PRIMROSE HILL – Loudon Wainwright III
There are fine homages to the pretty hilltop spot in NW3 by Madness and John and Beverley Martyn, but the former Mr Kate McGarrigle edges it with his song about a homeless busker living there. Wainwright used to see him ‘drinking cans of Tennents’ as he cycled through. ‘Got a beat-up guitar/ And a dirty old sleeping bag/ And a mangy dog/ Whose tail don’t wag’… it’s Streets Of London updated for 1997 without the sentimentality. And he’s right when he sings ‘From the top of the hill/ There’s a hell of a view’.
KING GEORGE STREET – Squeeze
When I saw them play it live, as a single from the band’s 1985 reunion album Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti, lyricist Chris Difford announced the subject as ‘where I was raised, where I rode my bogeys and played with my toys’. Yet this is no paean to childhood japes in Greenwich, SE10 but a bleak kitchen-sink mini-drama about how a mother and her two small children cope with an alcoholic husband/father. ‘She left in the middle of the night with the kids,’ Glenn Tilbrook sings. ‘Wrapped in a blanket with a packet of crisps.’
SOHO SQUARE – Kirsty MacColl
One of the best women singers of modern times was also a songwriter of distinction. This track from 1993’s Titanic Days album, co-penned by her guitarist Mark Nevin, tells us of a forlorn, unfulfilled assignation in W1 where Soho meets Oxford Street.
‘An empty bench in Soho Square/ If you’d have come, you’d have found me there.’ After her tragic death in 2000, aged just 41, a
group of admirers campaigned for a bench with a metal plate attached containing part of the lyric – a lovely way to honour Kirsty’s memory.
HILLY FIELDS (1892) – Nick Nicely
The NME named this Single of the Week in 1982, the reviewer calling it ‘the best psychedelic record since the 60s’. Nicely’s back story is that he was born in Greenland when his parents stopped over on a transatlantic flight. Whether or not that’s true, we do know that his song, a genre-jumping mix of Beatley psych-pop, synth, drum machine and cellos, is set in London – Brockley, SE4 – on a beautiful hill overlooking Lewisham and the City. ‘Eighteenth of July/ Someone’s in the sky’… an X-Files case for Victorian times.
PORTOBELLO ROAD – Cat Stevens
This was today’s Yusuf Islam in his pre-Island incarnation; the B-side of 1966 debut single I Love My Dog. Bizarrely, the lyric was written by Kim Fowley, notorious late Runaways manager and serial creator of weird, risqué rock novelties. Hard to believe, but the man who penned The Trip, the ’65 song about the psychedelic experience, gave us this tour of the fabled street market selling clothes and antiques in Notting Hill, W11. ‘Greeting strangers in Indian boots,’ croons Cat, ‘Yellow ties and old brown suits.’
A-BOMB IN WARDOUR STREET – The Jam
A double-A with a cover of The Kinks’ David Watts and part of the All Mod Cons album. Wardour Street in Soho, W1 is famous for its film industry connections, but it also housed The Marquee Club, and, at No203, the punk venue The Vortex. Paul Weller invoked it in this apocalyptic rant (‘cataclysmic overtones’) about violence at new-wave gigs. ‘I’m stranded on the Vortex floor/ My head’s been kicked in, blood’s started to pour,’ he roared, a theme he developed more subtly on Down In The Tube Station At Midnight.
BAKER STREET – Gerry Rafferty
Billy Connolly’s erstwhile oppo in The Humblebums liked writing about real locations. On his album Can I Have My Money Back he gave us New Street Blues – about the boozy thoroughfare in his native Paisley – while his band Stealers Wheel named an LP after the town’s Ferguslie Park. This 1978 smash, with its epic sax part by Raphael Ravenscroft, found him musing on life in Sherlock Holmes’ patch in Marylebone, NW1. ‘This city desert makes you feel so cold/ It’s got so many people but it’s got no soul.'
ELECTRIC AVENUE – Eddy Grant
The setting for this song, by Brixton tube station in SW2, was so called because it was the first street market to be lit by electricity. Grant has described the track as his response to the riots which took place there two years into Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. The ‘Sus’ law was enraging the black youths it disproportionately targeted and the New Cross fire intensified anger about racism. The former Equals singer trusted in music as a healer: ‘We’re gonna rock down to Electric Avenue/ And then we’ll take it higher.’
A NIGHTINGALE SANG IN BERKELEY SQUARE
– Judy Campbell
Written by Eric Maschwitz and Manning Sherwin, this beautifully crafted song set in Mayfair, W1 was first performed in 1940 by actress Judy Campbell (mother of Jane Birkin) in a London revue. She almost spoke the lyric but it didn’t detract from its nostalgic power during wartime. ‘The night we met there was magic abroad in the air/ There were angels dining at the Ritz/ And a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square’. Bertie Wooster, Jeeves and Churchill all lived there; Sinatra and Nat King Cole sang it.
UP THE JUNCTION – Squeeze
In terms of storytelling with a British bent, there’s a clear line from The Beatles, The Kinks and The Who to Madness, The Jam and Squeeze. This 1979 No2 took its name and Clapham, SW4/SW11 setting from Nell Dunn’s bleak story and Ken Loach’s TV play. Difford and Tilbrook’s greatest song charts a relationship with black humour and clever rhymes from the optimistic start – ‘I never thought it would happen/ With me and the girl from Clapham’ – to the bitter end: ‘And so it’s my assumption/ I’m really up the junction’, the final words being the first mention of the title.
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Phil Shaw on the Kinks' Waterloo Sunset