Songs of the City

Jul 23, 2014

A few weeks ago we looked at the songs of the road. This week we’re going to be sticking a little closer to home; songs about cities. There’s something about city life that inspires songwriters, whether it’s the people (or the women), the cultures or the attitudes. And with the overwhelming number of variations between cities even in the same country, and the countless styles of music to choose from, this topic has some rather eclectic compositions. From rap and R&B to Rat Pack crooners, classic rock to jazz standards, there are way too many examples to cover everything, but here are my favourite ten songs about ten unique cities.

London Calling – The Clash

The original British punk rockers, the Clash released London Calling in 1979, using the lyrics to reflect their feelings about events going on around them, in their own city, and around the world. From referencing the nuclear incident at Three Mile Island, to the looming threat of the Thames flooding and police brutality. Even the name itself is a reference to strife. During the Second World War, the BBC World Service began programs in occupied nations with “This is London calling…” The world was a rough place in 1979, and London was even rougher, but it wastheir city.

New York State of Mind – Billy Joel

Never a hit or released as a single, this song became a fan favourite nevertheless. Joel had been living in Los Angeles for a number of years, but was proud to be returning to his hometown, New York City. In fact, he was inspired to write the song as he was literally “takin’ a Greyhound on the Hudson River line.” He had the entire song written within hours of returning home.

Paradise City – Guns N’ Roses

Guns N’ Roses always had a passion for their hometown of Los Angeles, and this song is one of a few anthems they wrote to the City of Angels. Written in the back of a rental van on the band’s way home following a performance in San Francisco, the song that would go on to be one of their biggest hits. Originally containing a few more risqué lyrics, the song was revamped before they hit the recording booth, and we got an ode to L.A. that still gets a lot of radio airplay today. Even on mainstream rock stations.

Memphis in the Meantime – John Hiatt

Probably the most obscure song on this list, John Hiatt has been writing and performing since the early ’70s. A huge fan of Elvis Presley, this song in particular showcases Hiatt’s love of the King and Memphis. The lyrics describe a man lamenting about how he may “like that country music, and love those mandolins,” but he needs a change. The answer to his problem is none other than Memphis, Tennessee, birthplace of soul, blues, gospel, and of course, rock & roll.

My Kind of Town – Frank Sinatra

This love letter to Chicago was originally written and recorded for the 1967 film Robin and the 7 Hoods. In the film, mob boss Robbo (played by Frank Sinatra) is acquitted of murdering the sheriff. He bursts from the courtroom into to Chicago streets and belts out this tune to the gathered masses, who eventually join in. Sinatra would go on to make the song hugely popular, eventually recording several versions. And in true Sinatra fashion, he would often change the lyrics up, just a bit. For example, earlier versions included the line “The Union Stock Yards, Chicago is…” but following the closing of the Stock Yards in 1971 subsequent versions had the line “The Chicago Cubbies, Chicago is…”

Istanbul (Not Constantinople) – They Might Be Giants

Probably the best known cover on this list, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople) was originally written in 1953 by Jimmy Kennedy and Nat Simon as a swing-style song. It has been covered over and over since then, by everyone from Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald to Bette Midler. But one of the better-known versions comes from the alternative rock band They Might Be Giants from their 1990 album Flood. It’s a funny song, making light of the official renaming of Constantinople in 1930.

Lodi – Creedence Clearwater Revival

This song is unique in this list because writer John Fogerty had never actually been to Lodi, California before writing the lyrics, he only picked the town because it had the most interesting sounding name. The song is about a penniless musician who has ended up playing a gig in the small agricultural town of Lodi. Playing in bars, he finds himself unable to raise the money to leave and is “stuck in Lodi.” Despite the song playing on Lodi’s reputation as an uninteresting farming community, the song’s chorus, “Oh Lord, stuck in Lodi again,” has been embraced by the citizens, and has even been the theme of several city events.

Viva Las Vegas – Elvis Presley

Well into his acting career came Viva Las Vegas, Elvis’ 1964 film vehicle. And with it came what would become one of his best known numbers. Although he never performed “Viva Las Vegas” live, the B-side song sold over 500,000 copies in the U.S. alone and has become a popular song for other artists to cover. The Dead Kennedys, ZZ Top, even a bluegrass act have all given it their own spin. Finally, in 2002 Las Vegas city officials asked Presley’s estate to be allowed to use it as the official song of the city. Negotiations bogged down when legal complications arose.

April in Paris – Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong

A jazz standard composed for the 1932 Broadway musical Walk A Little Faster, this song has been performed by dozens of artists since the early ’30s. The combination of Fitzgerald’ and Armstrong’s unmistakable voices give this version a little something special.

Bobcaygeon – The Tragically Hip

No list of songs about cities written in Canada can go without a tune about a Canadian city. And who better to bring it than hometown heroes The Tragically Hip? As with many of The Hip’s songs, this one defies a single meaning, making several references. The most obvious is in the name, “Bobcaygeon,” a small town in the cottage country of the Kawartha Lakes. The song also seems to reference the Christie Pitts riot of 1933, a disturbance in the Toronto playground that came as a result of antisemitism.

Here we have looked at a wide variety of songs written for and about cities. Some praising, some lamenting, some serious, some not. Even with the diversity of this list, we haven’t even looked at a fraction of the odes written to major metropolitan areas. The only thing that we can be certain of is that there is something about cities that gets songwriter’s creative juices flowing. Let’s hope it stays that way.