Last time on our musical road trip through the USA we visited Philadelphia. It’s time now to hitch a helicopter ride to Gotham City. I am among the many who are profoundly fascinated by New York. Without ever having been there, I feel an affinity with the place (at this point I might invite the multi-millionaires among my loyal readers to come forward with offers for an all-expenses trip to NYC for me and my family). Obviously I’m not alone.
I thought I’d even make it two mixes. Then I began shortlisting. The list grew longer and longer. Then I culled, ruthlessly. Sorry, Lou, just two songs for you. Ditto Paul Simon (though his songs have been widely covered, thereby qualifying for inclusion in the interpretation of others). Upshot: I have about a hundred songs about New York which I want to share. I promise you two mixes; if you want more after those, let me know.
1. Billie Holiday – Autumn In New York (1954)
NYC hook: When Harry repeatedly met Sally, his creepiness was relieved by the beauty of NYC’s fallen, brown leaves. I’m not sure that match-making via Harry Connick is what Billie had in mind. It’s beautiful nonetheless. No wonder the creep eventually managed to hook the rather attractive Sally, playing lovely music like this for, to and at her.
2. Ray Charles – New York’s My Home (1961)
NYC hook: Well, it’s his favourite city, not just a visiting place. It’s, as the title shrewdly implies, his home.
3. Bobby Darin – Sunday In New York (1964)
NYC hook: Ah, those innocent days when shops would be closed on Sundays, and there’d be nothing better to do than window shopping — and sing infectiously upbeat songs about it.
4. Ad Libs – Boy From NY City (1964)
NYC hook: Well, there’s a boy, and he’s from New York City, and a girl named Kitty, for reason of rhyme, is urged to tell us about him. We learn that he is no clown, which is a relief.
5. Harpers Bizarre – 59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling Groovy) (1967)
NYC hook: Slowly following the S&G city map, Harpers Bizarre are finding cause to feel pretty good — or groovy, in the era’s vernacular. As the title might have told you. What else can make you feel groovy?
6. Gerard Kenny – New York, New York (1978)
NYC hook: It’s safe to say that Gerard Kenny likes New York. In his enthusiasm, he claims inaccurately that on account of how good the city is, it was named twice, like the father of English footballing brothers Gary and Phil Neville. Of course we know that his Sesame Street level assertion does not correspond with reality, yet we would feel guilty disabusing him of his error. It would crush him, no doubt.
7. Russ Ballard – New York Groove (1975)
NYC hook: A little under a decade after people were feeling gently groovy, Russ thumped us with the NY GROOOVE, symbolising the transition from weed to coke. Ex-Argent member Ballard wrote the song, but didn’t release it. Instead, Hello in 1975 and Ace Fehley of Kiss in 1978 had hits with it.
8. Nicole Atkins – Brooklyn’s On Fire (2007)
NYC hook: It’s Independence Day and, Nicole counsels us, Brooklyn is on fire. Not literally, even though the chorus does sound deceptively alarming. It’s the fireworks, and romance is in the air. Fantastic song.
9. Ramones – Rockaway Beach (1977)
NYC hook: Joey and his “brothers” go to the Beach. The Surfin’ USA for New Yorkers.
10. Bruce Springsteen – Sherry Darling (1980)
NYC hook: New York traffic is a bastard, and more so when you have to ferry around your nagging future mother-in-law. Our Bruce likes his Sherry, but one more word out of Mom, and she walks.
11. Ryan Adams – New York New York (2001)
NYC hook: Ryan loves New York a lot, and this is his declaration of love. The video for this song was filmed four days before 9/11, and apparently the song played on loop for days after the attack. Apologies to New Yorkers in whom this track evokes horrible memories.
12. Elliot Smith – Amity (1998)
NYC hook: This mix is like a soap opera. Remember Kitty who told us about the boy from New York City? Well, it seems the Boy from New York City has returned to New York City, with Kitty. “Hello, hello Kitty, happy in New York City.”
13. Bright Eyes – Old Soul Song (For The New World Order) (2005)
NYC hook: The only song in this mix not to mention New York, its geography or landmarks. But it is set in New York, describing the big February 2003 demonstration against George W Bush’s illicit, indefensible declaration of war against a state that posed no threat to his country’s security. As we knew then, if we were ready to refuse to believe the brazen lies peddled by Dick, Don and Dubya, and their gurning poodle in Britain.
14. Rosie Thomas – Much Farther To Go (2007)
NYC hook: A broken heart in New York City, with the Statue of Liberty as a prop. Without wishing to engage in undue hyperbole, this is a most beautiful song.
15. Rufus Wainwright – Chelsea Hotel No 2 (2006)
NYC hook: Casual celebrity oral sex; it’s the New York way. The cover may be even better than Laughing Len’s original.
16. Everything But The Girl – The Only Living Boy In New York (1997)
NYC hook: One person leaves New York, the other stays behind. The second Simon & Garfunkel cover in the mix, and I have two more of their songs lined up…
17. Mondo Kané feat. Georgie Fame – New York Afternoon (1986)
NYC hook: We’ve had Billie Holiday in autumn and Rosie Thomas in winter; here Mondo Kané and Georgie Fame (produced by soon-to-be-evil-but-still-excellent Stock Aitken Waterman) enjoy a nice summer afternoon in various New York landmarks.
18. Prefab Sprout – Hey Manhattan! (1988)
NYC hook: And coming in on the flight after Mondo Kané’s are wide-eyed tourists Prefab Sprout, admitting to being entirely star-struck. Brooklyn Bridge, 5th Avenue (where Sinatra walked), JFK hang-out The Carlyle… But look out for the denouement as our tourist friends become aware of New York’s class division.
19. Neil Diamond – Brooklyn Roads (1968)
NYC hook: Neil grew up in Brooklyn. No dazzled observations about famous landmarks and celebrities here. Reminiscing on his childhood, Neil is smelling cooking in the hallways of his block; I get the scent of Mrs Diamond’s boiled cabbage. Wistfully, he imagines a new generation of children living in his old room, perhaps dreaming, as he did, of busting loose.
20. Gil Scott-Heron – New York City (1976)
NYC hook: You’d think angry Gil would hate New York. But he doesn’t. He loves it. Not quite sure why. Nothing much wrong with it, he says. And that’s Just as well, seeing as the city reminds Gil of himself.
21. Steely Dan – Brooklyn (1972)
NYC hook: The charmer under me is…the guy who lived below Fagen and Becker in Brooklyn. All there is to it.
22. Lou Reed – Dirty Blvd. (1989)
NYC hook: Face it, Lou Reed could sing ice cream commercials on a gondola or pack a surf board on a beach surrounded by gaggle of busty blondes, and whatever he was singing would still be about the grime of New York City’s underbelly. The Venetian gondolier would be a pimp, the surfer a pusher and the busty blondes junkie hookers. It’s what our man Lou does.
23. Bob Dylan – Hard Times In New York Town (1961)
NYC hook: Young Bobby Zimmerman escaped from cold Minnesota to Greenwich Village and joined the folk circuit. Recorded before he released his (not terribly good) debut album, we can sympathise here with the complications he is facing in his adopted home.
24. Bob James – Angela (Theme from Taxi) (1978)
NYC hook: What would a series of songs about New York be without reference to the yellow cabs. Taxi was, of course, the show about, well, taxis which brought together Danny DeVito, Tony Danza, Jeff Conaway, Carol Kane, Randall Carver, Judd Hirsch, Marilu Henner, Christopher Lloyd and Andy Kaufman.
(PW in Comments)
More New York songs