Friday, 28 January 2011

Unsung London

A British musician died recently who was remembered for one song above all his many other works.  Despite his years in a popular 1970s band, it is this single song, with its famous saxophone solo, by which Gerry Rafferty will be forever remembered.  "Baker Street" has reputedly been played well over 5 million times across the world.  The royalties from this song command around £80,000 a year, but it never made No. 1 in the UK charts.  In the US it climbed to No. 2, and only in Australia did it finally reach the top of the charts.  Yet the song's subject is deeply British, and deeply London.  The title name-checks not only a physical street but a tube stop and a tourist hot-spot.  It's not the cheeriest of songs, lyricswise, but the saxophone solo is something else.  As a 10 year old at a new, very musical school I was asked what instrument I wanted to learn to play.  I looked around at a sea of clarinets and violins and I knew I wanted something different.  One day I heard "Baker Street" and I was sold; I would play the saxophone, and I would get good enough to play that solo one day.  And I did.  But now, as my saxophone lies unplayed back at the Accidental parents' house in the Midlands, I am closer to that song than ever.

Baker Street lies a fifteen minute walk from my office, and when I lived in South-West London it was on one of my many commute-routes home.  Weirdly, now I think about it, I don't think I have ever thought of the song while I have traversed Baker Street's pavements.  Maybe it is that I find it hard to believe that such a staggeringly beautiful song could have been written about this actually pretty unremarkable street.  And this brings me to a long-time wondering of mine.  Why aren't there more popular songs about London?  New York has inspired many a chart-topper or classic tune beloved by many far too young to remember its original release.  From AC/DC to Armand Van Helden, and Sinatra to Sting, musicians throughout history have found inspiration in NYC.    

So why not London?  Why has no one sung a song about an American in London?  (All we have had is a song about being a Werewolf in London - hardly an ode to anyone as fascinating as Quentin Crisp)  Or proclaimed the joy of being a Native Londoner?  (a la Odyssey's disco classic "Native New Yorker')  After the terror attacks of 9/11 The Beastie Boys recorded "An Open Letter to NYC" - a hip-hop love-letter to an adored city struggling to return to its confident former self.  Not even Bono, usually keen to make music in the name of drawing peoples' attention to misery, could be bothered to cover a song in the aftermath of the 7/7 attacks in London.

I trawled my iPod in search of music dedicated to and inspired by London. I find a ballad named after an unprepossessing tube station ("Warwick Avenue" by Duffy), and the mockney, jaunty little number that launched Lily Allen's career, "LDN".  Merrily singing about drugs and hookers however does not exactly showcase London's finest attributes.  I find the soundtrack to the musical Me & My Girl, and "The Lambeth Walk"; yet more fake cockney accents over a bouncy melody.  Is there not more to London than this?  The Kinks dedicated a dirge to the sky around one of the city's busiest railway stations ("Waterloo Sunset").  The Pet Shop Boys tackled a slightly deeper topic, the city's East-West cultural divide, in their classic "West End Girls"; yet the underlying synthesised disco melody did little to establish the tune as a credible urban anthem of which the city could be proud.

However there is one song which crashes and rages as only the stormy city of London can.  No surprise then that the Time Out list of top 50 London songs names The Clash's "London Calling" as its #1.  This is certainly the first song I associated with the city when I began thinking about this.  The punk anthem was a political rant which epitomised the late 1970s in which it was written.  Yet as the streets of London once again fill with clamouring protestors and the city finds itself in deeply uncertain times, the words ring true once more:

"London calling to the faraway towns
Now war is declared, and battle come down
London calling to the underground
Come out of the cupboard you boys and you girls..."

The song rallies a resistance to the threats of war, terror and even environmental hazard.  It portrays London as a stronghold for righteous anger and desire for change.  The Clash had faith in London, seeing it as far more than the tourist pastiche created by numerous other artists.  They capture its strength, its love of a good fight, and finally even the Londoner's ability to summon up half-hearted humour in even the darkest of hours:

"London calling, yeah I was there too
And you know what they said?  Well some of it was true
London calling at the top of the dial
After all this won't you give it a smile?"


  1. I started the sax for exactly the same reason, I couldn't get enough of that Baker St solo. I think about it almost every time I'm on that street though!

    Waterloo Sunset is probably my favourite London song, got to admit I first heard the Cathy Dennis cover version (semi-guilty pleasure).

  2. How weird! It must be the solo which lures us all in. Although, fascinating fact I recently discovered, it was originally written as a guitar solo. Wouldn't have been nearly so great though I reckon.

    (I'll pretend I didn't see the Cathy Dennis bit, Ian!)


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