As I’ll go into in a bit more detail later in this post, the Beeching Report was published sixty years ago just recently (at the end of March), one of the most important documents in twentieth-century railway history in the UK.
Getting the train is something I’ve done an awful lot over my life, criss-crossing England (and to a lesser extent, Wales and Scotland), as well in nine European countries, and the US and Canada. It is often a quicker way of getting from A to B than the train (not to mention rather more environmentally friendly in almost all cases), although not always cheaper (especially in the UK, sadly).
Industrial development has often gone in tandem with the development of railways, and entire suburbs of some cities have the railways to thank for their creation (most notably North West London around the Metropolitan Line), and they’ve also led in driving architectural styling too, and thanks to their presence, they’ve often become part of culture, in art, literature and music.
So this is my nod to the railways in music. Taking in some obvious artists, as well as some more suprising, unexpected ones, with some great songs along the way.
A quick explanation for new readers (hi there!): my Tuesday Ten series has been running since March 2007, and each month features at least ten new songs you should hear – and in between those monthly posts, I feature songs on a variety of subjects, with some of the songs featured coming from suggestion threads on Facebook.
Feel free to get involved with these – the more the merrier, and the breadth of suggestions that I get continues to astound me. Otherwise, as usual, if you’ve got something you want me to hear, something I should be writing about, or even a gig I should be attending, e-mail me or drop me a line on Facebook (details below).
/The Junction Signal
/The Bricklayer’s Arms
Quite possibly the only band named after the nameplate on a locomotive – and indeed they use the nameplate image as their logo – so it shouldn’t be surprising that this band feature here, and indeed have songs about trains. This song celebrates the work of the railwayman, people that got through school, and chose to use their skills and knowledge to keep the railway running, from train drivers to signalmen.
/Last Train to Trancentral (Live from the Lost Continent)
The third and final song in the legendary Stadium House Trilogy – all three songs being stone-cold classics – and like many KLF singles, there’s a variety of versions as they evolved and tried new ideas, but I don’t think that there is any doubt that this is the definitive version. A stomping monster of a house track, listeners are invited “All Aboard” to what sounds like one hell of a party, presumably on a train (and the video uses footage of a suitably mocked-up model train).
Since we’ve moved down to the coast, the last train – or at least late-evening trains – have become a regular thing to get home, and as always, those trains require the use of headphones and loud music to avoid dealing with other, er, “refreshed” passengers on the fifty-five-minute dash to Folkestone.
/Public Service Broadcasting
/Inform – Educate – Entertain
While many of the films and broadcasts that this band used from the BFI archives were little-known or, worse still, forgotten, perhaps, the majesterial Night Mail film remains one of the greatest pieces of documentary film work. A twenty-minute glimpse into the distribution of mail by overnight trains in the UK, it featured W.H. Auden‘s poem Night Mail as well as a score by Benjamin Britten, and shed light on something that many people would never have seen or known about.
Remarkably, the Travelling Post Office continued in use until 2004 – mechanisation meant they were no longer needed in the same way – and gradually, the Royal Mail has begun increasing the use of rail for transporting post again in more recent years.
The Public Service Broadcasting take on Night Mail sees them use parts of Auden’s poem in the same rhythm as it was originally intended, and perhaps remains one of the greatest triumphs in the band’s back catalogue.
/Great Train Robbery
Sixty years ago this summer – on the day before my birthday – marks the anniversary of the Great Train Robbery, an unprecedented heist of one of those Travelling Post Office trains mentioned above, targeting the “high-value” carriage (and they initially got away with around £2.5 million (or around £30 million in today’s money). For some reason, though, this violent robbery (the train driver was hit over the head with a metal implement and died seven years later, having never been able to deal with the aftermath) has been celebrated as if it was people “sticking it to the man”, when really it was a bunch of violent thugs enriching themselves.
Black Uhuru – a legendary Jamaican reggae group – teamed up with electronic producer Arthur Baker for this track, one that took them away from their core style a bit (the Baker style is front and centre, that’s for sure) and saw them comparing this event with an unspecified crime that was going down in New York…
/The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing
/Third Class Coffin
/Not Your Typical Victorians
One of the greatest things about The Men is the way that their songs about (mostly) Victorian life, technology and politics – and the people that helped shape that – all resonate neatly with current affairs. That, and many of their songs are a hoot.
But Third Class Coffin is one of their darkest songs, as they remind that even in death, Victorian Londoners were still treated differently by virtue of class. See, there was a railway to transport the dead out to the new, gigantic Brookwood Cemetery near Woking (still one of the largest cemeteries in the world), and amazingly the train service also transported the dead from at least twenty-one burial grounds in London that were then built over as the city expanded.
The most noisy objections came from Charles Blomfield, the-then Bishop of London, who complained that the noise of the railway was too much for a solemn burial, not to mention that the coffins of the upper classes couldn’t possibly be transported with the riff-raff of those destined for a pauper’s grave.
/Rock Island Line
/Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar!
