Casting a real place as a backdrop to a song can turn it into an evocative cinemascape, a nostalgic love letter, a bruising piece of social comment or a rock’n’roll fantasy. We’ve picked ten of our favourites, and put together a playlistso you can enjoy them too.
Mouse over the map to hear songs written about cities in each part of the world
10 Scott Mackenzie, ‘San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)’
Few songs occupy the hippy dream as well as Mackenzie’s psychedelic pop gem from 1967. Its very genesis was as a song to promote the Monterey Pop Festival, the officially recognised as start of the summer of love. The song is almost ridiculously, naively, cute, and its unflappable optimism saw it survive as a counter-cultural anthem for decades to come.
Strange that it would take a collective of French Canadians to best encapsulate the existential anguish of the Los Angeles pool party hipster life. But on their first and only significant hit from 1997, they most accurately skewered the loneliness of the socialite in world where everyone’s a screenwriter really, referencing Snoop Dog’s ‘Gin And Juice’ and drag queen drama To Wong Foo: Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar. It’s brilliant. I love this song almost irrationally.
Nobody can do romantic sentiment quite as well as a scouser, and scousers don’t get quite as romantic and sentimental as anything quite so much as their hometown. I grew up in the neighbouring town to Birkenhead, and it’s testament to this song’s splendour that it conjures up such magic that it makes the place sound like somewhere worthy of pilgrimage. Because it really isn’t.
Because not every city song has to be a work of swooping melodrama or urban breakdown. Here, John and John get worked up into a sweat of some frantic gawk rock and more-so wordplay about little more than the correct way to refer to the Turkish capital. It’s a political thing, which as we know is a minefield. But it’s also rollicking good fun.
6 Marc Cohn, ‘Walking In Memphis’
A city associated forever with a person, Cohn puts on his blue suede shoes and boarded the train, and experiences a moment on transcendence via an Elvis moment. ‘Walking In Memphis’ is a gruff macho daydream, but it ain’t half an effective one. And to prove that anybody really can experience a transcendent Elvis moment, we’re going to remind ourselves of the Cher version instead.
Okay, okay, nobody’s really pretending that Brando’s solo album was any real kind of classic. ‘Flamingo’ wasn’t even the best solo album in The Killers. But for a song that embodies the camp hubris of that city, its opener cannot be surpassed. Packed to the point of comical with lyrical clichés about the place (“didn’t nobody tell you the house will always win?”) this is Brandon at his most big, blustery and blousy, much like the place itself.
4 Elbow, ‘Station Approach’
Full disclosure, I’m more romantic about my adopted hometown than pretty much anywhere else, and Guy Garvey’s swelling sense of pride as he walks down from the train towards Piccadilly Gardens, the reassurances offered by the buildings of this supposed dirty old town are almost overwhelming. Unless you’re from Manchester yourself, you’re simply not going to get it. “I never know what I want but I know when I’m low that I need to live in a town where they know what I’m like and don’t mind,” he sings. And boy, that’s one hell of a comfort blanket.
3 Bruce Springsteen, ‘Streets Of Philadelphia’
The song that jump-started The Boss’ career after the muscular 80s bluster period is one of his most nakedly emotional works, and it earned him an Oscar. Here, the city serves as an unforgiving backdrop to one man’s personal tragedy, as Springsteen casts himself as as the Tom Hanks character in the movie, a gay lawyer stricken with AIDS as the epidemic ravaged the 1980s; ”I was bruised and battered and I couldn’t tell What I felt, I was unrecognizable to myself. I saw my reflection in a window, I didn’t know My own face. Oh brother are you gonna leave me wastin´away On the streets of Philadelphia.”
2 Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, ‘Empire State Of Mind’
The New York song to end them all; Jigga’s thundering comeback and return to form was powered largely by this towering love letter to the five boroughs. A world class exercise in geography-as-inspiration, Alicia Keys’ empowering tribute to the concrete jungle where dreams are made thrillingly captures that certain something about that city that makes everyone who visits fall in love with it.
1 The Clash, ‘London Calling’
The English capital might have inspired more songs than anywhere else in the world. But it’s The Clash’s most famous calling card that most evocatively nails both its possibilities and its menace. A sense of rising tension, of the sense of apocalypse looming comes out of both the song’s taut dynamics and its real-life concern, that “London is drowning and I live by the river.” Before the construction of the Thames Barrier in 1982, there was a very real concern that if the river overflowed, most of central London would drown.