Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published January 22nd 2021
The UK in all its musical glory
A reader request! Following on from the recent finalisation of Brexit, with the United Kingdom leaving the EU, England is now going it alone… sort of. A lot of changes will occur and a lot of adaption will have to take place, but, really, it is just something political and life will go on, as it has for millennia. I think this reader wanted songs by British artists – you know, best of British and all that – but I decided to do songs about the United Kingdom. Because, really, that is going to be easier and a much shorter column. Come on – the UK has given the world so many great artists I could not possibly condense it to anything short of a novel.
England is a nebulous term, I know. England is a country; Britain is England and Wales; Great Britain is England, Wales, and Scotland; the United Kingdom is a country that consists of England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Island and the various other islands (e.g. Isle Of Man) of the region that are considered separate under the Commonwealth. Got that? Good. Because I could be wrong, as this comes from my high school text-book and that's 30 years old and so things could definitely have changed.
Anyway, these songs are one that celebrate that entity. I understand not all are complimentary, but these are all great songs. One song per artist, must feature a place in the UK in the title, and that's it.
'Ferry Across The Mersey' by Gerry And The Pacemakers (1964)
Lead by the late, great Gerry Marsden, this song is a love song to the town of Liverpool and the way life was lived there. It is a smooth, slow song with one of those choruses that demand you sing along to it. Such a pleasant song. The Mersey is the river that enters the Irish Sea at Liverpool.
'Penny Lane' by The Beatles (1967)
Released as a non-album single (double A-side with 'Strawberry Fields Forever') as a pre-cursor to the album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, this song relates the sights and sounds from Paul McCartney's childhood. It is a simple song, and yet one much loved by many. Penny Lane is a street in Liverpool.
'Waterloo Sunset' by The Kinks (1967)
Whereas many bands from the 60s and 70s maintained some popularity or acclaim, it seems The Kinks have been ignored by many outside of music nerdom. That's a shame as songs like this beautiful work show how amazingly talented they were. Waterloo, in this case, is a district in Central London, not the Belgian site of a battle against Napoleon. As I have read online.
'Streets Of London' by Ralph McTell (1969, and re-recorded by him a few times afterwards)
I first heard this song when I was in primary song as part of ABC's Singing And Listening programme, and it always stuck with me. It took me years to find a copy and I still find it one of the saddest songs written, looking at the people who don't actually seem to mean anything. I even learnt it (well, the chords) on guitar.
'Brighton Rock' by Queen (1974)
From the album Sheer Heart Attack, I prefer the live versions with their incredible extended solos. And, on the official Queen YouTube page they have my favourite live version, so that's why I've included all 12 minutes of it here. I like to think that, at heart, Queen are always a rock band, and it is tracks like this that show how true that was. And, again, the solos… brilliant. Brighton is a town situated on the southern coast of England, part of Brighton and Hove nowadays.
'Anarchy In The U.K.' by The Sex Pistols (1976)
This single was the band's debut single, the year before the album Never Mind The Bollocks marked the year Zero for punk in the UK. This song is what the UK punks stood for, taking the music from the USA and making it somehow more intense and angrier. Great, great track.
Fun story – this song was the way my paternal grandma and I finally bonded over something. After this came Elvis, then she discovered I liked reading, then she taught me crosswords and so on, but this song, with its bagpipes and slow, steady rhythm is what started it for me. There will always be a spot in my heart for this track. Kintyre is a Scottish Peninsula.
'England's Glory' by Max Wall (1977)
This is a cover of unreleased (but played live) Ian Dury song by a comedian, and a song I only know about because I bought a box set of releases from Stiff Records. Wall was a comedian who The Goodies made fun of a bit, but I still enjoy this song for whatever bizarre reason.
'Baker Street' by Gerry Rafferty (1978)
A song that is known for its brilliant saxophone section, this is actually a great piece of gentle adult rock. However, it's the saxophone. It's not often you see people play air saxophone, but at some of our parties that was definitely the case. This song brings back some bizarre memories, that's for sure. Baker Street is in Marylebone in London.
