From Bow to Barking: the songs that champion unglamorous London

Morrisey, Ramz, Ian Dury composite
Morrisey, Ramz, Ian Dury composite Composite: Getty, Youtube

Mitcham rapper Ramz has been stealthily creeping up the Top 40 over the last seven weeks with Barking, his melodious tribute to the perks of travelling across the city for a long-distance hook-up. Last Friday, the single finally ascended to No 2 in the charts (behind Eminem’s River) and Ramz is happily taking credit for putting the London suburb on the map. “I don’t think a lot of people knew where Barking was before,” he told the BBC, before offering a helpful clarification: “It’s actually in east London. It’s quite far from where I’m from.”

Barking joins a rich seam of songs that pay tribute to a fairly unglamorous part of the capital – an art firmly rooted in matters of pride, virulent disassociation, and, yes, linking one’s ting. (That’s the modern booty call for anyone over the age of 22, though obviously there’s no actual dialling involved.)

Wiley: Bow E3

In 2013, Julie Adenuga (now a Beats 1 presenter) started a petition to get a statue of E3 kingpin Wiley erected in Bow to recognise him as a role model to younger members of the community. Her efforts stalled 15 supporters short of 5,000, and as yet, the bronzed likeness of Richard Cowie doesn’t bestride Tower Hamlets like a colossus. But why have one monument when Wiley and his neighbourhood’s DNA flow together like currents in the River Lea? On Bow E3, he celebrates the streets (and Chinese takeaways) that made him, and defies anyone to underestimate the borough that birthed grime.

Pulp: Mile End

Not exactly the stuff that tourist board dreams are made of, Pulp’s Mile End is a dismal depiction of life in Tower Hamlets. In 1989, Jarvis Cocker and Steve Mackey spent nine months living in a tower block flat that boasted wretched plumbing and a looming stench of death. Cocker once described taking a bath there, and witnessing a tomato skin float across the surface of the water. “I thought, ‘This is not how I want to live’”, he told the authors of 1996’s Pulp: The Illustrated Story. After hearing Mile End, with its tone of jaunty horror and accounts of vile smells and violent teens, it’s unlikely anyone else would, either. Surprisingly, proud local man Danny Boyle wasn’t offended, and used the song – originally the B-side to Something Changed – on the original Trainspotting soundtrack.

Ian Dury: Plaistow Patricia

With its squalling horns, fierce stomp and Dury’s vituperative delivery, it’d be easy to mistake Plaistow Patricia as a hateful diatribe about a crack-addicted chancer. Granted, Dury doesn’t paint a pretty picture: “Her tits had dropped, her arse was getting spread,” he spits. But the penultimate track from 1977’s New Boots and Panties!! – described by Rolling Stone as a “foulmouthed cockney epic” – isn’t rooted in disgust, but admiration for the resilience of the old East Enders living among the crumbling fallout of the blitz. Dury liked to describe the subjects of his songs as “the undernourished”, and the great critic Vivien Goldman described his approach as “conveying emotion, feeling and caring without sentimentality”. That’s exactly what’s going on here. “Go on, girl!” he cheers at the end.

Morrissey: Dagenham Dave

The Stranglers released a song called Dagenham Dave in 1977, in tribute to a literary, hedonistic fan who took his own life. Eighteen years later, Morrissey used the title for a far less charitable single. “Dagenham Dave” is naval slang for someone who’s mentally unstable (Dagenham being one stop short of Barking, by slang’s immaculate logic), and Morrissey’s withering effort has little to do with the east London town specifically. Instead, it works as an archetype for the type of uncultured bloke from whom Morrissey likes to distance himself – but his curdled brew of envy and contempt for this man, “with never the need to fight or to question a single thing”, give this turgid plodder some acid intrigue.

Saint Etienne: Archway People

“There are some nice parts of London,” Sarah Cracknell sings on Archway People. “You can see them from here.” It’s a dispiriting view of the capital’s northern neighbourhood, but its unloveliness next to prettier boroughs is exactly the key to its magic in this song from Saint Etienne’s 1993 album, So Tough. The neighbours are old, the sleepy environs well suited to people who work late and go straight home to bed, the buzzing street lights are as reliable as your own pulse. But one unexpected, intimate night out on the town and it becomes an idyll. “We’re not moving away, we’re staying here,” Cracknell chants.