This song follows Bryan Ferry as he takes a stroll through a city street, with the Roxy Music frontman describing the bright lights and beautiful people surrounding him. Speaking to Uncut
on December 14, 2012, Ferry explained: "I wanted it to be a high-energy, fun song – buzzy and vibrant – and I hope the words convey some of that joie de vivre. Each verse seems to have its own character, like blocks on a street."
"Street Life" begins with Ferry alluding to some mystery telephone callers:Wish everybody would leave me alone – yeah
They're always calling on my telephone
When I pick it up there's no one there
So I walk outside just to take the air
In an interview with NZ Herald
on August 25, 2008, New Zealand fashion designer Denise L'Estrange-Corbet revealed that, while living in London in 1973, she and her school friends would frequently take the bus to Ferry's house and call him from the telephone box opposite. The girls would then watch Ferry pick up the receiver before quickly hanging up on him. A few years later, L'Estrange-Corbet got to meet Ferry. "I asked him, 'Did you write that song for me?' and he said, 'Yes, I probably did.'"
This song references three brands of chocolate: Milky Way, After Eight, and Black Magic. Talking to Uncut, Ferry called his decision to include the confectionery "rather puzzling, since I never touched the stuff."
"Street Life" is one of the first songs by Roxy Music to feature keyboardist Eddie Jobson. The band hired him to replace Brian Eno after Eno quit due to creative differences with Ferry. Jobson opens "Street Life" with a cacophony of noise imitating traffic and car horns. He told Roxy Music biographer David Buckley: "The intro (and outro) to 'Street Life' was my way of keeping the Eno-style electronic beeps and bleeps alive. It was the first sound on the first track of my first Roxy album. The other strange noises were made by playing minor-second dissonances with Mellotron brass samples (the same sound as for the brass 'hits' throughout the song)."
Bassist John Gustafson struggled to come up with a bassline for this song, so producer Chris Thomas stepped in instead. Guitarist Phil Manzanera recalled to Uncut: "We came in one day and Chris Thomas had put the bass on himself, out of sheer frustration. It totally transformed the track. His bass part is fantastic."
While Roxy Music was recording this song at AIR Studios, situated above the famous Oxford Street in London, Thomas dangled a microphone down to capture some city noises. However, the experiment was unsuccessful, so Thomas used a prerecorded sound effect from a Moroccan street market.
Roxy Music and Ferry have performed this song on multiple tours since its release. According to Uncut, Ferry hailed it as "an anthem for Roxy fans at shows, and seemed to be a cue for them to rush the aisles, showing off their tuxedos and suchlike."
Gerry and Simon Laffy of Phantom 5 covered "Street Life" for Dream Home Heartaches... (Remaking/Remodeling Roxy Music), a 1997 tribute album organized by Duran Duran bassist John Taylor. British rock band Def Leppard also recorded a version for their 2006 covers album Yeah!. Morrissey of The Smiths, meanwhile, performed it on the European leg of his Tour of the Tormentors in 2006.
"Street Life" was the first Roxy Music single taken from the album it promoted. The Stranded opener peaked at #9 in the UK on December 9, 1973, making it the third consecutive Roxy Music single to reach the Top 10. Over a decade on, Roxy Music and Ferry released Street Life – 20 Great Hits. The greatest hits collection peaked at #1 in the UK on April 26, 1986, and remained there for five weeks.