'Liverpool Docks' by Smokie (1978)
Smokie are a band known for a song that became a meme before memes existed ('Living Next Door To Alice'). But they released a heap of other great songs… which I only know through a Greatest Hits package. This is one of them. It is actually a depressing song lyrically but delivered with the sort of country-rock up-tempo beat that Smokie were known for.
'Last Train To London by Electric Light Orchestra (1979)
Ah, ELO, one of my favourite bands. Well… they released some great singles, but there are not a huge number of deep cuts in their albums that I would rate higher than what they released individually. But songs like this one are such great bits of the orchestral rock/prog rock stylings of Jeff Lynne that it is no wonder they have remained in the hearts of fans for decades.
'The Eton Rifles' by The Jam (1979)
A song written because of a news report about students at the prestigious Eton College making fun of protestors and marchers, showing that they had no idea of anyone or anything who was not rich or privileged. Weller's lyrics are on form in this song that is often mistaken for a pub sing-along. It is a political song… and one that is still relevant today, at least according to friends of mine in the UK.
'London Calling' by The Clash (1979)
The Clash were one of the most political of the punk bands in the UK in the 70s, and this, the title track of one of their most popular albums, is one of their best-known songs. With that driving guitar and pounding drum-beat, it is instantly recognisable and it has rightfully become one of the classics of punk rock.
'Going Down To Liverpool' by The Bangles (1984)
This cover of a Katrina And The Waves song is better known than the original which is probably not a huge surprise, considering the force of nature that The Bangles were in the 80s. This is one of their early songs, but those vocal harmonies are already there in force. And, really, that's what makes this such a wonderful track.
'Irish Rover' by The Pogues and The Dubliners (1987)
Getting two of the best known Irish bands together to record this classic traditional song. Now, I have to admit – I have no idea which Ireland the bands come from (though Dublin says it is Ireland, not Northern Ireland, part of the UK) or where the titular Rover comes from. However, this version of the song is incredible. They actually sound like they're having fun as they sing it. There was a big St Patrick's party at some hotel in Norwood in 1988 and this song was played at least three times over one night. Fond memories of this one.
'London Kid' by Jean Michel Jarre featuring Hank Marvin (1988)
In the 1980s, Jean Michel Jarre was everywhere. His music was used in commercials, in movies and anywhere else he could push it. The thing is – a lot of it was really, really good. And the addition of The Shadows' Hank Marvin on guitar lifts this above much of his other work. He adds a sense of something different to this pleasant track.
'Down To London' by Joe Jackson (1989)
One of Jackson's upbeat pop-rock songs, this is a part of his canon that is rarely heard over the songs he released in the mid-80s or his later jazz releases. This is a good little number that sets the feet tapping with that great piano. The inclusion of the female vocalist and that chorus – "Stop! What's that sound?" – really lift this to another level, even if the lyrics don't make a lot of sense.
'Made In England' by Elton John (1995)
The title track from one of the seemingly countless Elton John albums, this is a really fun song. It basically tells the story of his life and gives a "middle finger" to those who are looking for scandal. He might not be a hard rocker, but when he puts his mind to it, he knows how to bang out a great rocking tune. Like this.
'UK Vice Versa' by MC Lars (2004)
This song is really just a celebration of England and things seen as English by someone who is not English. It really is that simple. I like MC Lars' lyrical flow ('Download This Song' is a particular favourite), and this maintains that nicely. Yes, the music sounds like it was recorded on a Casio keyboard from the 1980s (with pre-programmed 'rock' drum beat), but there are no samples (shock, I know), and the lyrics are actually quite… bizarre.
'England Rocks' by Joe Elliott's Down 'N' Outz (2010)
A cover of a song by Ian Hunter's Overnight, I prefer this remake, if I'm being honest. The celebration of England is right there, and what better way to finish this list than with this glorious song by the Def Leppard frontman's side project, a version that demands you sing along to the chorus. Loudly.
So, there we have it: 20 songs celebrating the United Kingdom. In this time of change for the nation, it is good to remember that, no matter what, the music from and about that nation tends to be quite good. There is an interesting road ahead for the inhabitants; let us hope they come through with their sense of humour and artistic sensibilities intact.