London is presented in rather disparaging terms in this album-opening song from Bloc Party's sophomore, A Weekend in the City. The bitter sentiment boils to a climactically-emotive point when frontman Kele Okereke sings, "East London is a vampire. It sucks the joy right out of me. How we long for corruption in these golden years." Thereafter it erupts into a high-octane sonic orgasm as Okereke, in honesty-mode, sings: "Live the dream, live the dream, live the dream, like the 80s never happened. People are afraid, are afraid, to merge on the freeway." The song hits heavy on themes of conpicuous consumption and empty pleasure, the idea of decadence actually becoming mundane and thus sans actual gratification.
The so-called 'Waterloo sunset' being alluded to in this song appears over Waterloo Station, a train station in London, and in particular the district of Waterloo. As Ray Davies paints this incredibly romantic picture, with only the kindest of words--"People so busy, makes me feel dizzy. Taxi light shines so bright. But I don't need no friends; as long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset, I am in paradise"--it must be quite the sight. Afterall, it produced this beautiful Kinks gem, imbued with breezy guitar licks and the sweetest-sounding backing vocals ever.
It may come as a surprise that this inspiring call-to-arms, pitting contumacious British youths against systematic injustice, was actually written by a band of Australians. The song, in its urgency-- and told from the perspective of the rioters--is most obviously a reference to the 2011 London Riots; the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan (by police), and the subsequent beating of a 16-year-old demonstrator (by police)-- which prompted the riots--are hinted at in lines like, "No one cared and no one looked, til she threw the judge's book. Now who's the one to blame when the children go insane, dancing on their broken dreams, while London's burning from within." The impact of this story created a tidal wave that evidently had no trouble tearing its way through continents as far-off as Australia.
Guided by an evil-Super-Man bassline, this song plays like a desperate radio broadcast, calling for help against our collective worst fears: flood, famine, war, drugs, and yes zombies. And, it seems no one is willing to help. And so the final line sums it all up: "I never felt so much alike." It seems in all those pleas for help, it is determined that we all need to fend for ourselves, that the only person really able to respond to cries for help, is the crier himself.
Manic as Johnny Marr maneuvers through those guitar strings, it's not hard to picture the sense of panic Morrissey describes in the lyrics (although he himself sounds the furthest thing from worried): "Panic on the streets of London. Panic on the streets of Birmingham. I wonder to myself, could life ever be sane again?" As this apparent chaos sweeps through England, we come to learn it's cause: "Burn down the disco. Hang the blessed DJ. Because the music that they constantly play, it says nothing to me about my life." Morrissey seems to be making a very trenchant cultural commentary, speaking about people who don't get defensive about their own taste in music, but are actually offended by the differing tastes of others. Enough to where they actually get physical about it. From the overall neutral tone of the song, and Morrissey's disengaged-sounding vocal inflection, it seems no side is taken, but rather the pitchforks and burning torches are just being overseen and reported upon from the roof of some tall building.
Coldplay know how to write an emotionally hyper-charged anthem; it's no wonder then that their fourth album Viva La Vida--which features a painting of flag-wielding French soldiers triumphing in battle on the cover--should contain one or two (or a whole album's worth). The song "Cemeteries of London" provides one of the more grimmer anthems, the topic of death dressed in battle gear atop some icey post-punk guitars and some earth-shattering percussion to drag the latent corpses along their apparent deathmarch. It doesn't end well: "Singing la la, la la la la lay. And the night over London lay. Singing la la, la la la la lay. There's no light over London today."
This song is as sweeping as only the Royal Army would see fit. Carried by a victorious-sounding piano hook and ultimately met with a cascade of horns and other firepower, the song is given a cool-head and confident temperament via Matt Berninger's effortlessly-comforting vocals. With them, he sings, "You must be somewhere in London. You must be lovin' your life in the rain. You must be somewhere in London, walking Abbey Lane." Berninger's lyrics tend to be very poetic and romantic in nature, soaked in wine and ambiguated meaning, but it sounds like a visit to England topped his chalice off a little extra full.
The band hails from Athens, Georgia, but their heads (Michael Stipe's does anyway) seem to be lodgedly firmly in the foggy, Londonian clouds in this song appearing on 2004's Around the Sun. Stipe describes the joy in simply living, and the pleasure that can be taken in the fact even when the Very Terrible seeks to make everything so unbearable: "Now the universe left you for a runners lap. It feels like home when it comes crashing back. And it makes you laugh and it makes you cry, when London falls and you're still alive." The song, per Stipe's usual abstract and infinitely-applicable lyrical writing style, speaks in grandiose terms (with the music to match), but brings it all slightly down to Earth with reference points to the once-great-and-still-standing British Empire.
Living in any major city is tough; the city can be alienating, hostile, and just downright dangerous--a test of self-sustainability. This synthy dance track by the Pet Shop Boys begrudges the fact and moves the highly-relatable themes more specifically to the duo's hometown, i.e. London. The song presents a distinct dichotomy between the weak and the strong (the antonymous 'East End Boys' and 'West End Girls'): "You've got a heart of glass or a heart of stone. Just you wait 'til I get you home. We've got no future, we've got no past. Here today, built to last."
Joe Jackson is the man, and so he would agree if you've ever heard the song, "I'm the Man"; but this song isn't about him, not entirely anyway. The lyrics describe a character who wants to see some excitement, and finds it in London after hours: "So I ask you should I cry or laugh, drinking tea in a King's Cross caff? A leather jacket against the cold, gone down to London turning coal into gold." It seems there life becomes incredibly enriching, even if the wealth found isn't the pecuniary kind: "Down to London, down to London. Gone down to London to be the king." It's the portrait of a bird singing in spite of his cage. And likely, that bird was once named Joe Jackson (Jackson himself was born in Staffordshire and raised in Portsmouth, England), although the ability to relate to this song is easy, regardless of where you hail from.