Here at Hack’s Back Pages, we’ve come up with collections of songs exploring all kinds of different geographical places. We’ve looked at songs about different U.S. states, songs about different world cities, songs about California, songs about New York.
But we’ve so far neglected to compile a playlist of songs about U.S. cities outside of New York and California. It’s a big wide, wonderful, diverse, amazing country, with big cities and small towns throughout the Midwest, the South, the Northeast, the Southwest and all parts in between.
Through the years, songwriters of rock, country, blues and pop music have often written wistful odes or bitter diatribes about their hometowns and the cities they’ve visited, grown fond of, or grown to dislike. I’ve selected 20 songs, mostly from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, that use U.S. cities as potent subject matter in their lyrics.
“Panic in Detroit,” David Bowie, 1973
Bowie said he wrote this song based on his friend Iggy Pop’s descriptions of his experiences with revolutionaries during the 1967 Detroit riots. Rolling Stone called the track “a paranoid descendant of the Motor City’s earlier masterpiece, Martha and the Vandellas’ ‘Nowhere to Run.'” Sample lyrics: “Panic in Detroit, I asked for an autograph, he wanted to stay home, I wish someone would phone, panic in Detroit, he laughed at accidental sirens that broke the evening gloom, the police had warned of repercussions…”
“Savannah Nights,” Tom Johnston, 1979
Guitarist/singer/songwriter Johnston was the mainstay of The Doobie Brothers until ulcers forced his temporary retirement from the lineup in 1976. He worked his way back into the business with a 1979 solo LP, “Everything You’ve Heard is True,” featuring this very Doobie-ish tune about his fond memories of Savannah, Georgia: “He is the King of Savannah nights, the inspiration, the ladies’ delight, you could not catch him if you wanted to try tonight…”
“Allentown,” Billy Joel, 1982
Allentown is one of those hardworking Pennsylvania steel towns that suffered mightily when the US steel industry took a dive in the 1960s and 1970s and never really recovered. The folks who were born and raised there and were expected to work the mills found themselves in a dead-end existence through no real fault of their own. Billy Joel made a hit single about it: “So the graduations hang on the wall, but they never really helped us at all, no, they never taught us what was real, iron and coal and chromium steel, and we’re waiting here in Allentown… and it’s getting very hard to stay, and we’re living here in Allentown…”
“Sick of Seattle,” The Smithereens, 1994
Grunge rock, which featured angst-ridden lyrics and punk/metal leanings, was born in the Seattle underground in the mid-’80s, and became popular in the early ’90s with Nirvana, Soundgarden and others leading the way. The Smithereens, who hailed from New Jersey, liked grunge but found its heyday was over when they visited Seattle: “Came here to find me a place in the sun, once was a scene, now it’s already done, thinking of leaving, it’s no longer fun in Seattle…”
“Oh Atlanta,” Bad Company, 1979
Little Feat has a great classic tune with the same title, but I have also always liked Bad Company’s entirely different song, a deep track from their 1979 LP “Desolation Angels.” Country artist Alison Krauss recorded a marvelous cover version in 1995. Guitarist Mick Ralphs wrote the song in tribute to the “capital of the New South”: “Oh Atlanta, hear me calling, I’m coming back to you one fine day, no need to worry, there ain’t no hurry, ’cause I’m on my way back to Georgia…”
“San Francisco Days,” Chris Isaak, 1993
Rockabilly/roots-rock singer Isaak, born and raised in Stockton, California, is probably most widely known for his languid 1990 hit “Wicked Game” and for his dreamy voice. His fifth LP “San Francisco Days” is full of great songs, including the title track, which pays homage to the nearby Bay City: “I’m heading for that Golden Gate, hoping I won’t be too late to find the one that I still love, it’s you I’m dreaming of, San Francisco nights, San Francisco days, San Francisco nights…”
“Miami,” Bob Seger, 1986
Seger is a Detroit native who sympathized with the plight of refugees who are just looking for a better life. For his popular “Like a Rock” album in the mid-’80s, he wrote “Miami,” about Cuban refugees who brave the 90-mile trip to the Florida mainland, looking to Miami just as European immigrants looked to New York City in the early 1900s: “They felt the warm breezes blowing from off the strange new ocean, they reached the end safe, it was a new day, Miami, oh, Miami…”
“Baltimore,” Randy Newman, 1977
