Today River of Rock examines nine select songs with titles and/or lyrical themes that focus on a specific geographic location. Please note – in the near future, we plan on composing a separate list dedicated to multi-location “travel” songs as well as one dedicated to songs about New York City, a locale omitted from this particular list.
9. “London Town” by Wings
“Silver rain was falling down upon the dirty ground of London town…”
“London Town” was actually written by Paul McCartney and Denny Laine while on tour in Australia. This title song to the fine late-seventies Wings album offers relational lyrics delivered through soft melodies and a theatrical mini-suite in the musical arrangement.
Listen to “London Town”:
8. “Jackson” by Johnny Cash & June Carter
“Jackson” was originally written in 1963 by Billy Edd Wheeler with several covers of the song being recorded in subsequent years. Most famous of these was a country single by Johnny Cash and June Carter, which was a crossover hit and won a Grammy Award in 1968. Through the years, there has been a dispute over whether the track was written about the capitol city of Mississippi (shown above) or the smaller town of Jackson, Tennessee.
Listen to “Jackson”:
7. “Africa” by Toto
“The wild dogs cry out in the night as they grow restless, longing for some solitary company / I know that I must do what’s right as sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti…”
“Africa” was composed by David Paich and Jeff Porcaro of Toto after viewing a television documentary on the suffering of the people in Africa. Although neither had been to the continent, they worked hard to accomplish an authentic feel to the song, starting with the complex percussions and rhythms of this popular song.
6. “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynard Skynard
Big wheels keep on turning, carry me home to see my kin / Singing songs about the southland, I miss ‘ole ‘bamy once again…
Born from a riff discovered by bassist Ed King when fiddling around with a guitar and originally recorded with just a stripped down version of the band, “Sweet Home Alabama”, was a happy musical accident by Lynard Skynard. Vocalist Ronnie Van Zant then added the famous lyrics which tell of contemporary and historical events with both scorns and tributes, including an early recognition of the now famous “Muscle Shoals” sound.
Listen to “Sweet Home Alabama”:
5. “Ventura Highway” by America
Dewey Bunnell was English but spent much of his childhood in America. One particular memory involved driving along the Pacific coast and seeing clouds in the shape of “alligator lizards in the air”. Later on while facing harsh winters, Bunnell would dream about returning to “Ventura Highway” and masterfully captured the mood with his group America in 1972.
Listen to “Ventura Highway”:
4. “China Grove” by The Doobie Brothers
And though it’s a part of the lone star state, the people don’t seem to care / They just keep on looking to the east…”
Unlike the other songs on this countdown, “China Grove” is a totally imagined and fictional account about a “sleepy little” Texas town which lyricist Tom Johnston portrays as a Chinatown-like enclave. In fact, the song’s title come from a sign spotted from a tour bus en route to San Antonio with the lyrics later written to match the theme. In any case, this is a true classic of upbeat rock n’ roll which gave the tiny community some international fame.
Listen to “China Grove”:
3. “Allentown” by Billy Joel
With a rhythm that partially mimics the mechanical sounds of a steel mill, “Allentown” melodically interprets the decline of manufacturing and mining in Eastern Pennsylvania. Billy Joel had actually started the song as “Levittown”, a tribute to his native Long Island. However, he was dissatisfied with the original lyrical content so he decided to re-write it after reading an article about the decline of the steel industry in the Lehigh Valley, a place where he frequently performed since his earliest years as a touring musician.
Listen to “Allentown”:
2. “Lights” by Journey
“When the lights go down in the city and the sun shines on the bay, ooh I want to be there in my city…”
Journey kicked off their first album with Steve Perry with a geographical ballad that the singer had actually started as an ode to Los Angeles but adapted to his new hometown after he joined the band. Surprisingly, this was not a very popular song originally but it became more popular over the years as the group’s fame began to skyrocket.
1. “L.A. Woman” by The Doors
Jim Morrison loved everything about Los Angeles, and he knew the city from every conceivable angle. Prior to his success with The Doors, he was homeless, slept on rooftops and negotiated late night meals at the “soul kitchen”. He then knew the world of show business and celebrity and the faux crowds which accompanied that lifestyle, later to seek out inner city dive bars to find more “legitimate” drinking companions. The title song of the last album in his lifetime is a tribute to all sides of L.A., from the “hills filled with fire” to “motel money murder madness”. Through it all, “Mr Mojo Risen” guides the listener with a gruff voice accompanied by musical movement and rhythm which all builds to the undeniable climax of the group’s short but fantastic career.
Listen to “L.A. Woman”:
“Kansas City” – Fats Domino
“Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen
“Woman From Tokyo” – Deep Purple
“Year of the Cat” – Al Stewart
“Penny Lane” – The Beatles
With this subjective list we’ve doubtlessly left out scores of artists who may have deserved consideration for this list. Please give us your comments below and tell us where you agree and disagree.
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