by Elliot Davies
I grew up in a part of Liverpool that’s a bit of a grey area. Depending on where you stand, you’re either in Crosby or Waterloo.
Both areas for me had more than a touch of glamour about them. Alan Partridge’s Geordie friend Mike at one point becomes enamoured with a cowboy trucker, played by Peter Serafinowicz, who claims to come from Crosby. And as for Waterloo, well. There’s a certain song:
It’s about London though, isn’t it?
For a while, I had no idea. I genuinely thought that Ray Davies had written a song about an outlying part of Liverpool.
And why wouldn’t he?
It’s likely that every stone in every street of London has been immortalised in song. If you’re a Londoner, you’ve no shortage of a soundtrack. You have pretty much every song that’s ever been written by The Kinks, for a start. Similarly, entire swathes of Blur’s back catalogue will see you right – except, of course, for that song about Land’s End.
But here at FCK LDN, we’re all about celebrating the parts of the UK that aren’t London. And if you grew up outside of London, it’s not so easy to find a song to soundtrack the view from your window.
Fortunately, it’s not impossible.
Let us take this opportunity to share our favourite songs about UK cities that aren’t London. Bear in mind that I am but one man; the songs I list here are limited not just to the songs I’ve heard, but also the cities I’ve visited. If you feel I’ve missed something out, do not hesitate to share your own sonic civic pride in the comments below.
I must stress, though, that we’re focusing on songs about cities, here. If we open this list to UK places, then we open up The Fearsome Floodgates of Folk. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with a bit of folk now and then – or a lot of folk, for that matter – I’d rather not have to consider songs about steep inclines, crop rotation, and stiles. It’s just not my style. Not tonight.
So here we go. Great songs about UK cities that aren’t London.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Jubilee Street
A few of the songs on Nick Cave’s Push The Sky Away album appear to refer, in some way, to his adopted hometown of Brighton. But nowhere is it more explicit than on album centrepiece, and transcendent live behemoth, Jubilee Street.
It tells the tale of salvation for sex workers and their clients, as our hero walks down Brighton’s titular street in “tie and tales”, with “a foetus on a leash”.
The song refers to a specific location, but with its sloping beat and soaring strings, Jubilee Street can make you feel immortal when you walk down any street, anywhere in the world.
I must point out, though, that the preceding video was quite explicit, and should not have been viewed at work, by minors, or by miners at work.
Amsterdam – Does This Train Stop On Merseyside
Ian Prowse is one of the finest songwriters to ever emerge from Liverpool. Considering the competition, that’s no small feat. This song, a favourite of John Peel’s, is perhaps his masterpiece.
Cynics will guffaw at the clumsy mawkishness of some of the lyrics, but for anyone who grew up within sniffing distance of the Mersey, this is powerful stuff – especially when performed hushed and acoustically, in Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, on a stage dominated by a stoic local in a Justice For The 96 t-shirt.
White Town – Thursday At The Blue Note
Perhaps the most famous band to ever come from Derby (for now), White Town are synonymous with their 1997 number one hit Your Woman. Much better, though, is this jaunty little piece of jittery sitar pop, which describes, in amusing and endearing terms, a very real night of drama in a very real nightclub in Derby.
But even this song has absolutely nothing on their Theme For An Early Evening American Sitcom, which proves that vaporware was actually invented in Derby some 14 years before James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual.
The Smiths – Suffer Little Children
For Morrissey’s gloomiest song, look no further than his debut. The chorus to this one is the musical equivalent of using your nicotine-stained heart to wipe a rainy window, through which you mournfully stare at a funeral procession.
It’s a song about The Moors Murders, and it gives the subject all the gravitas it deserves, but adds a genuinely chilling twist: Myra Hindley will never sleep again, as the ghosts of her victims will forever stand over her bed come nightfall.
And yet, that line:
“Manchester/So much to answer for”.
Having been bought and branded by Phones4U, Manchester’s arena is now bedecked with quotations from its most famous exports. One of them, believe it or not, is the above.
Doubtlessly the management thought that Morrissey was referring to the city’s trademark lippy wit. In actuality, buzzing Mancunian concertgoers will now find themselves reminded of one of the most hideous events to ever plague their city.
It’s like Reagan’s asinine embrace of Springsteen’s Born In The USA, yet somehow even more moronic. Doesn’t anyone listen to lyrics anymore?
Super Furry Animals – Cardiff In The Sun
A particularly wonderful song from the most wonderful Welsh band that ever was. The lyrics seem to fondly recall a childhood and young adulthood misspent smashing windows and stealing expensive cars. But the air is one of wistful nostalgia. Whenever I hear this, I cannot help but think of the atmosphere that all cities possess when sunsoaked.
To spend time in a city is to immerse yourself in all manner of deep waters. Even if you’re just dipping your toes in the shallows, you’re still getting a feel for the temperature.
Yet the only way to truly get a feel for a city is to inhabit a city. You must immerse yourself in those murky waters and allow for them to fill your lungs, so to speak. Even if you emerge gasping and struggling for breath, you’ll still feel alive.
The waters in which we immerse ourselves induce the strangest and most inexplicable of feelings. Yet these feelings must be expressed, and music is the single most evocative means of expression we have at our disposal. This is why people write songs about cities, and this is why so many of these songs are written in the past tense.
So perhaps Gruff Rhys wrote a song about a specific memory he had about a specific day spent in Cardiff – a day that happened to be sunny. But in writing about this day, he inadvertently provided all who experience Cardiff with an anthem for the days on which they are lucky enough to get a bit of sunshine.
But in setting this song to music, he and his band inadvertently (or…vertently?) captured the very essence of all sunsoaked cities. It’s too hot to do anything; yet the concrete, the crowds, and the old buildings only serve to make things even hotter. So what’s the point in rushing? Let’s get a coke, get some ice cream, and spend as much time as we can gazing idly at some fountains.
Fittingly, the above video is a fan-made video. It doesn’t depict Cardiff at all. Rather, it depicts Dublin. Proof, as if it were needed, that this is a song for all cities.
Belle and Sebastian – A Century of Elvis
Every song that has ever been written by Belle and Sebastian tells a story, and with very few exceptions, it’s likely that most every single one of these stories takes place in Glasgow. A Century of Elvis, though, is a rare example of a Belle and Sebastian song that refers explicitly to the city that made the band.
It’s a spoken word piece, and the story it tells is a strange one. Essentially, Elvis starts to visit a house in Glasgow. How do we know it’s Glasgow? Partly because of the soft accent in which the story is told, and partly through explicit references to such Glasgow locations as Prior’s Road. Presumably there’s a car park and a caretaker’s office nearby.
Like all of the best short stories, this is one in which the ending is kept intentionally vague. For a long time, the idea has been drilled into me that stories with “messages” are inherently weak, so don’t let’s say that A Century of Elvis has a message. Instead, let us say that it has an idea: Elvis may very well start to squat in your house, because anything can happen in a city.
It’s funny that this article is titled “Great Songs About UK Cities That Aren’t London”. At the time of writing, by this time next week, Glasgow may not be a “UK City” anymore.
So this seems like as good a place as any to end things.
But let us continue this discussion! Come on! Great songs about UK cities that aren’t London! Go!