Great London Songs

11 Parklife – Blur

Released in 1994, the title track of Blur’s third album Only reached No. 10 in the UK chart, but it is probably one of the most recognizable “Britpop” songs. The verses are narrated by Phil Daniels, a London actor, in a strong cockney accent. It was written while Damon Albarn was living in Kensington Church Street and the band were recording the album in Fulham.

At the 1995 BRIT awards, the song won the single of the year award and the video won the video of the year. Set on the Greenwich peninsula, along a street of terraced houses, you can, briefly, see the early City of London skyscrapers in the background.

The song has also been used in an advertisement for Nike. Filmed on Hackney Marshes with Eric Cantona, Robbie Fowler and Ian Wright among others – it very often appears in best ever adverts lists.

Since then, it has become a football anthem and is sung at many clubs, most notably by Norwich with the lyrics changed to “Farkelife” at the time when their manager was Daniel Farke.

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Great London Songs

9 Vossi Bop – Stormzy

Vossi Bop was released in April 2019 entering the UK chart at No.1 and spending two weeks there. Stormzy is a London grime artist, and his lyrics and performances often talk about living and growing up in South London. This song references UK and London politics and the line “tell ’em this is London City, we the hottest in the world”. The video has him rapping outside the bank of England and on Westminster Bridge. Idris Elba appears (briefly) in the video just after Stormzy name checks him.

10 Take Me Back to London – Ed Sheeran ft Stormzy

Take Me Back to London was released in August 2019 and spent five weeks at the top of the UK chart that summer. This was the 2nd grime track to reach No.1 (after Vossi Bop) although, to be fair, this is a very poppy version of grime. Ed Sheeran does have form working with grime artists, there were many on “No.5 Collaborations Project”. This track is from “No.6 Collaborations Project” and it is basically saying that “no town does it quite like my home, so take me back to London” Although Sheeran grew up outside London, he began his career here, gigging and sofa surfing. This is a witty take on grime, they both brag about how great they are, with talk of their BRITS and headlining Glastonbury, instead of Courvoisier and Champagne, they rap “give me a packet of crisps with my pint”. There are two other rappers on this track (Aitch and Jaykae), and they take the mick out of Sheeran’s more MOR audience “Tell Mumsie I’m on a track with Ed”.

Great London Songs

8 Up the Junction – Squeeze

“I never thought it would happen, with me and the girl from Clapham” begins the 1979 story song from Squeeze. It’s named after a 1960s kitchen sink drama directed by Ken Loach and although the story is not quite the same one, it has many of the same elements. Lean lyrics and no chorus, it succinctly tells a life story in 3 minutes and 10 seconds.

Released as a single, on purple vinyl in 1979, it made No2 in the UK charts – being kept from the No1 by Tubeway Army’s “Are Friends Electric”. The song has a London sensibility, Up the Junction is slang for in trouble and it namechecks Clapham’s windy common. Written by Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford, who were the main songwriters in the band, Jools Holland was the keyboard player in Squeeze when the song was released. They wrote the story of the other person in the song “the girl from Clapham” 20 years later in “A Moving Story”

There haven’t been too many covers for a song that sold over half a million copies in the UK. Travis put it on the B side of a single, The View put it on the B side of Superstar Tradesman and Lily Allen does it live occasionally. My favourite cover is by The Hotrats, a side project of the band Supergrass, who change it up, but manage to keep the sadness of the story.

Great London Songs

6 A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square

Written in 1939 and released as part of the London show “New Faces” in 1940. It was first sung by Judy Campbell (the mother of Jane Birkin, famous for singing the very French song “Je t’aime” in the late sixties) in that show. It was immediately popular, and Vera Lynn had recorded before the end of the year. Frank Sinatra’s version is probably the most well-known, reaching No. 2 in the U.S. charts.

It has been covered by so many artists that it is hard to pick favourites, Glenn Miller, Nat King Cole, Michael BublĂ©, and Rod Stewart to name just a few. The StĂ©phane Grapelli and Yehudi Menuhin version is really good. Manhattan Transfer’s cover won a Grammy. The New Vaudeville Band did a distinctive version in the mid ’60s, and Ian Hunter (remember him from Mott The Hoople and Ziggy Stardust?), includes a version on his live sets.

It also features in many films and TV shows. Robert Lindsay sings it as the theme tune to the series “Nightingales”. Tori Amos sings it in the credits of Terry Patchett’s “Good Omens”. David Mitchell even sings it to Olivia Coleman in “Peep Show” Berkeley Square is a square in Mayfair, surrounded by smart terraced houses. Many of the earliest British Prime Ministers had their private residences there. It is a grassed square containing 18th Century Plane trees and there was a “coming out ball” (for debs, not as we know the term now!) held here, under a marquee, every year.

Great London Songs

5 Baker Street – Gerry Rafferty

Baker Street is really a song about wishing to get out of London, but it still evokes the feel of the city in the late 1970’s. The sax break gives the intro a lonely, big city vibe and then the lyrics are a longing to escape to a nostalgic countryside that only exists in songs or people’s dreams. It was apparently written when he had already moved out of London and only visited to see lawyers, while he was negotiating his way out of Stealers Wheel contract, so you can understand why he didn’t see London is the happiest of lights. However, despite this, the final verse is positive “The sun is shining, it’s a new morning” and it sounds like he makes it out.

