The Top 10 Rock Songs About Places
The songs are, as they say, all over the map. There’s a bonus round at the end.
Since no aging rock star has died in the last few weeks, I called upon my ancient iPod to give me a rock ‘n’ roll topic. When the iPod was a thing, I came up with all sorts of clever playlists based on a theme: songs about friendship (you can read that here), songs with the best guitar licks, best melodies, best dance songs…I even composed a playlist of songs about the weather. (I’ll bet you did the same.)
This playlist contains 10 popular rock songs (plus another 10 in a bonus round) about localities that I plucked from my iPod playlist. Simple enough, huh? Let’s get started:
1) Leningrad, Billy Joel, 1989
Since Russia is in the headlines these days, what better way to start things off than to examine and listen to Billy Joel’s “Leningrad,” the name given to Saint Petersburg when there was a Soviet Union.
The song concerns the life of a Russian named Viktor, who endured a hardscrabble childhood under Soviet rule but finds good fortune entertaining Russian children as a circus clown. Joel juxtaposes Viktor’s life with his own: a cold war kid from Long Island living in fear of nuclear war but then finds fulfillment as an entertainer.
Enemies Become Friends
Joel actually met Viktor when the piano man made his groundbreaking tour of the Soviet Union in 1987. Two men raised to be enemies became friends when Viktor made Joel’s daughter, Alexa, laugh. “The Cold War ended for me when I met this guy,” Joel told Sirius XM in 2016. “That was it. I went to meet my enemy and I actually met my friend.”
Here is the “official” video of the song, great images, four minutes in length, published by Billy Joel via YouTube:
2) I Love LA, Randy Newman, 1983
Obviously, songs about California are an embarrassment of riches. The songs below are on my iPod playlist, but only “I Love LA” made this Top 10 List.
California Girls, Beach Boys, 1965
California Dreamin’, The Mamas & the Papas, 1966
Monterey, the Animals, 1968
California, John Mayall, 1969
LA Woman, the Doors, 1971
Going to California, Led Zeppelin, 1971
I Love LA, Randy Newman, 1983
California, Rufus Wainwright, 2001
I Love It!
Randy Newman’s song celebrates an anthemic, hearty hurrah to life in sunny Southern California, as opposed to those cold, forbidden places we used to occupy.
Hate New York City
It’s cold and it’s damp
Let’s leave Chicago to the Eskimos
Santa Ana winds blowin’ hot from the North
Crank up the Beach Boys, baby, don’t let the music stop
From the South bay
To the valley
Cause the sun is shining all the time
I love LA (we love it!)
I love LA (we love it!)
Look at that mountain
Look at those trees
Look at that bum over there, he’s down on his knees
Look at these women
There ain’t nothing like them nowhere
Century Boulevard (we love it!)
Victory Boulevard (we love it!)
Santa Monica Boulevard (we love it!)
I love LARandy Newman
I love LA
(we love it!)
Randy Newman is a prolific songwriter who’s better known for writing songs for other artists, like “Down in New Orleans” for Dr. John (in the bonus round), and for scoring films. Prior to “I Love LA,” Newman had one certifiable hit under his belt, the 1977 satirical “Short People.”
When “I Love LA” was released, it failed to chart. But Newman found serendipity the next year when the 1984 Summer Olympics just happened to be in Los Angeles. The shoe company Nike used Newman’s song in its Olympic ad campaign and “I Love LA” became a source of pride among Los Angelenos and one of LA’s top-selling songs.
3) Born in Puerto Rico, Paul Simon, 1997
For an artist whose work just seems so effortlessly rendered, Paul Simon’s attempt to create a Broadway play, The Capeman, might have been the low-water mark of his distinguished musical career. It ran for just 68 performances. Time magazine called it “one of the biggest flops in Broadway history.”
Songs from The Capeman
Simon spent five years and around $1 million to record the songs for the play. The New York singer/songwriter seemed to be disdainful of Broadway and hoped to reinvigorate it, saying, Broadway music “has ended up in a weird cul de sac, probably because it was never energized by rock ‘n’ roll.”
By 2011, after the Capeman experience, Simon was singing a different tune. “It’s not that easy to write theater for the first time,” he remarked. “You really need a guide. For people coming out of popular music, writing songs that further plots are different from writing whatever is on your mind.”
Born in Puerto Rico
The play revolves around a 16-year-old gang member named Salvador Agron, who was sentenced to death for killing two men Agron mistook for hostiles. Simon was undoubtedly inspired by Agron’s prison rehabilitation: he got an education, became a writer, spoke out against violence, and was released before he died in 1986. Simon started the project in 1988.
Here’s a video of the audio track of “Born in Puerto Rico,” under five minutes in length, with Simon singing the Agron character, published by Paul Simon via YouTube:
4) Walking in Memphis, Marc Cohn, 1991
I don’t like to use the expression “one-hit wonder,” but there’s no way around it. Marc Cohn was at his peak with his “Walking in Memphis” off his self-titled first album. The song was nominated for Song of the Year (a big honor) at the 1992 Grammy Awards and Cohn won for Best New Artist. It peaked at #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
According to Cohn, “Walking in Memphis” was “100 percent autobiographical.” Cohn visited Memphis in 1985, the year that Cohn’s rock band, the Supreme Court, played at Caroline Kennedy’s wedding on the advice of Carly Simon.
Getting Religion with Al Green
Cohn took in all of the sights and sounds of Memphis: Graceland, of course, Beale Street, and a special treat: the self-described “Jewish gospel music lover” visited the actual church where former R&B singer Al Green was preaching. Inspired, Cohn returned to New York to write the song that transformed his life.
