We’re from all parts of the country, and all parts of the world. No matter where we’re from, we can travel east, west, north, south, and find someone and something new and different. Something exciting, something dangerous, something sweet and sublime, something magnificent. As E.B. White once wrote. “Wherever the wind takes us. High, low. Near, far. East, west. North, south. We take to the breeze. We go as we please.”
You’d think there would be hundreds of popular songs that focus on one of the four primary directions on the compass, but in my recent search, I came up with only a couple dozen. From the catalog of tunes from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s and a few more recent, I have selected four each that mention North, South East or West in the title. They’re an eclectic group of songs, and you can listen to them on the Spotify playlist I compiled and placed at the end of this post.
“Northern Sky,” Nick Drake, 1971
During his lifetime, Drake was a chronically shy, withdrawn person with enormous talent as a sensitive singer/songwriter whose three albums were poorly promoted and sadly under-appreciated. More recently, his work has been celebrated by artists from Beck and Aimee Mann to the Black Crowes and R.E.M. On “Northern Sky,” from his second LP, “Bryter Layter,” Drake welcomed the input of producer John Cale, who added piano, bass and drums to Drake’s typically sparse arrangement, creating what has been called “the most unabashedly joyful song in Drake’s canon.” It should have been his breakthrough single, but that never happened. He died at age 26 of an accidental overdose of antidepressants.
“Life in a Northern Town,” Dream Academy, 1985
This sublime piece of “baroque pop,” as one critic described it, was written as an elegy to Nick Drake, who died in 1974. Nick Laird-Clowes and Gilbert Gabriel, chief songwriters of The Dream Academy, said the song was heavily influenced by Drake’s music, and even the vocals are reminiscent of Drake. The music on “Life in a Northern Town” is a smart blend of classical structure, African rhythms, psychedelia and pop, and it reached #7 on the US pop charts in early 1986. The lyrics pay tribute to Drake and mourn his passing at a young age: “And though he never would wave goodbye, you could see it written in his eyes as the train rolled out of sight…bye-bye…”
“North and South of the River,” U2, 1997
Bono and The Edge teamed up with veteran Irish folk singer Christy Moore in 1995 to write this tune, which Moore recorded and released in the UK. Its lyrics offer a message of hope for reconciliation between warring factions, and most observers believe the song is about Northern and Southern Ireland, or the north and south sides of the River Foyle in the battle-scarred city of Londonderry. U2 recorded it in 1997 and relegated it to the B-side of a single because, as Bono put it, “If we featured that song on an album, it might be reason enough for the Troubles to start up again. We’ve got to be smarter now.” The song also appeared on the group’s “The Best of 1990-2000” compilation.
“North and South,” The Clash, 1985
Perhaps the most important band of the British punk rock movement, and post-punk and new wave as well, was The Clash, who enjoyed widespread critical acclaim in the late ’70s and commercial success in the early ’80s. Following the fine showing of their “Combat Rock” LP and “Rock the Casbah” single in the US in 1982, internal dissension between co-songwriters Joe Strummer and Mick Jones caused a nasty breakup. New members were brought in, but The Clash’s sixth and final LP, “Cut the Crap,” was widely panned for heavy-handed production techniques. Still, there were a couple of decent tracks, like “North and South,” written and sung by newcomer Nick Sheppard.
“Southbound,” The Allman Brothers Band, 1973
The “Brothers and Sisters” LP is a perfect example of how a period of difficult challenge can produce superb results. The Allman Brothers had lost their leader Duane Allman and then their bass player Berry Oakley, both to motorcycle wrecks, but they decided to soldier on with Dickey Betts leading the way and other musicians like keyboardist Chuck Leavell and guitarist Les Dudek playing guest roles. Thanks to the #2 hit “Ramblin’ Man,” the superb instrumental “Jessica” and Gregg Allman tunes like “Wasted Words” and “Come and Go Blues,” the album reached #1. Betts also contributed the “Southbound,” a spirited guitar/piano blues workout.
“South of the Border,” The Doobie Brothers, 1989
In 1975, Tom Johnston, the leader/guitarist/singer/songwriter of The Doobies, was forced to leave the lineup because of bleeding ulcers and exhaustion. Keyboardist/crooner Michael McDonald was recruited and ultimately took the band in a more soulful direction for its second phase. After breaking up in 1982, The Doobies regrouped in 1989 with Johnston back at the forefront and released “Cycles,” which recalled the band’s early LPs. Johnston’s tune “The Doctor” became a Top Ten single, but just as compelling was his marvelous boogie groove, “South of the Border,” about riding to “a sleepy little town” in Mexico for a romantic rendezvous.
