Great London Songs

12 Lazy Sunday – Small Faces

This was originally a track on the 1968 album “Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake”. The song was released as a single in April that year without the band’s knowledge and reached No.2 in the UK singles chart. They weren’t happy with its’ release, because they felt that many other tracks on the album better represented their musical direction, they were trying to ditch their pop image. The success of the song eventually led to Marriott leaving the band. He formed the rockier sounding Humble Pie with Peter Frampton. Frampton was another ’60s pop star looking to present a “heavier” sound in the 1970s, having had hits with “The Herd” and voted “The face of 1968” by the teen magazine “Rave. The band thought “Afterglow” would be the lead single, but although it is a good song in its own right, you can’t imagine that it would have been the big hit that Lazy Sunday was.

“Gor Blimey, ‘ello Mrs. Jones – How’s yer Bert’s lumbago” Steve Marriott sings in a cod cockney accent. In 1960 he played the Artful Dodger in Lionel Bart’s “Oliver!” and this east end music hall delivery harks back to that. The song was recorded as a jokey album track, but it has clever lyrics, a unique delivery, and it remains a London psychedelic era pop classic.

Cover versions include the Toy Dolls (remember the punk “Nellie the Elephant”?) on their cleverly titled CD “Orcastrated”. The Libertines used to include a version in their live set. I feel like I can hear echoes of this son in Blur’s “Parklife” too.

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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.

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

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.

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 Bublé, and Rod Stewart to name just a few. The Stéphane 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

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”.

Murder for Two, The Other Palace, London SW1

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The Studio at The Other Palace is an intimate theatre with a small stage and seating for about a hundred people. This is the perfect setting for this show, which is an affectionate homage to black and white murder mystery movies and to camp musical theatre. It is written by an American pair, Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, who clearly have a love for both of the genres that they are sending up.

This is a two handed play, with Ed MacArthur playing the investigating officer and Jeremy Legat playing everybody else, apart from the moment when an audience member is brought onstage to play the death throes of a poisoned murder victim. It takes a few minutes to adjust to the quick changes between all the different characters, but soon with only a single prop and a shift in demeanour, Jeremy Legat has us following his transitions through the roles at breakneck speed.

Murder for Two is a madcap musical. It has eleven songs. Usually one of the pair plays the piano while the other sings and dances but there are duets or songs with multiple parts. The songs that have the officer interviewing three members of a boys choir, and an arguing married couple are particularly inventive. The lyrics in the songs are clever. “A Friend Like You” which opens the second act is particularly good.

The familiar elements of the story arc are magnified and made into a virtue, so that we can derive pleasure from knowing what is about to happen and laugh when it does. There are very funny lines in the dialogue, but the main comedy comes from the character portrayal. The intimacy of the theatre adds to the warmth of the performances, Ed MacArthur and Jeremy Legat have charisma and there was a personal connection with the audience.

Murder For Two is pure light entertainment, every trope from film noir and musical theatre has been thrown in the mix. The only thing that could have made it camper would have been the addition of a butler in a feather boa. It is on at The Studio of The Other Palace until 18 January. It is a witty and likeable presentation, a warm hearted murder mystery musical.

Taj Express, The Peacock Theatre, London WC2

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Taj Express is a jukebox musical with a Bollywood movie theme. About half the music comes from hits of the Indian film industry, half is written by musical director Abhijit Vaghani, who has composed the background score to over 50 films himself. My knowledge of this area is scant, to say the least, so I only recognised a couple of the songs, but this took nothing away from my enjoyment of the show.

This show is basically a set of twenty four dance routines with short breaks in between for the dancers to change costume and regain their breath. None of the dancers have spoken lines, there is a kind of narrator whose job it is to join the dances together, to propel the story forward and to inject some comedy into the proceedings.

There is a tradition in jukebox musicals for the storyline to be thin. It is basically a hook on which to hang the songs and dance routines. Here the story practically transparent, although cleverly they make this into a joke, so we can laugh at how unlikely a tale it is, and to be fair, the story is not what the audience have come to see.

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The dancing is spectacular. This show is an exhilarating riot of colour and energy. The variety in the music is surprising, there are elements of tango, salsa, mixed up with bhangra and rock. The opening of the second act even had a techno rave feel with its ultra-violet lights and dayglo costumes and props. Hiten Shah and Tanvi Patil play Arjun and Kareena, the shows romantic leads, their job is to relate the narrator’s story through their dance routines, a job they accomplish with considerable charm and allure. The ensemble as a whole are dazzling, full of acrobatic tumbling, gymnastic break dancing and twisting somersaults, their dynamic vigour is infectious and the audience is clapping along enthusiastically towards the end of may of the routines.

The set is simple but effective, a white backdrop leaves the stage completely clear for the main event, and pictures projected onto it provide the various settings in which the dancing is taking place. Bipin Tanna deserves special mention as the costume designer. They are a highlight of the show. To say they are bright and glittering is an understatement, they flow and shimmer with the dance moves, enhancing the movement of the dancers. They are vibrant and vivid, yet elegant and graceful when this is called for in the dance.

Taj Express is a show that you have to allow yourself to enjoy. It has elements of pantomime, don’t overthink – just let the pageant that unfolds onstage envelop you and  become swept up in the spectacle. By the end of the show much of the audience was up dancing in the aisles, a testament to the appeal of a most enjoyable evening.