Songs that show how Britain built its cities on rock ‘n’ roll

Tony Christie live at the City Hall, Sheffield PICTURE GERARD BINKS
Tony Christie live at the City Hall, Sheffield PICTURE GERARD BINKS
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OVER the years, there have been countless great songs inspired by cities.

Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street and Waterloo Sunset, by the Kinks, both pay homage to the bustling metropolis that is London. Then there’s Liverpool, which inspired classic Beatles hits like Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields, although on the flip side of the coin there’s Jimmy Osmond’s Long Haired Lover from Liverpool, a song that some people feel ought to stand trial for crimes against music.

But cities have, for better or worse, helped inspire songs for centuries, from Christmas carols and traditional folk tunes to rock anthems and easy listening ditties.

But according to a new study it seems some places are more influential than others, with Glasgow (119 songs) and Edinburgh (95 songs) topping a musical chart listing cities with the most number of songs that name it within the song title.

PRS for Music, the UK’s association of composers, songwriters and music publishers, took the top 30 towns and cities in Britain and using its extensive music database of more than 10 millions songs have compiled an intriguing list.

Barney Hooper, head of PR at PRS for Music, says they were slightly surprised by their findings. “We deliberately didn’t include London because we knew that would come first, but we were surprised that Glasgow and Edinburgh came out on top, although it probably has something to do with patriotism and a strong sense of national identity.”

Interestingly, York was the highest placed Yorkshire city, coming seventh on the list ahead of Leeds, Sheffield and Hull. It has 59 songs to its name with folk ballads like The Lady of York, a warning to well-to-do young girls not to enter into relationships with servants, continuing to be passed on through the generations.

“One of the reasons York is so high up the list is because it’s an old city with an illustrious history and over the centuries there have been a lot of folk songs written about it. Many of these songs are traditional old tunes that have been re-recorded and remain part of the local culture. They still have life in them and they’re still being performed today, they haven’t died out.”

Hooper says the idea for compiling the list came about by chance. “It all started with a conversation about Chris Rea’s song The Road to Hell, which was inspired by the M25, and someone, probably from the North, said ‘are you sure it wasn’t London?’ And that gave us the idea of looking at where songs come from. Love and relationships are obviously the biggest influence on songwriters but they also feed off the places where they grow up and it’s particularly important for lyricists.”

Yorkshire, of course, has a strong musical identity and On Ilkla Moor Baht ’At has been part and parcel of life here for generations and is still widely regarded as the county’s unofficial anthem.

More recently, songwriters have used the towns and cities they grew up in for musical inspiration. In 2008, Tony Christie released Made In Sheffield, as a paean to his hometown, featuring songs written by artists from the city.

It was produced by Richard Hawley whose own music is inextricably linked with the steel city where he was born and still lives.

Albums like Coles Corner, a tribute to the pavement outside the former Cole Brothers department store which was a meeting place for generations of courting couples, and Lady’s Bridge, named after Sheffield’s oldest bridge, consist of what he calls “little vignettes of Sheffield life.”

Similarly, former Beautiful South singer Paul Heaton lived in Hull for many years and his music has taken its cue from the pubs and clubs of the city and the characters who populate them.

Dr Simon Warner, music lecturer at Leeds University, says northern cities, in particular, have a strong musical identity.

“A sense of place and location is very important to music. Great northern cities like Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester have established a distinctive sound that has become part of the cultural fabric, whether it’s the Mersey Beat in the 60s, the Madchester scene in the late 80s, or the electronic music that came out of Sheffield in the early 80s,” he says.

“If you look at people like Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley, and others like them, their songs are about their own experiences in the places where they grew up and it ties in with a strong sense of regional pride.”