Here is the official music video of “Walking in Memphis,” a bit over four minutes with graphics galore, published by Rhino via YouTube.
5) New York State of Mind, Billy Joel, 1976
Billy Joel was literally “taking A Greyhound bus on the Hudson River Line” when the song, “New York State of Mind” popped into his head. He arrived home and went straight to the piano. In a matter of 30 minutes, he wrote what he called “a celebration of a homecoming.”
Joel had spent the three previous years in Los Angeles that included a stint at the Executive Room bar on Wilshire Blvd., where Billy played piano for six months in 1972. The characters from the song “Piano Man” were composites of customers and staff at the bar.
“I’m a New Yorker,” Joel told Mark Seale of American Way magazine. “and it’s indelibly printed on my soul that this is where I’m from and where I should be.”
6) Atlantic City, Bruce Springsteen, 1982
Well they blew up the chicken man in Philly last nightBruce Springsteen
And they blew up his house too
The opening lines of “Atlantic City,” depicting the hit on Philly/South Jersey mob boss Phillip “Chicken Man” Testa, set the scene for a struggling young couple, deeply in debt, spending their last bucks on bus tickets to the gambling mecca, where the young man “talked to a man last night, gonna do a little favor for him.” (You can figure out where that goes.)
Bruce wrote on his Greatest Hits liner notes that he recorded the track in his bedroom “for $1,050 (the cost of a four-track Tascam recorder) mixed through an old Gibson guitar unit to a beatbox.” The song first appeared on Springsteen’s 1982 acoustical solo album Nebraska.
The Band Covers “Atlantic City”
“Atlantic City” has been covered by numerous artists, but perhaps the best version, with an upbeat tempo and full-band arrangement, was released by The Band on their 1993 album Jericho.
Here is an outstanding live version of the song by The Band, filmed August 5, 1994, in Rockford, IL, three minutes, 28 seconds of pure Band magic, published by Joe’s Video via YouTube:
7) I’m Shipping Up to Boston, Dropkick Murphys, 2005
This isn’t the Chamber of Commerce version of Boston. The song is about a sailor who loses his leg “climbing up the topsails,” and now he’s headed for Boston to find a wooden leg. “And please enjoy the Freedom Trail walking tour…”
The Punk and Celtic Band from Boston
Amazingly, according to trusted source songfacts.com, the song is among the many unpublished lyrics by the great Woody Guthrie. In an interview with songfacts.com, Dropkick Murphys drummer Matt Kelly explained the band’s good fortune:
We were bestowed the honor by [Woody Guthrie’s] daughter of being able to go through the lyrical archives and pick out a song or two…and the reason why we used [one song] was that it said ‘Boston’ in it. But it was pretty bare bones…and I’m thinking, let’s give it the real treatment and spend some time on it.
The song was instrumental in making ourselves popular in our own backyard. We’be been touring since ’96…but in Boston, it was like Dropkick what?…I think being involved in [the movie] The Departed definitely put us on the map and, for better or worse, legitimized our band in Boston.Matt Kelly
The following video of “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” two and a half minutes short, containing shots from The Departed, distributed by WMG and published by Hellcat Records via YouTube:
8) Cleveland Rocks, Ian Hunter, 1979
The British songwriter of the rock ‘n’ roll anthem of Cleveland, Ohio, had never set foot in the intrepid midwestern enclave until Mayor Dennis Kucinich gave Hunter the key to the city on June 19, 1979. In fact, Hunter’s first version of the song was titled, “England Rocks.”
So why did this lead singer of Mott the Hoople write a song that launched a situation comedy theme song (Drew Carey) and was used by the city to land on its shores the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986? In a 2014 article in Rock ‘n’ Roll Remnants, Hunter is quoted as saying:
I was watching TV one night and this comedian starts making fun of Cleveland…Cleveland had the coolest rock fans in the country–I wrote ‘Cleveland Rocks’ for them becasuse they were always so great to me.
Cleveland was the first city in American to embrace Mott the Hoople…The East and West coasts had their heads up their [expletive], but Cleveland was hip to us and Roxy Music and David Bowie right away.Ian Hunter
It certainly didn’t hurt to have as a backing band Mick Ronson on guitar (he also co-wrote) and E Streeters Gary Tallent on bass, Roy Bittan on keyboards, and Max Weinberg on drums.
9) Creeque Alley, The Mamas & the Papas, 1967
The Mamas & the Papas released a hit single in 1967 titled “Creeque Alley,” an autobiographical account of how the Mamas & the Papas became a band.
The lyrics follow the band members all over the country as they realign with other musicians. A recurring chorus has the Mama & the Papas looking west, admiring “McQuinn and McGuire still getting higher…,” a bouquet to the Byrds.
The song ends with, “…and California Dreaming is becoming a reality,” suggesting that “California Dreamin'” was their crowning achievement.
It’s a charming narrative that doesn’t get nearly the play of “California Dreamin’.” Here is the group singing “Creeque Alley” on the Ed Sullivan Show on June 11, 1967, three minutes long, published by the Ed Sullivan Show via YouTube:
10) Oh, Atlanta, Little Feat, 1974
Enjoy Lowell George and Roy Estrada, founding members of Little Feat and Mothers of Invention alumni, play “Oh, Atlanta,” published by Mercury Studios via YouTube:
…And we’re headed to the bonus round:
Down in New Orleans, Dr. John
New York City, moe.
The Wives Are in Connecticut, Carly Simon
Philadelphia Freedom, Elton John
Rockaway Beach, Ramones
Tulsa time, Eric Clapton
Mexico, James Taylor
Mozambique, Bob Dylan
We Are London, Madness
Katmandu, Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
So what songs did I miss? There’s a comments section below.