New York, Musically Speaking

I’m in New York doing some work at the Tamiment Library, so I thought I would share some songs that I associate with this city. I reckon New York must have more songs written about it than anywhere else, though maybe London runs it a competitive second, I’m not sure.

As a Mets fan and therefore with a Queens bias, I have to start with the mop-topped punks from Forest Hills; here’s The Ramones with “Rockaway Beach”. It’s not hard, hard to reach, we can hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach… or you could always just take the A.

Much more sedate is Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning”. Apparently she isn’t particularly proud of this song, seeing it as naive and gauche, but that’s the charm – it’s the work of a young person in rapt awe of Gotham’s light side.

Lou Reed preferred to write about the dark side, though in “I’m Waiting for the Man”, the tale of scoring some smack up on Lexi and 125th is set to a driving, summery tune, deceptive in its optimism perhaps but capturing some sort of illicit excitement. Early Frontline shows would often feature this as (I assume) a ham-fisted cover version. Here is a cool rehearsal video shot by Andy Warhol.

Simon and Garfunkel did manage to weave some extremely morose undertones into their apparently breezy chamber-folk, but the “59th Street Bridge Song” is relentless in its optimism. Today, running alongside the East River as the sun came up, it was easy to see why.

Probably because of (many) repeat viewings of Don Letts’ “Westway to the World” I always see the Clash as a New York band as much as anything. The scene of them in the open top car, drinking in the atmosphere of the city with which they’d long been fascinated is wonderful. So here’s “Career Opportunities” live at Shea Stadium – check out the Enron sponsorship at the beginning!

Non-baseball fans may wish to skip this, but I had to include this charming little number: “Meet the Mets”, which beautifully captures the innocent side of America’s National Pastime. And of course, while we’re on the subject of the blue and orange, Belle and Sebastian’s lovely shanty “Piazza, New York Catcher” is timeless, even if Mike himself is long gone from Flushing.

I’ve had a longstanding love affair with the CBGBs bands from the mid-to-late 70s. In addition to the Ramones, there was Television, Patti Smith, Blondie, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Talking Heads, etc etc. Anyway, David Byrne strikes me as the consummate Manhattanite (as a childhood immigrant, that’s perhaps even more fitting), so here is “Psychokiller” from the Old Grey Whistle Test.

Similarly, eight or nine years ago, I got heavily into the influx of (mostly) New York bands which revived the British guitar scene. Interpol, the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs all wore their provenance loudly and proudly, and while Interpol have probably had the most musical success, it’s Karen O. et al who are the most elegant carriers of the East Village visual aesthetic. Here’s three tracks which (thankfully) Jools doesn’t feel moved to tinkle over.

And though it’s not Christmas for a while, I couldn’t finish with anything other than “Fairytale of New York”; in the ultimate immigrant city (and with one of the world’s most self-consciously Irish communities), the final words go to the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. When Shane was young and handsome… sort of…

Wot no Sinatra or Billy Joel? No. Just no.

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Published in: on September 14, 2010 at 8:14 am  Comments (4)  

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  1. For clarity, Byrne was not a childhood immigrant to Manhattan, but to the U.S. He apparently did not become a Manhattanite until he finished college – at RISD, the alma mater of one Seth Ezekiel Cohen.

    • What an exquisite selection. I love Karen O. And the Heads on Whistle Test is such a classic. A few humble additions – 4 songs about NYC:

      and my favourite track from my second favourite New York band (after Talking Heads):

      • Oh thanks Mr. B, there’s some gems in there. I should have included Interpol, of course, but for some reason they always make me think of London on a cold, rainy Autumn evening. That Blondie clip is fantastic – Debbie Harry has a very strange way with the camera, a sort of studied faux-coyness which sometimes seems to be replaced by the real thing.

  2. Exactly – that’s what’s so New York about her, the combination of irony and double bluff. I still think she understood the camera better than Madonna or Lady Gaga etc. I love the inclusion of an actual camera to demonstrate the song too…it’s really Debbie in control of the images, not the BBC.

    Don’t Interpol have a new album out? I haven’t heard it, maybe I should listen on Spotify. I didn’t get the last one either (2007?) though Ally Pally was a cracker. I still enjoy ‘Turn on the bright lights’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘Antics’ from time to time.


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