Newman is known for writing sardonic lyrics, and his tune “Baltimore” from his successful 1977 LP “Little Criminals” got him in trouble (as did that album’s single, the anti-discriminatory “Short People”). Said Newman at the time, “People tend to take my songs the wrong way sometimes. Actually, I think people in Baltimore who objected to that song had a real good case, though, because I didn’t know much about it and had never been there.” Sample lyrics: “And they hide their faces, and they hide their eyes ’cause the city’s dyin’ and they don’t know why, oh Baltimore, man, it’s hard just to live, oh Baltimore, man, it’s hard just to live…”
“Viva Las Vegas,” Elvis Presley, 1964
Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman teamed up to write this rollicking tune expressly for the Elvis Presley hit movie of the same name. Presley’s recording reached #27 in April 1964, and the movie, co-starring love interest Ann-Margret, was a box office hit as well. The lyrics celebrate Las Vegas for its fun and excitement while warning of its risk and danger: “There’s black jack and poker and the roulette wheel, a fortune won and lost on every deal, all you need’s a strong heart and a nerve of steel, viva Las Vegas!…”
“Cleveland,” Jewel, 2001
Singer-songwriter Jewel was only 21 when her debut album “Pieces of You” made her a star. Included on her third LP, “This Way,” was this deep album track in which the narrator wants to curl up with her boyfriend, but can’t because he’s on the road, this time in Cleveland: “It’s only an inch from me to you, depending on what map you use, I wanna tell you everything, I wanna make your toes curl, you be my only boy and I’ll be your only girl, there’s not much I can say ’cause you’re in Cleveland today…”
“Kansas City,” The Beatles, 1964
One of the first songs in the catalog of famed songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller was “Kansas City,” a great 1952 blues tune that R&B singer Wilbert Harrison took to the top of the charts in 1959. The Beatles chose to cover it in a medley with Little Richard’s “Hey Hey Hey Hey” on their 1964 LP “Beatles For Sale.” The lyrics are barebones simple, but the song is a keeper: “Ah, Kansas City, gonna get my baby on time, yeah yeah, I’m goin’ to Kansas City, gonna get my baby on time, yeah yeah, it’s just a-one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine…”
“Philadelphia Freedom,” Elton John, 1976
Elton was friends with tennis star Billie Jean King and wanted to write a single for her and her pro tennis team, the Philadelphia Freedoms. Lyricist Bernie Taupin protested, “I can’t write a song about tennis,” and in fact, the song has nothing to do with the sport. Although Taupin claims it isn’t about flag-waving patriotism either, its release in 1975 and subsequent rise to #1 on the charts dovetailed nicely with the Bicentennial celebrations in Philly in 1976: “Philadelphia freedom, shine on me, I love you, shine a light through the eyes of the ones left behind, shine a light, shine a light, shine a light, won’t you shine a light, Philadelphia freedom, I love you…”
“Birmingham Blues,” Charlie Daniels Band, 1975
Daniels is a dyed-in-the-wool Southerner from Wilmington, North Carolina, and when his career took him on tour far from home, he found himself writing songs where the narrator was longing for the familiar surroundings of his Southern towns. On his 1975 LP “Nightrider,” he recorded a kickass number dedicated to his woman back in Alabama: “Had me a fine woman down in Birmingham town, took care of my money and she didn’t play around, all I got left now is a bad case of Birmingham blues…”
“Sweet Home Chicago,” The Blues Brothers, 1980
Robert Johnson wrote this blues classic in 1936 about blacks fleeing the racist Delta areas for destinations with promise, like California, or Chicago. Dozens of cover versions have played fast and loose with the lyrics, but the version I know best was recorded by John Belushi and Company for “The Blues Brothers” soundtrack LP in 1980. Chicago sports teams have adopted the song for use at home games: “Come on, baby, don’t you wanna go, hi-de-hey, baby, don’t you wanna go, back to that same old place, sweet home Chicago…”
“Memphis,” Johnny Rivers, 1964
This Chuck Berry song, first recorded by Berry in 1959 and turned into a #2 hit for Johnny Rivers in 1964, appears to be about a man longing for his love interest who he left behind in Memphis. Closer examination reveals it’s about his six-year-old daughter Marie, who lives with her mother since a divorce split the family: “Last time I saw Marie, she was wavin’ me goodbye, with ‘hurry-home’ drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye, but we were pulled apart because her mom did not agree, and tore apart our happy home in Memphis, Tennessee…”
“La Grange,” ZZ Top, 1973
The infamous “Chicken Ranch” brothel located on the outskirts of La Grange, Texas, is the subject of this minor hit for ZZ Top in 1973 (it peaked at #41), and also the hit stage play and film “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” in the early 1980s. The track is mentioned among Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest Guitar Songs All Time: “Rumour spreadin’ around in that Texas town ’bout that shack outside La Grange, and you know what I’m talkin’ about, just let me know if you wanna go to that home out on the range, they gotta lotta nice girls, have mercy…”
