In keeping with its place as one of the world’s most multi-faceted cities, London has inspired a similarly diverse range of music. From Second World War “forces sweetheart” Vera Lynn right through to contemporary bands like Pulp, these are the songs best capturing the UK capital in verse.
The Streets of London—Song by Ralph McTell
This classic song has to feature in any compilation of the all-time great music about the capital. McTell wrote the song for his debut album, Spiral Staircase, in 1969, but eventually left it out, finding it too depressing. The song was released as a single in 1974 and, sad as it is, has achieved longevity with its poignant lyrics about London’s forgotten poor.
White Man in the Hammersmith Palais—The Clash
Released originally in 1978 as a single featuring a smoking gun on the cover: a picture which would sum up not only the song with its lyrics about the rough nature of South London in the 1970’s with it’s racial conflict, crime and poverty, but much of the music The Clash were producing in the late 1970’s.
A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square—Vera Lynn
Vera Lynn wasn’t the first to sing this song but she does give the most memorable rendition of it, and makes one of the few recordings to be sung in its entirety with the original lyrics. It’s a feel-good, romantic song. Berkeley Square is a wealthy square in Central London. The song has featured in several films and also been sung by artists including Fred Astaire. The first recording of the song was in 1940.
Waterloo Sunset—The Kinks
One of the more famous songs about London, this beautiful track from The Kinks at the height of their success in 1967 is, according to Ray Davies, about his sister and her boyfriend, who were about to emigrate. It as an observation by a third party of two lovers crossing Waterloo Bridge.
Rainy Night in Soho—The Pogues
Shane McGowan cranking out about past love in this classic from The Pogues is still a favourite almost twenty years after it was released. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds also did a good version.
Down in the Tube Station at Midnight—The Jam
This track by The Jam, the second single released from their album “All Mod Cons” describes a man mugged in a railway station late at night. It contrasts the depressing squalor of city blight with the warmth of home.
Twenty-Four Minutes From Tulse Hill—A Carter USM Song
Carter USM recorded plenty of songs about gritty South London, dressing some serious messages in original, quirky lyrics. This one mentions “pit-bull terrorists”, “BMX bandits” and the “brothels of Streatham.”
Itchycoo Park—The Small Faces
This psychedelic pop classic from The Small Faces is supposedly inspired by Manor Park, a London park in the suburb where singer Steve Marriott grew up.
A moving song about leaving one’s girlfriend and family to go to London, this track was on The Smith’s second album “The World Won’t Listen.” Other songs such as Panic get the attention on the album but this is one of the most poignant.
One of the less well-known songs from the hit album “Different Class”, this is a great track about sitting hungover in a London cafe waiting for dawn, expressing regret and disillusionment about the night before.
There are other great London songs — including Lily Allen’s LDN, a wry commentary on various passers-by in the city, and London Dungeon, the Misfits hit song — but the ten listed here best illustrate London life, covering issues such as homelessness, poverty, love and loss in the UK capital. One of the hallmarks of a truly great song is of course its ability to stand the test of time and the lyrics of these ten tracks remain as relevant today as when they were written and recorded.