July 22, 2012

London: One of the world's iconic capitals

Iconic: Big Ben has been renamed ‘Elizabeth Tower’ to mark Queen Elizabeth’s 60th year on the throne. 
As befitting its status as one of the most iconic capitals in the world, London features a fair bit in popular culture as well.

LONDON is a city that calls out to everyone. Its status as one of the great capitals in the world practically demands attention; there is just something about the city that is iconic in its own right.

Not surprisingly, the city is also a pop culture icon, drawing countless references in music, film, TV, literature, and whatever form pop culture takes around the world.

Heck, if we were to include every single movie or TV show set in London, made in London, or name every band that recorded in the city, we’d be here until the city holds its fourth Olympics in, say, another 50 years?

But let’s start off by looking at some of the more iconic London references in pop culture with a certain cheery nursery rhyme, shall we? You know, the one that goes “London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down; London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady”? How a song about a bridge falling down and possibly killing a lot of people can be so cheery is quite beyond me, especially since it wouldn’t be fair for any lady to be caught underneath the rubble.

Then again, nursery rhymes are not known for their positive outlooks in the first place. Remember Rock-A-Bye Baby where the baby is stuck in a tree and comes crashing down when the wind blows? Poor baby.

British soldiers from the Coldstream Guards looking resplendent in their red coats and bearskin hats. 

But I digress. The exact origin of the London Bridge nursery rhyme is not known, though there have been theories that range from it being a reference to the destruction of the bridge by Vikings, to the burial of human child sacrifices under the foundation of the bridge.

London Bridge is a modern highway these days (the iconic medieval bridge that still stands in London today is actually the Tower Bridge), but London has no shortage of iconic structures and buildings, from Buckingham Palace (guarded by the guards in red coats and bearskin hats that are made fun of in so many movies) to the newer landmarks like the London Eye, the pickle-shaped “Gherkin” building at 30 St Mary Axe (featured in BBC’s stellar Sherlock series as well as Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince), and of course, The Shard, the newly opened tallest building in Europe that is sure to have its fair share of Hollywood-styled “destruction” in the future.

The Shard is the European Union’s tallest building. It is sure to have its fair share of Hollywood-styled ‘destruction’ in the future.
The most recognisable London landmark of all is, of course, Big Ben, the massive clock that is housed in the Clock Tower (recently renamed the Elizabeth Tower in honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee) of the equally iconic Palace of Westminster on the banks of the River Thames.

Big Ben (which is actually the name of the big bell that is part of the clock, but the name is usually used to refer to the clock and its tower as well) is so iconic that almost every other disaster movie ever made has made it a point to at least have a shot of the poor clock being destroyed.

Sure, other landmarks also get blown up occasionally, but it’s safe to say that none of them have had it worse than poor old Big Ben, which has been the setting for Doomsday plots in Thunderball, Sherlock Holmes (the Robert Downey Jr one) and er ... Cars 2; and also been blown up by Martians in Mars Attacks!, by lightning in The Avengers (not the recent superhero flick, but the 1998 film based on the British Avengers superspy team starring Uma Thurman, Ralph Fiennes and Sean Connery), and by the enigmatic V in V For Vendetta.
Fantasy novelists have a strong fascination with London’s underground public transit system. 
Speaking of V For Vendetta, Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel about a guy in a Guy Fawkes mask going around inciting revolution against a corrupt government, also features another iconic, and literally underground feature of London – the London Underground subway system. In the comic, V resides in an abandoned underground station, and even the eventual blowing up of Big Ben (or rather, Downing Street in the graphic novel) was done via the underground Tube system.

Similarly, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere novel (which started out as a TV series, by the way) was set in London, or more specifically, the London Underground. Gaiman imagined the city’s underground subway system as an entirely new parallel version of London, a fantasy world where the names of each station mean more than just another commuter stop, including an actual Earl holding court at Earl’s Court, and an Angel residing at Angel Islington station.

LONDON-BORN - Former England football captain David Beckham’s right foot was once humorously described as a British national treasure. He is arguably more famous off the field, with a name that is an elite global advertising brand.

Another book that deals with an underground London (what is it with fantasy novelists and their fascination with London’s underground?) is Un Lun Dun, a 2007 young adults’ novel by China Mieville. Apparently inspired by Neverwhere, the book is about an alternate London (or UnLondon) that can only be breached by certain individuals, in this case, two 12-year-old girls.

In music, arguably one of the most iconic rock ‘n’ roll images of all time has to be the album cover for The Beatles’ Abbey Road album. The picture, which featured the Fab Four crossing the zebra crossing on London’s Abbey Road, has been parodied by everyone from the Simpsons to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose cover for their The Abbey Road EP featured the band infamously recreating the scene butt naked, but with white socks covering their, er ... chilli peppers.

London Bridge is a modern highway these days (the iconic medieval bridge that still stands in London today is actually the Tower Bridge)
London is also the title of songs by The Smiths and Third Eye Blind, as well as part of the titles of songs by artistes ranging from 80s rockers The Pogues (who were from London, so they had quite a number of songs with the name in the title), Electric Light Orchestra (Last Train To London) and trip-hop specialists Morcheeba (The Great London Traffic), to Coldplay (Cemeteries of London), Crystal Fighters and ... Tommy Page.

All the same, none of the above records can compare to arguably the most iconic song (and album) featuring the city’s name in the title – The Clash’s London Calling.

Released in 1980, The Clash’s third studio album was one of the defining records in rock ‘n’ roll’s history, and was even named as the eighth greatest album of all time by Rolling Stone magazine in 2003. Named after the BBC World Service’s World War II station identification message (“This is London calling ...”), the politically charged title track has lyrics that touch on social issues such as drugs and police brutality, but that has not stopped it from being one of the band’s greatest and most recognisable songs ever, covered by the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.

In fact, the song has come so far and become so iconic that it is even used in the London Olympics 2012 countdown campaign. Now that’s what I call a real calling ...

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