“Tulsa Time,” Eric Clapton, 1978
Country artist Don Williams recorded this Danny Flowers tune in 1978 and had his eighth consecutive #1 hit on the country music charts that year. Clapton chose to record it for his “Backless” LP, and a live version released on his “Just One Night” album in 1980 became a #30 single. It tells the tale of a musician who gives up on his Tinsel Town dreams to return to his Oklahoma roots: “Well, there I was in Hollywood, wishin’ I was doin’ good, talkin’ on the telephone line, but they don’t need me in the movies and nobody sings my songs, guess I’m just wastin’ time, well, then I got to thinkin’, man I’m really sinkin’, and I really had a flash this time, I had no business leavin’ and nobody would be grievin’ if I went on back to Tulsa time…”
“Doraville,” Atlanta Rhythm Section, 1974
Barry Buie wrote many of the early songs by his band Atlanta Rhythm Section, who were formed in the Georgia town of Doraville, which was semi-rural at the time but grew into a sizable suburb of Atlanta. Many of their songs were also recorded in a small recording studio there, and although the group went on to national fame with songs like “So Into You,” “Champagne Jam” and “Not Gonna Let It Bother Me Tonight,” it’s songs like “Doraville” that remind everybody of their hometown pride: “Doraville, touch of country in the city, Doraville, it ain’t much, but it’s home…”
“Lodi,” Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1969
Of the many great songs John Fogerty wrote for his band Creedence in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I’ve always been partial to this tune from the “Green River” album about a traveling musician whose plans didn’t work out and he found himself stuck in a podunk town in Anywhere USA. Fogerty decided to pick on Lodi, California, a tiny railroad town not far from his own home town of El Cerrito: “The man from the magazine said I was on my way, somewhere I lost connections, ran out of songs to play, I came into town, a one-night stand, looks like my plans fell through, oh Lord, stuck in Lodi again…”
“Atlantic City,” Bruce Springsteen, 1982
Among the bleak, introspective songs Springsteen wrote for what ended up comprising his “Nebraska” LP was the haunting “Atlantic City,” which explored the difficulties the Jersey boardwalk town was having with its plan to revitalize through the proliferation of gambling casinos. Despite the song’s dark mood, the lyrics offer a hopeful note: “Down here it’s just winners and losers, and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line… Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies someday comes back, put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty, and meet me tonight in Atlantic City…”
Honorable mention: “Gainesville,” Tom Petty, 1998; “The Boston Rag,” Steely Dan, 1973; “Galveston,” Glen Campbell, 1969; “Angel From Montgomery,” Bonnie Raitt, 1974; “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead,” Warren Zevon, 1991; “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” Dionne Warwick, 1966; “Dallas,” Johnny Winter, 1973; “Okie From Muskogee,” Merle Haggard, 1969; “Nashville Cats,” The Lovin’ Spoonful, 1966; “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena,” Jan and Dean, 1963; “All the Way to Reno,” R.E.M., 2001; “Tallahassee Lassie,” Freddy Cannon, 1959; “Tucson, Arizona,” Rory Gallagher, 1973.
Very interesting topic — hadn’t realized just how many top songs included cities prominently in the title or the lyrics. Kind of surprised you skipped “Detroit Rock City” (1976) which was KISS’s No. 2 top 1970s song, and which inspired a teen coming of age movie in 1999. Personally, I’m not a huge KISS fan, but this tune was a real breakout for them and gets credit for setting the stage for other heavy metal songs in the 1980s.
Also, since you mentioned Glen Campbell, you may want to give an Honorable Mention to “Wichita Lineman” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”. True, “Lineman” was about a character, not necessarily the town. Campbell was more country/pop than rock, but he was also among the most under-rated guitarists ever (I think you wrote about him some time ago).
Finally, I’d add a plug for Huey Lewis’, “Heart of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, only because it covers A LOT of geography — NYC, LA, DC, San Antonio, Boston, Tulsa, even Detroit and Cleveland!
Great reading, as always,
Good idea for a list! Off top of my head I could add ‘ when Jesus left Birmingham’ by John Mellencamp & ‘Houston’ by REM too
Thanks for your comment, Dave! Any other ideas for song lists, send ’em along!