top of page

London vs. New York

Has London or New York City contributed more to music globally in the 20th and 21st centuries?

LONDON — Harriet St Pier:

London is a city that inspires. It inspires collaboration, rivalry, political discontent, innovation, reaction, anger, celebration. Musically, this means it has fostered incredible diversity; a scene that has evolved to produce artists as distinct as Boy George, Iron Maiden, Blur, and Dizzee Rascal. 

One of the most multiculturally diverse cities in the world, with close to 40 per cent of the inner city’s population born overseas, London has allowed a plethora of musical cultures and traditions to spill into one another — out of houses and parties and basement clubs — creating new sounds, voices, and identities. 

This began in the 1950s. The arrival of immigrants from the West Indies infused London’s music scene with an explosion of jazz, reggae and ska, blues, gospel, and calypso. Lord Kitchener’s ‘London is the Place For Me’ epitomises how Jamaican blues and calypso music became distinctly British both sonically and lyrically, with migrants telling their stories through their music. 

At a time when London was about swing and dance bands, the jazz influences the Windrush generation brought with them fed into the British skiffle revival: a movement born in Soho’s coffee shops and Oxford Street’s 100 club and pioneered by Lonnie Donnegan. Skiffle cemented post-war London as a place of ‘DIY success’ for young British musicians and inspired a generation of British icons. The Beatles began as skiffle band ‘The Quarrymen’, and members of the Rolling Stones and the Shadows were skiffle musicians in their early years. 

Whilst the Beatles dominated Liverpool’s Cavern club, their music kick-started the British invasion and rock revolution that was made by London’s scene. Carnaby Street — home to both the Marquee Club and the fashion boutiques that defined the ‘swinging sixties’ — nurtured the sounds of the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Who, and the Dave Clark Five. The recording studios and independent labels of London’s ‘Tin Pan Alley’ also featured heavily in the success of these groups. The Stones recorded in Regent Sounds Studio; David Bowie and the Small Faces socialised in the Gioconda café; Elton John and Bernie Taupin wrote songs in the label offices; and the Sex Pistols lived above number 6. 

As musical styles continued to fuse, dub, ska, reggae, and rock all influenced the punk movements of London’s 1970s. Sounds became more progressive and abrasive; themes became heavier and more politicised. Whilst New York can claim the Ramones and Iggy Pop, when you think of punk — real punk  — surely you’re picturing the bleached denim cutoffs, the spiked mohicans, the attitude. Punk was made what it was by the ferocious sentiment of the Sex Pistols; the angry anti-capitalist, anti-racist, messages of the Clash’s Joe Strummer; and the avant-garde gothic visuals of the Damned. Punk was made by London.

Born in Bow, East London, grime is the most recent inheritor to this rich cultural and musical history, deriving its influences from many of these diverse sounds. Described by the New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones as sounding ‘as if it had been made for a boxing gym, one where the fighters have a lot of punching to do but not much room to move’, grime is the product of a city overflowing with sounds and ideas and lacking in space. Grime derives from UK garage, dancehall, and hip-hop; but its Jamaican and Caribbean influences are strong, its sound is urban, and its political messaging is punk. The music of Wiley, Lethal Bizzle, Dizzee Rascal, Kano, and Stormzy is legacy to a complex history of oppression, celebration, and the birth of new identities. It is distinctly London: it is the sound of a city that still struggles to reconcile with its own complex multicultural history.

I challenge anyone to name another city that could produce not one, but two collaborations between Ed Sheeran and Stormzy. Or — whilst we’re on Stormzy — a grime song that samples the Tracey Beaker theme tune. If that alone isn’t testimony to London’s ability to foster musical evolution, I don’t know what is.

NEW YORK CITY — Helen Lipsky:

“You’re still the one pool where I’d happily drown.” - James Murphy, 2007

On August 11th, 1973 Clive Campbell and his sister Cindy hosted a back-to-school party at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. Clive, DJ Kool Herc, spun funk and reggae while “toasting” his friends. He selected records with isolated points of standalone percussion, better known as “breaks.” His work attracted hundreds. 

After Sedgwick, DJs like Herc and Grandmaster Flash hosted bloc parties where they experimented with longer breaks, turntable techniques, and freestyling. Here, New York made hip-hop. The parties set the stage for a fleet of New York icons: Run DMC, LL Cool J, and the Beastie Boys, the Notorious B.I.G., A Tribe Called Quest, MC Hammer, Nas, and, later, Mos Def and Jay-Z. Over three decades, New York City built the skeleton of America’s greatest cultural export. 

What New York did for hip-hop and rap, London did for rock music. But London’s impressive rock roster all fiddled with a format that originated in New York. New York’s Tin Pan Alley, the songwriter and music publishing hub of the late 19th and early 20th century, laid the groundwork for groups like the Beatles. The chord progressions, melodic structure, and craftsmanship pioneered by Tin Pan Alley massively influenced the American triumvirate of rock godfathers — Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, and Chuck Berry.

We also have New York to thank for the genesis of punk rock. Opened in 1973, East Village venue CGBG hosted the New York propagators of the minimalist garage rock sound of early wave punk: Television, the Ramones, the Talking Heads, and Blondie. Andy Warhol and the Lou Reed/Velvet Underground entourage conveyed musically the foundational grit of the crime-ridden climate of New York in the 1960s and 70s. 

These groups paved the way for the Strokes, whose 2001 album Is This It deserves a couple thousand words. It led to the 2000s alternative rock revival Britain enjoyed. Alex Turner credits the album as his lead inspiration for starting the Arctic Monkeys. Without the Strokes, we wouldn’t know Hot Fuss or the Kooks. Other New Yorkers similarly revolutionised rock amidst post-9/11 communal mourning: LCD Soundsystem, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, Vampire Weekend, and the National.

New York does not only produce superstars but songwriting pioneers. Paul Simon grew up in Queens, where he met Art Garfunkel, and went on to produce Graceland and Bridge Over Troubled Water. Carole King churned out hits during the Brill Building Era. Billy Joel. Lana Del Rey. Moby. Lady Gaga.

New York takes the lead most due to its microcosms of communal creativity. Neighbourhoods became melting pots of storytellers, thinkers, dancers, and performers who all fed off one another’s artistic spirit. Greenwich Village in the 1960s was the world's deepest well of folk innovation. On Bleecker Street, Bob Dylan made his break, Joan Baez, Linda Ronstadt, and Joni Mitchell gave way to the feminine vocal flutter of Americana and folk-rock, and Pete Seeger performed his political outcries. Disco was born inside The Loft, an invitation-only NoHo club where DJ David Mancuso forged the infectious, danceable fusion of funk, R&B, electronica, and soul. 

At venues like the Village Vanguard and Blue Note, NYC became the epicentre of new-wave jazz sub-genres: swing in the 30s and 40s and bee-bop in the 50s and 60s. Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis travelled to New York, solidifying the city as a lead site of the greatest demonstrations of musicianship known to man.

I have only spent four days in London but I am a Brooklyn native. What I know is that, unlike London, New York never hides its musical vivacity. Neighbourhoods bleed into one another. People still dance in the streets. They play the drums on plastic buckets at Grand Central. The Subway never stops singing. “Last Nite” makes every house party. The poetry of Jay-Z and the Beastie Boys still reintroduces New Yorkers to themselves. Bob Dylan will never stop making us cry. To truly know New York means walking its musical map.  

Illustrations by Lauren McAndrew

33 views0 comments


bottom of page