[Originally published in OnLondon, 13 November 2017]
Richard Brown is research director at think tank Centre for London and before that he worked for Mayor Ken Livingstone and on the transformation of the Olympic Park. So he knows this city. He also knows a few of its tunes.
Why don’t we sing about our city? Writing here recently, Westminster North MP Karen Buck observed how few songs celebrate London, when so many reference postcodes, districts or neighbourhoods, from Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street to Wiley’s Bow E3.
Given London’s uneasy relationship with the rest of the UK, the capital may simply be reticent, loath to sing its own praises. Like a tall person at a party, London stoops to blend in. Also, as discussed at a recent Centre for London seminar, London identity is a slippery concept; many Londoners identify far more closely with their neighbourhood than with the unexplored miles and unknowable millions of the metropolis.
Newcomers are less coy about celebrating the city, still conceiving it as a singularity, rather than as the patchwork of places that residents navigate, and it is striking how many “London” songs are written by new arrivals or even in anticipation of arrival. One of the earliest, Lord Kitchener’s London is the Place for Me, was written before he arrived in Tilbury on the SS Empire Windrush as it brought the first wave of West Indian migrants to London in 1948.
The Smiths’ London is about the journey south from Manchester, and the Pet Shop Boys’ song of the same name depicts the Eastern European migrant experience. The Pogues’ early hymns to London, including the bleary Dark Streets of London and the boisterously offensive Transmetropolitan, were written from an adopted stance of London Irish rootlessness. Even two of the best-known London songs – The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset and Ralph McTell’s Streets of London – were originally composed for other cities, Liverpool and Paris respectively.
But many more songs are unambiguously about London, while never naming the city. Karen Buck picks out her erstwhile constituents The Clash, whose songs are an A-Z of punk reference points, but Woking imports The Jam were also prolific in the key of London: In The City and Strange Town celebrate the giddy excitement and the nervous alienation of coming up from the suburbs, while Down in The Tube Station at Midnight and That’s Entertainment take a more jaundiced view of late 1970s London, and its “smell of pubs, and Wormwood Scrubs, and too many right wing meetings”.
When I arrived in London in the 1990s, punk was long gone, except for postcards of theme-park mohicans on King’s Road. Alongside St Etienne’s electric ballads and Pulp’s class satires, Underworld’s early albums are powerfully evocative of London at that time. In Dirty Epic, sounding like a blissed-out Iain Sinclair, Karl Hyde invokes “the sainted rhythms of the midnight train to Romford”, capturing the queasy hedonism of London clubbing as acutely as Soft Cell’s Bedsitter or the Pet Shop Boys’ West End Girls did in the 1980s.
The capital looms, even when unmentioned, over all the later phases of Britpop, when Oasis, Pulp and Blur abandoned their regional roots to celebrate the capital’s offer of sex, drugs and existential angst, and – as 2000s war clouds gather – is a powerful presence in Damon Albarn’s subsequent work with The Good The Bad and The Queen. Songs like The Libertines’ Time for Heroes, and Plan B’s Ill Manors chart London’s history as a centre for protest and of rage. They don’t mention the city by name, but they don’t need to. Where London is mentioned, in Lily Allen’s LDN or Elvis Costello’s London’s Brilliant Parade, it is sardonically or even bitterly.
Even among these anonymous appearances, as the backdrop for stories of love and hate, success and failure, positive portrayals of London seem sparse, as Karen Buck argues. We don’t rhapsodise the city; even Noel Coward’s elegant wartime London Pride is a casual and minor key ode to a “grey city, stubbornly implanted, taken so for granted for a thousand years”. But perhaps that’s right: London’s glitter, so keenly serenaded by new arrivals, soon loses its lustre. It is replaced by a deeper, more clear-eyed but less articulate attachment, even a quiet sense of tainted civic pride, which infects and informs whole genres of music.