Released in 1978, it was a huge hit around the world. No. 1 in Australia, Canada, South Africa. No. 2 for 6 weeks in the US and No. 3 here in the UK. There have been many cover versions – in fact Undercover in arguably had a bigger hit in the UK with the song, reaching No. 2 in 1992, although to be fair it not a version that you hear often now, unlike the original.

Gerry Rafferty had hits in Stealers Wheel – “Stuck in the middle with you” is a great ’70s song. He was also in a duo with Billy Connolly called The Humblebums, very folky. The Foo Fighters used to do a cover of Baker Street at their live gigs and, of course, it is the song Lisa from The Simpsons used to learn the saxophone

It is remarkable how similar the sax solo sounds on this 1968 song by Steve Marcus, I suspect it would have ended in a courtroom had we been in these more litigious days. For all that, Half a Heart is a good song in its own right, very different in tone and I would probably never have heard it, if not for Baker Street.

All in all, a worthy addition to The London Playlist, if you have any suggestions for songs that you believe should be added please let me know in the comments.

Great London Songs

4. Waterloo Sunset – Kinks

Released in 1967, based on memories of his time in St Thomas’ hospital when he was 13. It went to No.2 in the British charts and was their biggest hit. Rumors at the time that “Terry and Julie” were Terence Stamp and Julie London who were London’s hip celebrities at the time, but Ray Davies has denied this. It was never a hit in the US, but it is listed at No.14 in the Rolling Stone’s greatest songs of all time. There have been some great covers, including one by another brilliant London band, The Jam. Peter Gabriel also did a very good version.

Great London Songs

3 London Calling – The Clash

Released in Dec 1979. With a title from a BBC radio WWII phrase, London Calling is like a wartime radio broadcast from a dystopian future London. It chimed well with the punk popularity of the time, because of the angry delivery of the lyrics and the staccato guitar riffs. London and the UK, in the late 1970’s, felt like their best times were behind them and this song is an enraged rant about this. Cleverly written and well produced, albeit with punk ethic, I remember being annoyed when radio DJs would cut the morse code ending – which spelled out SOS.

A classic 21st century T-Shirt

Despite never making the top 10 when it was released, it came in at 15 in the Rolling Stone magazine’s best all-time songs (2004), and at 42 in VH1’s 100 greatest songs of the 1980s (sic). Ukraine band, Beton, released a cover version called “Kyiv Calling” in March 2022, following the Russian invasion of their country.

I have created a playlist on Spotify and I will add the songs included in the “Great London Songs” as I go along. It’s called “The London Playlist” – if you think of any songs that I should include please let me know.

Great London Songs

2 West End Girls – Pet Shop Boys

The West End is how London’s Central and nightlife area is known. The East End is traditionally the working class part of the city to the east of town. This was more true in the 1980s, when this song was released than it is now, certain parts of the East End are quite upmarket these days. It was released first in 1984 and then a remixed version went to number 1 in the UK and US the following year. It is a great song that captures the tension in the growing gap between rich and poor that was happening in urban centers at the time. To me it always brings back memories of living in the South London (also less affluent) and working in the West End during the 1980s. It was voted the UK’s best No.1 single by the Guardian in 2004 and it was used as the closing song of the 2012 London Olympics.

The video for the single is very London too, it has images of a deserted Petticoat Lane Market, Waterloo Station, Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square and the No. 42 bus among other iconic London views. E17 (East End boys) had a hit with a cover of this and Flight of the Conchords did a brilliant parody with “Inner City Pressure”

Great London Songs

As I intend this blog to be a celebration of all things London. This is the first in a series of songs that I associate with London. There are many, if you have suggestions for ones that you would like included, leave a comment and I will give them a listen and look up their links to London!

1 The Lambeth Walk – originally Lupino Lane

The Lambeth Walk is a song from the 1937 musical “Me and My Girl”, a musical about a working class London boy discovering that he is in line to inherit an earldom in Hampshire. Originally sung by Lupino Lane, a popular pre-war comedian, the song became a dance craze and was popular around the world, leading to covers by many of the big bands popular at the time, including Duke Ellington’s and Russ Mogan.

In 1940 The Ministry of Information made a short film of Nazi goose-stepping set to the tune of the Lambeth walk. This was shown in many cinemas, before the main feature, in Allied countries and was hugely popular at the time.

The stage musical was made into a film called The Lambeth Walk in 1939 and this was big hit too. The song was a genuine dance craze in Europe and America, through the Second World War. I recently found a YouTube video demonstrating how to do it. Lambeth Walk is an actual street just south of the Thames, in Lambeth near Vauxhall. It used to host a street market during the week and there used to be a pub on the corner of the street called The Lambeth Walk, but this is now closed. There are still council houses around the area and a small park called Doorstep Green, although it would be regarded as a very posh place to live now. It is where Charlie Chaplin lived as a child. Ian Dury also mentions this street in one of his songs “This is what we find”.