florrie Forde sang the definitive London singalong, "Down at the Old Bull and Bush", which celebrated a pub on the Golders Green side of Hampstead Heath. Florrie, though, was born in Australia, and her signature tune was a bowdlerised American advert for Anheuser-Busch, or Budweiser. The sound of London is as much about imported cultures and itinerant talents as it is about the East End born-and-bred. The city's size and network of communities are such that it often needs an outsider to get it in perspective.

Nick Drake arrived from Warwickshire, Bert Jansch from Glasgow and Roy Harper from Blackpool. All three made for Soho and its Les Cousins folk club in the mid-1960s. When it came to songs about London, they all struck on a similar mix of 6am dusty sunrise and uplifting melancholia, and wrote "Mayfair", "Soho" and "Freak Sweet" (Greek Street), respectively. This pervasive atmosphere is captured definitively in perhaps the most famous musical tribute to London, the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset" - warming and beautiful, but hardly joyful. Donovan gave a similar smoky feel to "Hampstead Incident" ("the heath was hung in magic mists") and "Sunny Goodge Street", while Al Stewart sang of dalliances with a teenage girl in "Swiss Cottage Manoeuvres".

Swiss Cottage! It is hard to imagine a born Londoner singing about such a mediocre stretch of north London. The Small Faces sang "Itchycoo Park", but were careful not to mention in the lyric that it was their nickname for the obscure, suburban Little Ilford Park. Like the strangeness of Camille Pissarro dedicating his talents to a snowbound Upper Norwood, people moving to London do not have the supposed nous to work out which areas they are meant to write about. And the whole city benefits as a result.

Soho-born Cat Stevens nailed the pleasure of drifting through London's illogical street patterns on Portobello Road, the late-1960s centre of cool. The Rolling Stones were sussed enough to sing sniffily, in "Play With Fire", about a slumming heiress from "a block in St John's Wood" who "gets her kicks in Stepney/Not in Knightsbridge any more". But Mott the Hoople sang about another of the lesser-known London parks without Steve Marriott's wink or Mick Jagger's sneer. "Waterlow" has a dark, baroque sound similar to "Play With Fire". The singer Ian Hunter, who hailed from Shropshire, wrote it during a divorce, after lonesomely wheeling a pushchair around Waterlow Park, Highgate, circa 1970. A E Housman had written A Shropshire Lad just five minutes' walk away in a house on North Road, 74 years earlier.

What the Stones also brought to the fore in "Play With Fire" is central to London's shifting musical base. No-go areas for the moneyed or hip can become adventure playgrounds for the next generation. For the teenage Marc Bolan, a move from happening Hackney to tedious Tooting, where he was no longer a face, was written up in the wry "Over the Flats", part glam demo, part music-hall moan.

Tooting still awaits hipness several decades on. In the case of Hoxton, Dalston and Whitechapel, however, things have come full circle musically, with the heartland of music hall now the centre of all things modish and underground. For places like once-grimy Battersea and Clapham - celebrated in Nell Dunn's book Up the Junction in the mid-1960s and on Manfred Mann's excellent soundtrack to the 1968 film version - the change has been from solidly working class to something approaching chichi. A quick nod here to Chris Barber, the jazzman responsible for bringing legends like Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy over to London for the first time, so influencing the Stones, the Yardbirds and the East End blues melancholians Fleetwood Mac. Barber wrote a piece called "Battersea Rain Dance" that captures damp market-day bustle with tipping-down brass and driving bass.

Granted, this is all a little subjective, and most of the names I have mentioned cover a specific time frame. But whether we are talking about 1910, 1970 or 2009, people have moved to London from all over the world and ended up immersed in the city's wistful humour and up-against-it spirit, whereas a group like Fleetwood Mac can grow up in London, move to the States and end up sounding like, well, Fleetwood Mac.

Take a look on YouTube at a clip of Nico singing "I'm Not Sayin'". Here, wandering around an unrecognisable Docklands in 1965, is a German model singing a song written by a Canadian and produced by Andrew Loog Oldham, a Hampstead public school boy, yet it has the authentic feel - with its chutzpah, its minor chords, its refusenik lyric and foggy air - of something essentially, perfectly London.

The CD/DVD boxed set "London Conversations: the Best of Saint Etienne" is out on Universal

Bob Stanley is a writer and a member of the pop group Saint Etienne. His book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is published by Faber & Faber.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Citizen Ken