Friday, July 08, 2005

Homage to London: Songs and Poems

London, the center of the universe. I was looking over Daniel Davies' (aka "dsquared") post with the lyrics to Noel Coward's "London Pride," and I thought I would run through some London songs and poems that have been in my head, from the Clash and the Mekons... to Blake and Whitman.


New York has "New York, New York," but London is lacking its iconic song. The Clash's apocalyptic "London Calling" comes close, but it is a fair bit harder to sing along with than the Sinatra. Indeed, does anyone even know all the lyrics to "London Calling"? And more importantly: does anyone know what the lyrics are all about? (the lyrics are here, if you want to review)

Then of course, there's the late great Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London," to which I offer an honorable "Aoouuuuu" of praise. One might also mention the garage-punky Misfits' "London Dungeon," which, like most Misfits songs, sounds a little like the Ramones, and a little like a dozen other old punk bands. Rancid's "Tropical London" is better, but I think Rancid needs to stop trying to live in the gutter punk England of 1977. (Embrace the 1990s and Berkeley, lads.) Finally, The Faint's "Southern Belles of London Sing" is quite catchy, but also feels dated. Neo-electro... so 2002.

Let's stick with Warren Zevon, shall we?

The funniest London song I know is Adam Kay and Suman Biswas's "London Underground," which is a kind of comedic cover of "Going Underground," the classic song by the Jam (lyrics). They're making fun of all the discomforts of riding the Tube, which isn't exactly appropriate the day after a horrific act of terrorism. It's a little naughty, and I shouldn't provide a link. Still, if you don't mind a few four-letter words and a lot of irreverence, the song is guaranteed to raise your spirits.

There are also some pretty insufferable London songs, like Heather Nova's "London Rain," ELO's "Last Train to London" (a bad disco song), and 3 Doors Down's "Landing in London" (not a big fan of 3 Doors Down). But let's not dwell on these too much...

Immigrants have happily claimed London. When I did a search in my computer's Itunes for "London," I came up with three songs about London in Punjabi, Apache Indian's "London tu Nachdi," Jazzy B's "London Patola," and Amar Arshi's "London." The best of the three might be the triumphant "London Patola," which you'll find in the Immortal Bhangra 3 compilation. Bhangra songs claim London as if it's a suburb of Jalandhar.

As with New York, in London people don't speak very much of "London" as a whole -- it's all about the neighborhoods. With New York, the neighborhood emphasis sometimes seems a little contrived and/or vestigial, especially in the fixed mathematical grid of Manhattan (Chelsea? how about West 23rd St.?). In London, which is a total sprawl, you need the neighborhoods. Hence, M.I.A., currently the trendiest Cockney-Lankan on the planet, describes herself in the following terms: "got brown skin/ I'm an east Londoner/ raised by refugees..." When north central London is essentially a very large outdoor mall, there isn't much cachet in calling yourself a simple Londoner if you want to be an underground rapper. East London is where it's at.

But hands down, my favorite London song -- of any period, and any genre -- is the Mekons' "City of London." It's late Mekons (Journey to the end of the Night), so not many people picked it up. Tragic, but not a huge surprise; after all, how many people still follow a band once they reach their 38th record? Still, Sally Timms breathes new life into the band, and is particularly good here.

Here are the first two verses of "City of London":

I had no idea where I was going
How I lived or what I did here
the yawning gulf between
Hangs like a rope from a wooden beam
Breathing life into these stone-cold lips
Putting gas in this battered old stretch limousine
City of London

Above this unquiet grave
I smell the smell of decay
And stumble through the streets of grey
It never rains but it sometimes does
Please, sir, can I have some more?
How long can you carry on?
Till the empire's built and die empire's gone
City of London (full lyrics here)

It's a song, I think, about the overwhelming weight of the past. It starts with the ghostly verses above, and eventually builds in energy, becoming less spectral and more hopeful and alive to the present as it goes. The song has a cathartic quality to it, though it doesn't necessarily end on a 'happy' note ("10 square miles of hurt"). Satisfying both to one's art-music sensibilities, but also user-friendly and melodic ("catchy").


The Mekons' allusions to Dickens and Celine (Journey to the End of the Night is the title of a novel by Celine) might offer a convenient segue into a brief discussion of London in literature. There are innumerable novels and tracts dealing with London -- too many to even know where to begin. So perhaps let's limit it just to poetry for now...

Oddly, I'm not coming up with a great quantity of great London poems this morning. The most famous would probably have to be Blake's "London" from the "Songs of Experience" section of Songs of Innocence and Experience. (There is also a happier reference to London in Blake's "Songs of Innocence," in the poem "Holy Thursday.")

But the lines that seem most appropriate to the aftermath of this kind of event might be Whitman's, from the "Salut au Monde!" section of Leaves of Grass:

I see the cities of the earth, and make myself a
part of them,
I am a real Londoner, Parisian, Viennese,
I am a habitan of St. Petersburgh, Berlin, Constantinople,
I am of Adelaide, Sidney, Melbourne,
I am of Manchester, Bristol, Edinburgh, Limerick,

I am of Madrid, Cadiz, Barcelona, Oporto, Lyons,
Brussels, Berne, Frankfort, Stuttgart, Turin,
I belong in Moscow, Cracow, Warsaw -- or north-
ward in Christiana or Stockholm -- or in
some street in Iceland,
I descend upon all those cities, and rise from them

* * * * * * *
You can see some other references to "London" in English-language poetry a the Electronic Text Center at the ever-evolving UVA site here.

Cheers to you, London.


Rash said...

Did you see the calm that Londoners showed after the bombings? No hysterics.

2:02 PM  
Amardeep said...

Yes, the word everyone is using is "sang-froid," which in French means something like 'cold blood', but in a good way. (Funny that it is a French word, describing a classic British trait.)

But yes, cheers to the people of London, and to the British media. Americans could learn a lesson or two...

2:16 PM  
Amardeep said...

...About staying calm, that is. (Just to be absolutely clear.)

2:16 PM  
coolie said...

London was bombed by the Nazis for for five years. London was bombed by the IRA. London was bombed by the far right a few years ago. London has steel in her soul.
The British are cool.

3:13 PM  
Dan Husain said...

Insightful, poetic, eclectic - a tantalizing word ride. :-)

I came here from caferati and I am glad I came.



4:36 AM  
Amrit said...

Nice post. And yes, except for occasional attacks on gurudwaras and temples, the Londoners have acted quite sanely.


5:50 AM  
Anonymous said...

thanks for the lovely comments on the mekons "city of london". sometimes i find this kind of thing online and it makes me happy to continue making music for people who really appreciate what we do.

sally (singer of above song)

5:49 PM  

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