San Francisco is known for the Golden Gate Bridge, stunning architecture, countless hills, and–most importantly–its people. The City by the Bay rings with music of all kinds, and we are touched by music wherever we go, from street musicians outside the BART stations, to jazz bars in the Fillmore, from the indie clubs like Café Du Nord and the Rickshaw Stop, to the clang of the cable car bells and the moan of the fog horns. Songs about San Francisco often share common themes: they are reflective, wistful, and full of love, because it’s hard not to fall in love with The City. As Tony Bennett famously sang, “I left my heart in San Francisco/ High on a hill/ It calls to me.” Undeniably, many other have felt the same way. As one of the world’s greatest melting pots, San Francisco can be hard to put into words–and so, many have put their thoughts into song. Here are 10 songs about San Francisco, in no particular order.
- Chris Isaak- “San Francisco Days”
Better known for rolling around in the sand with supermodels (or so his movie videos would have you believe), long-time San Francisco resident Chris Isaak came up with a perfectly cheerful tune that will forever remind us of what San Francisco felt and sounded like in the ‘90s. Melodically fresh and optimistic, “San Francisco Days” reminds us how very easy it is to lose one’s heart in The City. With a shout-out to Market Street and the Golden Gate, Isaak paints a dreamy, romantic picture of San Francisco.
- Jesse Fuller – “San Francisco Bay Blues”
Jesse “Lone Cat” Fuller wrote “San Francisco Bay Blues” in 1954. Since then, dozens of legendary musicians have made it their own, including Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Janis Joplin. This tune, about a little heartbreak in San Francisco, shows that The City is so magnificent and inspiring that it has the power to make a blues song seem happy—resulting in a sound that is more folk than blues. The lyrics, about a loved one who sails away on a ship, may be blue, but the rhythm is positive. It just goes to show that it’s hard to be sad in such a beautiful place.
- Arctic Monkeys – “Fake Tales of San Francisco”
These boys may be from England, but they’ve perfectly captured the vibe that myths about our city possess. Arctic Monkeys noticed that some people are so eager to be a part of the San Francisco scene that they make up fake tales of their nonexistent experiences there—forging myths. This track appeared on the indie rockers’ first LP, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, and it was one of the first singles to put them in the spotlight. There is a mythical San Francisco—a San Francisco that is often talked about but more difficult to truly experience. To know The City, one has to become intimate with it, one-on-one.
- Journey – “Lights”
Since its release in August 1978, this song that has epitomized what it means to be in San Francisco. We’ll forget–and forgive–that Steve Perry, who wrote the song, originally intended it to be about Los Angeles. But upon joining Journey as their lead singer, “the sun shines on L.A.” became “the sun shines on the Bay.” The ballad gets plenty of playback at AT&T Park, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
- Scott McKenzie – “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”
This is the song that launched a thousand hippies, and probably one of the most popular odes to San Francisco. It is a sweet hymn that captures the flower-adorned pilgrimages so many people made to the sacred city in the ‘60s.
- Eric Burdon & The Animals – “San Francisco Nights”
This song could have been commissioned by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. It begins with a fake public service announcement, with Burdon telling us exactly why we should save our money and go to San Francisco. There is nowhere else quite like it: “I wasn’t born there/ Perhaps I’ll die there/ There’s no place left to go, San Francisco.” This song perfectly captures the melting pot of sounds that were very representative of ‘60s San Francisco—a psychedelic jumble of sitar and Latin guitar sounds. The song is different and dynamic, like the city it represents.
- Greg Alan Isakov – “San Francisco”
In a melancholy tribute to the misty city, Isakov reminds us that it does get “cold in California” as he strums his guitar. Listening to this track is like watching the fog roll in. It’s very poetic and subtle, capturing the moments that occur when experiencing San Francisco with all of the senses: tasting, hearing, seeing, smelling, and touching it. It may be cold and damp, but it sure is worth it.
- of Montreal – “Honeymoon In San Francisco”
San Francisco is often portrayed as a haven for dissipated living, and that’s just how of Montreal dreamed of it. The song has a languid psychedelic sound. It is a fantasy of someone quite sedated who has the “grand idea” to get even more sedated in San Francisco: “We’ll spend the whole time drunk on champagne and lime/ We won’t care if we lose our minds.” The idea of getting wasted in San Francisco is by no means original, but the sound that of Montreal produce most definitely is.
- Carmen McRae – “I’m Always Drunk in San Francisco”
This was the first track on McRae’s 18th album. Originally from Harlem, New York, and one of the jazz legends of the 20th century, McRae moved to California in the late 1960s. Vastly inspired by Billie Holiday, McRae sang her heart out behind the piano. This song is an ode to the decadence that sometimes prevails in The City. “I’m always drunk in San Francisco/ I always stay out of my mind/ If you’ve ever been to San Francisco/ They say that things like this go on all the time.” How doesn’t one get drunk in San Francisco, with craft beers and cocktail bars on every corner? Well, McRae explains that it’s more of the state of mind: “I’m always drunk in San Francisco/ And I never drink at all.”
10. Otis Redding – “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”
In August of 1967, Otis Redding co-wrote this song with guitarist Steve Cropper on a houseboat in Sausalito. We are very fortunate to have this song because–just three days after completing its recording–Redding and five members of his band died in a plane crash. Redding sings about the experience of the thousands who left their homes and traveled many miles to live by San Francisco Bay. This song captures the sleepy, idle mood that often prevails over those of us fortunate enough to be a part of The City on the Bay. You can even hear the sound of seagulls, and waves crashing on the shore. Most importantly, Redding expressed the faith that everything will be as it should—the easy, breezy vibe of watching “the ships roll in” and “watch them roll away again.” One can feel lonely, but one can never feel alone when in the company of San Francisco.