“Southern Cross,” Crosby, Stills and Nash, 1982
In 1982, Rick and Michael Curtis wrote a song called “Seven League Boots” and showed to Stephen Stills. “They brought us this wonderful song, but I decided to write a new set of words for it, a story about a long boat trip I took after my divorce. It’s about using the power of the universe to heal your wounds.” It became “Southern Cross,” named for the Crux constellation, and went to #18 on the US charts: “When you see the Southern Cross for the first time, you understand now why you came this way, /’Cause the truth you might be runnin’ from is so small, but it’s as big as the promise, the promise of a comin’ day…”
“Down South,” Tom Petty, 2006
On his third solo LP without The Heartbreakers, Petty, a native of Florida, wanted to write about the South. “It’s a very romantic place, but it’s also a spooky place,” he said. “You’d think a lot of ghosts still linger down there. I’d written about the South years ago, and I wondered, ‘What if I went back? What would be my impressions?’ And then it came pretty easily. I wrote all the lyrics before I wrote the music.” It’s one of his best: “Create myself down south, impress all the women, /Pretend I’m Samuel Clemens, wear seersucker and white linens, /So if I come to your door, let me sleep on your floor, /I’ll give you all I have, and a little more…”
“Looking East,” Jackson Browne, 1996
One of Southern California’s native sons and very best singer-songwriters, Browne sang and wrote poignantly about life and love on his 1970s LPs and then turned his attentions to politics and global issues in the mid-1980s and beyond. On his 1996 album “Looking East,” the title track found Browne philosophical about what’s to come with the dawn: “Standing in the ocean with the sun burning low in the west, at the edge of my country, my back to the sea, looking east… And there’s a God-sized hunger underneath the laughing and the rage, /In the absence of light and the deepening night where I wait for the sun, looking east…”
“East at Midnight,” Gordon Lightfoot, 1986
Canada’s premier songwriter since the 1960s had quite an impressive run on the US charts throughout the 1970s, but when pop music tastes changed in the ’80s, sales fell off. Lightfoot continued to write and record great songs, including “Dream Street Rose, Baby Step Back,” “Anything For Love” and particularly the title track from his 1986 album, “East of Midnight.” Its lyrics adopt a familiar Lightfoot theme of a traveling man looking for romance and a place to rest his head: “Put me somewhere east of midnight, along about daylight, /Anywhere I wander is where I’ll take my rest, /If we could just lie down, toss some thoughts around…”
“East of the Sun (and West of the Moon),” Frank Sinatra, 1961
Wrritten back in 1935 by a Princeton University junior named Brooks Bowman for the college’s a cappella singing groups, this tune became a standard by the mid-1940s. It’s been recorded by dozens of major stars like Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald and Diana Krall, and even instrumental,ists like Al Hirt, Charlie Parker and Stan Getz. The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra recorded it in 1940 with a very young Frank Sinatra, and Sinatra recorded it again in 1961 for a tribute LP called “I Remember Tommy.”
“East of Eden,” Michael McDonald, 1993
First as a background vocalist for Steely Dan, then as a full-fledged member of The Doobie Brothers, and finally as a solo artist, McDonald became a ubiquitous presence on Top 40 radio in the ’70s and ’80s. His work in the 1990s failed to gain much attention, though, especially his 1993 LP “Blink of an Eye,” which didn’t chart at all. There’s a nice, spiritually driven tune he wrote called “East of Eden” that’s worth a listen: “The world goes mad around us as I stand by and watch you sleep, /In the hope that harm won’t find us, I pray the lord our souls to keep, /Does he see us here? Are we precious in his sight? /Or are we merely dust on this tiny ball he hurled out into the night somewhere east of Eden…”
“Once Upon a Time in the West,” Dire Straits, 1979
For the leadoff track on Dire Straits’ second album, “Communiqué,” songwriter/guitarist Mark Knopfler wrote a downbeat piece comparing London’s West End to the American Wild West, where, in both cases, you had to watch your step and avoid dangerous situations. “Once Upon a Time in the West” benefits from Knopfler’s spooky, fluid guitar style, which is the perfect complement for the forbidding lyrics: “Sitting on a fence, that’s a dangerous course, /Oh, you could even catch a bullet from the peace-keeping force…”
“Wild, Wild West,” The Escape Club, 1988
Here’s another example of a British band comparing life in London in the late ’80s to the American Wild West. The Escape Club’s guitarists, Trevor Steel and John Holliday, were the songwriters that came up with the music and lyrics for this unusual song, which has sexual connotations, as did the edgy music video played heavily on MTV at the time. It reached #1 in the US in 1988, with references to the East/West conflict and the Cold War of the Reagan years: “Got to live it up, live it up, Ronnie’s got a new gun, /She’s so mean but I don’t care, I love her eyes and her wild wild hair, /Dance to the beat that we love best, /Heading for the Nineties, living in the wild Wild West…”
“West End Girls,” Pet Shop Boys, 1985
Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of The Pet Shop Boys wrote this haunting, yet danceable pop hit, which was #1 in the UK in 1985 and in the US in 1986. It’s about class struggles and the challenges of inner-city life in London, delivered in a half-sung, half-spoken voice. I love how citric Nitsuh Abebe describes it: “Tennant mumbles the verses to us not like a star, but like a stranger in a raincoat, slinking alongside you and pointing out the sights.” All the music on the track was created digitally — drums, bass, synthesized strings, even trumpet — using an Emulator.
“Into the West,” Annie Lennox, 2003
“Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson wanted a poignant, moving song that would work well for the conclusion of “Return of the King,” the final chapter of the Tolkien trilogy. Film score composer Howard Shore collaborated with screenwriter Fran Walsh and the great Annie Lennox to write “Into the West,” sung by Lennox, which won a Grammy, a Golden Globe and an Oscar for best original song that year. The song’s meaning can be viewed from the perspectives of various characters as the epic tale ends, but some say it’s about Death singing to everyone as they prepare to pass away.
“Girl From the North Country,” Bob Dylan, 1963/1969; “North Sea Oil,” Jethro Tull, 1979; “Southern Man,” Neil Young, 1970; “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way),” Chris Isaak, 1996; “South Dakota Morning,” The Bee Gees, 1973; “Salty South,” Indigo Girls, 2009; “Southbound Again,” Dire Straits, 1978; “South City Midnight Lady,” The Doobie Brothers, 1973; “East at Easter,” Simple Minds, 1984; “Eastbound and Down,” Jerry Reed, 1977: “Wild West,” Joe Jackson, 1985; “West L.A. Fadeaway,” The Grateful Dead, 1987; “Wild West Hero,” ELO, 1977.