As Christian Wolmar notes in his excellent book The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America, the rush to build railways across America was a key reason in how the country was unified and grew across the 19th Century in particular (and as an odd side-effect, allowed Baseball to become a pre-eminent sport across the country, too). By the inter-war period, many operators in the US ran some of the best-known and most luxurious trains in the world, but as car became king, many of the railways withered away, leaving Amtrak running inter-city services across parts of the nation, a number of urban rail systems, and the rest is simply freight.
One of those famous operators was the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, otherwise known as the Rock Island Line, whose sleek red, maroon and silver trains criss-crossed the midwest before the passenger trains whittled away, and by 1980, it was gone, the local Chicago trains now run by Metra.
This song was apparently originally written and sung by black employees of the railroad in the 1920s, and has been changed and added to over the years: Alan Lomax recorded initial versions of it for posterity, Lead Belly recorded it multiple times, Lonnie Donegan kickstarted skiffle with it, and stacks of blues, country and rock artists have taken it on, too.
Perhaps the best-known version is Johnny Cash’s fabulous take, whose tempo increases like an accelerating train and the lyrics take in freight traffic and the wonder of train travel in the mid-twentieth century.
/Simon & Garfunkel
/Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme
It is easy to forget that both Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel didn’t find success easily initially, and struggled their way through playing in both New York City and in the UK before finally getting the recognition their songs deserved. The story goes that one of the best-known and best-loved songs, Homeward Bound, was at least completed on the platform of Widnes Railway Station in the far north-west corner of Cheshire, as Paul Simon waited for a train to his next gig, while missing his-then lover and, of course, his home city of NYC
/Metall auf Metall / Abzug
Forty-six years on from release, the mighty Trans Europa Express remains one of the cornerstones of electronic music, where Kraftwerk shed fully any previous influences, and fully embraced minimalist electronics with a quasi-futuristic look at Europe and the rail services that criss-crossed the continent, as a metaphor for the closer links across the region that would, fifteen years later, see the creation of the European Union when the Maastricht Treaty took effect.
The second half of the album is the most relevant part here, where the title track opens side two with a serene journey on the legendary, titular trains, before the vocals slip away for Metall auf Metall. The familiar chug of the train-like rhythm remains, but clanging metal effects and the hiss of air become the dominant elements until we slip into Abzug, where the synth hook from TEE returns, and we’re perhaps back inside the first class luxury of the train again, heading torward to our destination, which we reach with a squeal of brakes as the track concludes.
The TEE may no longer exist, but it was effectively replaced by High-Speed Trains crossing borders, the French TGV to all of the neighbouring countries, the German ICEs doing similarly to most of their neighbours, Eurostars through the Channel Tunnel from London to Paris, Brussels and beyond, and so on. It’s now easier – and faster than ever – to use the train in Europe, and I’ve done a number of hefty journeys over the years (most notably Prague to Antwerp in a day via Berlin, Köln and Brussels, and also London to Düsseldorf to see Kraftwerk), and this summer, we continue that tradition by planning to use the only train ferry that remains in Western Europe to complete a longer journey.
The original was written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and was a hit initially for Little Eva in 1962, then Grand Funk Railroad in 1974, and then again for Kylie Minogue in 1988. The dance that at least in part nods to the movement of trains apparently had to be created quickly after the song became a hit!
Why is a song about an initially non-existent dance in this ten, though? Well, Pete Waterman, the head of Minogue’s label at the time, PWL (and one of the three names in production team Stock Aitken and Waterman), is something of a railways fan. He worked on the railways before he went into music, and then when he made his fortune, he invested in various railway companies, owns a fleet of preserved locomotives (both steam and diesel), and is apparently an avid railway modeller, too…
/I LIKE TRAINS
/The Beeching Report
/Progress • Reform
Sixty years ago at the end of March, Dr Richard Beeching published his notorious report The Reshaping of British Railways. In this and a subsequent report in 1965, he recommended substantial changes and closures of the British railway network – pretty much purely through an economic lens, ignoring the social and connective value of the network, and how smaller lines fed larger ones. And, of course, served the Transport Minister Ernest Marples very well, as he had significant shares in a road-building company.
That said, significant closures had already happened. 1,300 miles of railway were closed between the Wars, and another 3,300 miles had closed in the fifteen years before Beeching’s report: and there was no doubt that some of the lines that remained were uneconomic. While the closures were pared back in the face of public outrage, many lines still closed (not least the Great Central Railway between Aylesbury and north of Nottingham, the Waverley Line between Carlisle and Edinburgh, the Varsity Line between Oxford and Cambridge, and the inland route between Exeter and Plymouth via Okehampton), and three of those have either at least partially reopened since or are planned to do so, a sign of the folly of some of the closures. Indeed the wiki page that details reopenings of Beeching closures is a lengthy list.
The UK’s railways did modernise and improve, but have also been subject to constant tinkering and interference – as well as disastrous privatisation that literally resulted in needless loss of life thanks to cost-cutting and poor supervision – and is now broadly back under central Government control, with yet more cuts enforced even when passenger numbers are heading back to where they were before COVID (even if the balance of peak and off-peak users is now very different).
Anyway, the excellent Leeds band I LIKE TRAINS made a splash with one of their earliest songs, as they composed a gorgeous lament for the communities cut off by Beeching and his changes.