The best music is universal — it transcends location and context, and manages to speak straight to your heart, no matter where you’re from. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t have a sense of place — and indeed, we got to thinking recently about how some of our favorite artists over the years have been inextricably linked with the cities where they’re based, either through their lyrical depictions of their environment or just because they’re the first artist to spring to mind when you think of the city in question. So here’s a list of ten musicians who we think embody the cities they live (or lived) in. If you can think of any more, feel free to add them in the comments.
To people (i.e. Americans) who know this band as “The London Suede” anyway, this might seem like cheating, but the name aside, few bands have captured the experience of England’s capital as perfectly as Suede did. A friend once told us that “you don’t really get Suede until you’ve lived in London” — and sure enough, after a couple of years of grafting it out in basement flats, living on Tesco toast and Tetley’s tea, copping cheap E’s, and doing our best to live out the Wildean cliché of being in the gutter and looking at the stars, Suede’s tales of council estates and desperate hedonism did indeed make perfect, perfect sense.
Key lyric: “With all the love and poison of London…”
Manchester: The Smiths
Manchester, and the North of England in general, gets a hell of a bad rap in popular culture — again and again, it’s depicted as grim, cold, rainy, and depressing. In fairness, though, it basically is grim, cold, rainy and depressing… but then, that’s one of the reasons it’s spawned so much fantastic music over the years. There are plenty of great bands identified with the city — Joy Division, The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Oasis — but of all of them, The Smiths did the best job of capturing the atmosphere of the city in all its gray, urban glory. Morrissey’s consummate lyricism and strong northern accent both helped, of course.
Key lyric: “Oh, Manchester/ So much to answer for…”
New York: Lou Reed
Lou Reed pretty much sums up popular stereotypes of New York residents — surly, Jewish, neurotic, talented, and supremely bitchy. His lyrics have long been tied to geographical locations in the city, both in his Velvet Underground days (from Union Square in “Run Run Run” and 125th St. in “Waiting for the Man”) and his solo career (an entire concept album about the city in 1989). His portrayals have rarely been sentimental and are often critical — but despite his unrelenting depictions of the city’s underside, he also seems to maintain a genuine affection for New York, whether it’s a case of hosting a radio show called “New York Shuffle” on Sirius or making a stony-faced, iced-coffee-clutching appearance as King Neptune at last year’s Mermaid Parade.
Key lyric: “The klieg lights shoot up over the skyline of Manhattan/ But the lights are out on the Mean Streets”
Los Angeles: Guns N’ Roses
Twenty-five years after Appetite for Destruction, Guns N’ Roses still own the Sunset Strip and surrounds. It’s a shock, actually, to visit and see just how omnipresent the Gunners remain, from the fish-eyed old lady at Canter’s diner on Fairfax selling copies of their biography to the yellowing photos that adorn the walls of places like The Rainbow. Along with contemporaries like Mötley Crüe, Guns N’ Roses epitomize the image that LA has projected to the world over the years: sun-drenched, dyed-blond hedonism with a very seedy underbelly. Of course, the poodle metal, coke ‘n’ hookers conception of LA doesn’t begin to reflect the reality of living out in the endless suburbs, or even hipstering it up in Silverlake — but then, when has Los Angeles ever been about reality?
Key lyric: “You can taste the bright lights/ But you won’t get them for free”
New Orleans: Dr. John
Like Guns N’ Roses, Dr. John lays on the regional clichés nice and thick, so much so that in our youth we always envisaged him as an exotic, voodoo doll-totin’ Lafayette type and were somewhat disappointed to learn that he was actually a white man called Malcolm Rebennack. But either way, his swampy, psychedelic blues tunes — particularly those on his classic 1968 debut Gris-Gris — tie into popular conceptions of New Orleans as a darkly hedonistic city where inhibitions can be shed and all sorts of whacked-out shit can happen once night falls.
Key lyric: “We got magic, good and bad/ Make you happy or make you real sad/ Get everything you want, lose what you had/ Down here in New Orleans”
Paris: Serge Gainsbourg
Quintessentially Parisian singers are legion — think of the city and you think of everyone from Édith Piaf and Jacques Brel to contemporary artists like TTC and Dee Nasty. But standing above them all is a man who’s not so much a musician as a cultural institution. If Lou Reed epitomizes popular conception of New Yorkers, then the louche and contrary Gainsbourg is the consummate Parisian cliché. His songs often depicted the city — indeed, his first hit, “Le poinçonneur des Lilas” (which we’ve embedded above) was about a disillusioned ticket collector on the Métro — and his lyrics captured all the unruly poetry of the city he called home.
Key lyric: “Rues de mon Paris que vous êtes jolies/ Même sous un ciel un peu gris/ Tous vos noms charmants sont de vraies poésies/ Que l’on apprend par cœur petit à petit”
(Our somewhat inelegant translation: “Streets of my Paris, you are beautiful/ Even under a sky that’s a little gray/ Your names are charming poems/ That we learn by heart, bit by bit”)
Detroit: The Belleville Three
You could make a case for including the Stooges here, or the White Stripes, or Alice Cooper, or pretty much any of the other awesome guitar-wielding garage rockers who’ve come out of Detroit. But if the city of Detroit has been inextricably linked with anything over the last couple of decades, it’s the Belleville Three: Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, the three precocious teenagers who mixed the music of the nascent Chicago house scene with the futuristic sounds of Kraftwerk and accidentally created techno, a sound that seemed to capture the idea of a crumbling post-industrial wasteland better than any lyrics ever could.
Key lyric: None, although that’s kind of the point
Chicago: Muddy Waters
The Great Migration brought about two million African Americans out of the south, and roughly 600,000 of them went to Chicago. They brought with them the sound of the Delta Blues, and as a result, Chicago became the great outpost of the blues north of the Mason-Dixon line. The music evolved as it headed north, developing from an acoustic-based storytelling style into a the roof-raising electrified racket that would eventually mutate into rock ‘n’ roll. McKinley “Muddy Waters” Morganfield was a talented 25-year-old guitarist when he headed for Chicago in 1940, another black man from Mississippi looking for a better life. Seventy years later, he’s remembered as the father of Chicago blues, the man who got Chuck Berry his first record contract, gave the Rolling Stones their name and took electrified blues to the world.
Key lyric: “You know, I was the most bluest man/ In this whole Chicago town…”
Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, hip hop was either West Coast or East Coast, with a giant void in between. And then, suddenly, came the rise of Southern hip hop. These days, with Louisiana’s Lil Wayne selling enough records to generate the GDP of a small European country, Georgia natives like Outkast and Janelle Monáe hoovering critical plaudits, and people abusing the word “shawty” all over the country, it’s difficult to remember the days when the south was a critical and commercial backwater — but it really wasn’t so long ago that artists out of the south couldn’t get record contracts. Among the first to do so was Christopher “Ludacris” Bridges, who remains the most quintessentially southern of contemporary rappers, often referencing his home town of Atlanta (and fried chicken) in his lyrics.
Key lyric: “Welcome to Atlanta, where the playas play…”
San Francisco: Janis Joplin
She wasn’t from the Bay Area — in fact, she lived the first two decades of her life in Texas — but no one epitomizes the music and ideology of San Francisco quite like Janis. It was there that she found her voice and a community of like-minded souls, and although she rarely referred to the city itself in her lyrics, it was her move there that eventually catapulted her to stardom. Today, her legend is inextricably linked with the city where she found a home.
Key lyric: “Got the blues from my baby/ Left me by the San Francisco Bay”