Great London Songs

7 Streets of London – Ralph McTell

Originally released in 1969 as a track on his second album – Spiral Staircase – Ralph McTell says that the market he refers to in the song is Surrey Street Market in Croydon. As an album track it was covered by many artists, Roger Whittaker and Val Doonican among them, in the early 1970s before his record company released the song as a single in 1974, when it reached No.2 in the British chart. It was kept from being the Christmas No.1 by Lonely this Christmas by Mud. It was No.1 in Ireland and other countries.

Ralph McTell is a well-respected song writer, Streets of London is his most famous song by some margin, although “Clare to Here” which he wrote in 1963, is well known in Ireland. Streets of London is a good example of the 60/70s folk revival, and I am led to believe that it is taught as poetry in some German schools, it is also one of the most covered songs in the world. One of my favorite versions is by Sinead O’Connor, the sweetness of her voice highlights the sadness of the lyrics.

In 2017, it was released as a charity single as a duet with Ralph McTell and Annie Lennox with the proceeds going to Crisis, the homeless charity. The Anti-Nowhere League did a punk version in 1982, it sounds like it should be terrible, but it actually works surprisingly well as an angry punk song, with a “London Bridge is Falling Down” intro.

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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

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”