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Music on the map

Apr 10, 2019
When you talk about house music, it’s impossible not to mention Chicago – the genre’s city of birth and spiritual home. And the same goes for blues and Memphis, and country and western and Nashville. The fact is, some cities will always be linked to certain music scenes. But looking past genres, there’s countless instances of a location inspiring a single song that captures a moment. This is nothing new, musicians have long since been inspired by their surroundings – whether it’s a breath-taking view or the essence of city life. And whilst some tracks are love letters, almost odes to their subjects, others use their setting to tell an altogether different tale. Come along for the ride as we take a tour through some of these spots, and examine the enduring relationship between music and location.

Mr Blue Sky – ELO. Lake Geneva, Switzerland
Following the success of their sixth album, ELO’s Jeff Lynne travelled to the shores of Lake Geneva in search of writing inspiration. Two weeks of rain and mist did little for his creative spark, but eventually his faith was rewarded. The clouds parted, the heavens ceased and the blue sky appeared to clear his writer’s block and spawn the group’s most famous song – ‘Mr Blue Sky’. The lines “The sun is shining in the sky, there ain’t a cloud in sight” came first, and were swiftly followed up by lyrics for 14 new songs that became the Platinum selling album, Out of the Blue.
ELO - See how the sun shines brightly in the city, on the streets where once was pity.

Station Approach – Elbow. Piccadilly Station, Manchester
Despite worldwide critical acclaim, Elbow’s heart – or more accurately Guy Garvey’s – will always lie with Manchester. It’s a love affair that can be seen throughout his lyrics, and heard through his whisky-soaked Mancunian bellows which bring the city’s unique charms to life just as much as the paintings of Lowry. This is rarely as clear as in Leader of the Free World’s opener ‘Station Approach’. Though rather than an ode to the city’s idiosyncrasies, this song focuses on the emotions stirred by his withdrawal from them, as his train approaches Piccadilly. Its standout line, “I haven’t slept for several days but, coming home I feel like I, designed these buildings I walk by”, beautifully captures the sense of comfort and familiarity that only returning home can bring. 
Elbow - I haven’t seen my mum for weeks. But coming home I feel like I designed these buildings I walk by.

Heroes – David Bowie. Berlin Wall
Although born in Brixton, it would be hard to claim David Bowie belonged to any single location. More than a man of the world, he was one of the universe, drawing inspiration from across the galaxy. But for a brief three years, he resided in the west of the then-divided Berlin. And it’s during this period he wrote one of his best loved songs, ‘Heroes’. Rather than focusing on local architecture or characters, Bowie screams lines like ‘nothing can keep us together’ to tell the tragic story of the Cold War through the eyes of two estranged lovers who know their union cannot last. And while it can be heard as a song of hopeless despair, it’s often credited as playing a part in bringing down the wall.
Bowie - I can remember, standing by the wall, and the guns shot above our heads, and we kissed, as though nothing could fall.

Homecoming – Kanye West ft. Chris Martin. Chicago
After a cursory listen, you’d be forgiven for assuming Kanye West’s ‘Homecoming’ is a tribute to a lost girlfriend, a longing for good times past. But look a little deeper and you can see how the proud Chicago native uses the girl as a metaphor for his home city. In Graduation’s final single, Kanye personifies Chicago as a girl named ‘Windy’ – a nod to the city’s nickname – and raps about the many ways she shaped his youth. Although he acknowledges the city’s problems, his homesick affection is unmistakable as he raps about her face lighting up at night-time, “so astoundin’.” 
Kanye West - I met this girl when I was three years old. And what I loved most, she had so much soul.

New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down – LCD Soundsystem. New York City
Love letters rarely come as bitter as James Murphy’s to the city he grew up in. As the closing track on LCD Soundsystem’s sophomore album, ‘New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down’ is a pleading ballad for what New York City was. Through lines like “you're safer and you're wasting my time” James Murphy laments the fact the city’s edge has been sanded, its spark dampened and its dangerous allure censored. But despite the gentrification, he admits that it’s “still the one pool where I’d happily drown.” 
LCD Sound System - Our records all show you were filthy but fine.

Good music has always had the ability to transport its listener to another place, if only for a couple of minutes. But what these songs show is the opposite, instead demonstrating the many different effects a location can have on music. Sometimes a writer feels compelled to express their love for their hometown or a beautiful scenery, while others use their surroundings to comment on wider issues. What’s clear is how intoxicating and unforgettable an association it can be.