Friday, 8 January 2010

News, Views and Music Issue 51 (Top Five): AAA songs about train journeys

I’m often asked where I get my ideas for the newsletter top fives. Well, no, actually, I’m not. That would be silly. After all, it’s not as if I’m some boring talking head on one of those ‘top 10 irritating people of the year hosted by the guy or gal who came 11th’ programme. But if I was asked then I could certainly reply where this week’s top five came from: cooped up at a station waiting for a train to arrive. So here is the AAA patent pending handy guide to the best train songs in the world, ever (or so I would be saying right now if I worked for the Virgin compilation CD market). We’ve only got space for five so here’s a list of honourable tracks that de-railed just before publication: Train In G Major (slow blues from Lindisfarne’s ‘Fog On The Tyne’ album), Terrapin Station (on which the Grateful Dead retrace the old Settle-Carlisle route with a medieval tale of love and a terrapin holding the world on its back while the fat controller axes trains or something like that; from the album of the same name); One After 909 (Beatles number written in 1961 but not recorded till 1969 and ‘Let It Be’ – the one after 909 is 910 by the way. And there’s a wrong location, to rhyme with station dontchaknow); Hari’s On Tour (Express) (George Harrison – not that you can tell from this rather weird instrumental which kicks off the Dark Horse LP); Rush Hour Blues (A Kinks song about commuters – Waterloo Sunset is outlawed as being a bit vague on the railway front- from the A Soap Opera album); No Expectations (gorgeous song of defeat from the Rolling Stones, waiting on a station to be taken to the Beggar’s Banquet no doubt); Casey Jones (the Grateful Dead again, riding that train high on cocaine with a track from Workingman’s Dead clearly written just to use the pun ‘Casey you’d better watch your speed’) and RRRRRRapid Trrrrrrransit (phonetic spelling) (by train fanatic Neil Young who, despite writing several car songs – including a whole album’s worth with ‘Fork In The Road’ – has only written this one ‘train’ song to date; check out the Re-Ac-Tor album for more).

5) Homeward Bound (Simon and Garfunkel, 1966; Heck not this debate again – some of you will own it on the ‘Sounds Of Silence album and some on the ‘Parsley, sage’ album – though most of you probably own it on a compilation or film soundtrack anyway): The perfect song of restlessness and a need for stability, this song was reportedly written by a pre-fame Paul Simon stranded for the night in Widnes railway station during his 1964 sabbatical in the UK and desperate to get home after another low-paying poorly attended gig. Having spent the best part of a year virtrually living on the empty platform waiting for the one train an hour to pass through while there’s nobody in the ticket office yet again, it’s easy for me to see why this might have been a true story. Whatever the circumstances behind the song, this is a very touching song and given just the right sparse treatment by Simon and Garfunkel’s wondrous harmonies. 

4) Last Train To Clarksville (The Monkees, ‘The Monkees’ 1966): ‘Paperback writer...’ No, we haven’t gone mad by quoting a song by the wrong. It’s just that Monkees writers extraordinaire Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart saddled, as they originally thought, with writing all the songs for a new TV series about pop wannabees decided to turn to The Beatles for inspiration and a lyric that one of them mistakenly misheard. Catching just the fade of the song on first hearing they heard it as ‘take the last train...’ and, on discovering their error, decided to write the song the Beatles track could have been. In a parallel dimension with trains. A driving, sorry training kind of pop song, effortlessly crafted, there’s a reason why ‘Clarksville’ became the debut single of the Monkees. And there’s a reason why millions of record buyers lapped it up – it was #1 in America a full month ahead of the TV series being screened in fact. Never has Micky Dolenz’s voice sounded better – and never have guitars been made to mimick the sound of a rollicking train quite so well.     

3) King’s Cross Blues (Lindisfarne, ‘Back And Fourth’ 1978): Lindisfarne seemed to have something against trains, appearing for the second time on this list courtesy of this rollicking pop effort from singer Ray Jackson. Stuck on a train with a lot of know-it-all passengers who seem to be using the carriage as an extension of themselves, this song doubles as an interesting character analysis of humans herded together and made to think the same things. As for me, I seem to share the same philosophy. Fasttalkingquickpacingtrackbracing stuff.

2) Shock On The Tube (Don’t Want Love) (10cc, ‘Bloody Tourists’ 1978): What was it with train songs recorded in the year 1978?! Anyway, here’s another one: a typically funny off-the-wall sketch of life from the world’s most hilarious band (after the Spice Girls). A bored commuter dreams of the gorgeous girl sitting in the seat opposite him and unbeknown to him falls asleep, unaware that all the sexual shenanigans are going on in his subconscious rather than in real life. A great tune that runs at a hundred miles an hour threatens to fall off the rails but somehow makes it through all the twists and turns intact. A classy throwaway.

1) 5:15 (The Who, ‘Quadrophenia’, 1973): Out of my brain on the train! And now, standing on platform one, its Keith Moon’s last great moment with The Who, turning his kit into a train that never sits still for a minute. The song, of course, is from our beloved concept album ‘Quadrophenia’ (see review no 60) and sees Jimmy the Mod travelling to the scene of his past heroics at Brighton, stuck in a carriage between two members of the upper classes he’s been doing his best to avoid and stoked up on various pills. It’s really about the journey in his mind of course and the long long journey he’s taken throughout the double album from fearless ‘face’ trendsetter top mixed-up mod. An exhilarating ride, with The Who at their rock and roll best, worth a return ticket anytime.

ERRATUM: now it sometimes happens that writing about a topic this wide about groups this varied means that you miss out the bleeding obvious and horrifiedly realise about a week after you’ve written an article that something major is missing. So here i9s what probably should have been no 1 in our list: Last Of the Steam-Powered Trains (The Kinks, ‘Village Green Preservation Society’, 1968): A cornucopia of train sounds from the brothers Davies – harmonica, guitar, a steady drum beat and a lead vocal sung against the grain of the backing – all contribute superbly to the feel of this song about museum pieces that are being replaced by something far faster and more streamlined but also uglier and less individual. A very Kinks theme for a very Kinks-like album which is nearly all variations on this same subject.  

And that’s that for another issue – see you in a fortnight’s time for a review of our other new purchase, the long awaited outtakes set from Stephen Stills’ Manassas band. Till then we leave you with news from Philosophy Phil, who has been tempted out of hibernation to give us this nugget of advice: and this is a true story folks: There really is a book out there entitled ‘Depression and Low Self Esteem – For Dummies’. I rest my case about the sad state of the modern world....see you next week!

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