Ten great songs associated with rail journeys you may have forgotten about
In both senses, our latest Not So Perfect Ten is designed for trainspotters. Not only those who stand at the edge of platform six of Manchester Piccadilly station. Also trainspotters of a musical variety; the sort of people who would rather have a Steve Hackett album track on their playlist instead of Ed Sheeran.
For our latest Not So Perfect Ten of Train Themed Tunes, we could have been lazy and gone for some of the more obvious ones. The likes of Chattanooga Choo-Choo or Junior Campbell’s theme music to the original series of Thomas the Tank Engine would have featured. On this run down, no way, Pedro.
Therefore, shortly arriving on East of the M60, are the following Not So Perfect Ten Semi-Overlooked Songs About Train Travel.
- Waiting for a Train, Flash and the Pan (1983);
- Theme from S-Express, S-Express (1988);
- Time Flies By (When You’re The Driver Of A Train), Half Man Half Biscuit (1985);
- Rudy, Supertramp (1974);
- Another Town, Another Train, ABBA (1973);
- Under Your Thumb, Godley and Creme (1981);
- The Day Before You Came, Blancmange (1984);
- Leaving on the Midnight Train, The Nick Straker Band (1980);
- Next Train to Timperley, Frank Sidebottom (1990);
- Duke’s Travels, Genesis (1980).
1. Waiting for a Train, Flash and the Pan (1983)
In a nutshell, Flash and the Pan were what the Easybeats did next. Messrs Vanda and Young reconvened as Flash and the Pan in the late-1970s acquiring some success in their native Australia. Their early work included (Down Among The Dead Men) The Band Played On and Hey, St. Peter. In the UK under this moniker, they were one hit wonders with this tune.
May 1983’s arrival of Waiting for a Train barely registered on Australia’s Kent Music Report chart (it peaked at Number 98). On the UK singles chart, it peaked at Number Seven. Perhaps it struck a chord with passengers waiting for the Holyhead train on Platform 11 at Manchester Victoria. The song’s melancholy nature expresses the boredom of waiting for a Class 40 with seven carriages or a Class 110 DMU to Leeds.
- Homeward Bound, Simon and Garfunkel (1966): touching on a similar theme, this was written at what is now known as Widnes railway station (it opened as Farnworth (Widnes) then became Widnes North before acquiring its present name).
2. Theme from S-Express, S-Express (1988)
To label S-Express as One Hit Wonders would be churlish. The follow-up to this tune, Superfly Guy, was a Top Ten hit. In the spring of 1988, the Theme from S-Express brought diesel engine sound effects away from a clique of trainspotters to the night club. There are two reasons for this song’s inclusion. One is the roar of a Paxman Valenta engine at the start and finish of the piece. From an InterCity 125.
Then again, it could have come from the diesel locomotive which inspired its cover art. On the cover was a cutaway view of the BR Class 56 locomotive. Which also had a Paxman engine, at 3,300 bhp. To this day, it remains the only chart single with diesel locomotive engine samples to have topped the UK singles chart. It spent two weeks at the top spot from the 24 April to the 07 May in 1988. Also sampled was Is It Love You’re After? by Rose Royce.
- Me and Mr Absolutely, Blyth Power (1988): also from the same year, this song includes a sampled Class 40 diesel locomotive in full cry. The train loving folk-rock group, headed by Joseph Porter (alternately known as Josef Porta), took their name from a diesel locomotive too. Another Class 56: 56076, before the Blyth Power plaque was moved to 56134 in 1986.
3. Time Flies By (When You’re The Driver Of A Train), Half Man Half Biscuit (1985)
A slight theme on Half Man Half Biscuit’s debut album, Back in the DHSS, was the Gordon Murray animated series, Trumpton. Time Flies By (When You’re The Driver Of A Train) is inspired by the railway in the said series. Instead of its pastoral theme, it reflects a similar scenario if Birkenhead North and Rock Ferry were added to British Rail’s Provincial Sector operations in Camberwick Green.
In the song, there is reference to substance abuse, hence the “careful with that spliff, Eugene” line (inspired by Pink Floyd’s Careful With That Axe, Eugene). Also football hooliganism (the Chigley Skins). Far from the pastoral idyll immortalised in Gordon Murray’s finest work.
- F*****’ ‘Ell, It’s Fred Titmus, Half Man Half Biscuit (1985): also on the same début LP. The connections are available on Platform 3, possibly from Hooton station (which had four platforms back in ’85).
4. Rudy, Supertramp (1974)
With the alienation theme taken on board in Flash and the Pan’s number nine years later, Supertramp did a very good line in this in ’74. Their third album, Crime of the Century, had a mix of introspective and poppy numbers. Hide In Your Shell best exemplified the former, whereas Rudy was similar but had more progressive rock leanings. We see Rudy boarding a train and not knowing where he’d end up. Perhaps he had an All-Line Rover and didn’t fancy being home for his tea. (Did he take the long way home by any chance?)
The high point of Rudy is the instrumental middle eight where Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies are arguing with each other. In their gigs, this was accompanied by a speeded up film of London to Brighton in Five Minutes. This follows on from the sampling of a station announcer at London Paddington station where he says:
“The 1945 train to Bristol Temple Meads will depart from Platform Two,
“Calling at Reading, Didcot, Swindon, Chippenham, Bath Spa, and Bristol Temple Meads.
“Passengers for Radley, change at Didcot.”
As for the diesel locomotive at the start of this piece, we think it’s a Class 35 Hymek.
- The 1945 train to Bristol Temple Meads no longer exists. In fact, it is the 2000 train to Bristol Temple Meads that calls at the same stations. It takes an hour and 46 minutes. An off-peak single fare is £33.10 at 2017 prices. For Radley, you can choose the slow direct service at 1957 or get the 2000 journey and change at Didcot arriving at 2059. The off-peak single fare to Radley is £25.60.
5. Another Town, Another Train, ABBA (1973)
You could always count on ABBA’s expertise in writing songs about the iron road. The earliest train based song by the Swedish legends was the winsome Another Town, Another Train. This is a romantic piece which looks at the ‘joys’ of waiting for someone in railway stations. Hence the resigned refrain, “Guess I will spend my life in railway stations”.
That too could be the story of my life, a veteran of the 1746 late runner from Salford Central to Ashton-under-Lyne. This song featured in their (in longhand form) self-titled début album, alongside other gems like Ring Ring and People Need Love.
- The Day Before You Came (1981): featured in some versions of their last studio album (1981’s The Visitors), there is no other song that captures the tedium of commuting so well. Also worth an honourable mention from that LP is Two For The Price of One, purely for the opening couplet which leads to – that rarity – a humorous number from the group. Before the tearjerking Slipping Through My Fingers.
6. Under Your Thumb, Godley and Creme (1981)
After leaving 10cc for a double solo career, Godley and Creme gave us some real gems. Firstly the Consequences triple LP that showcased the Gizmo. Also their promotional videos. From the early 1980s, they were also known for their singles with Under Your Thumb their best known work (till Cry came along in 1985). In autumn of 1981, it peaked at Number Three in the UK singles chart.
The reason for its inclusion? Its sonic wizardry, a plot, and a bit of hauntology for good measure. The atmospheric sonics conjure up images of the steam age, though the keyboards are in the APT and HST era.
- Inter-City Studios: Eric Stewart’s and Peter Tattersall’s first studios prior to moving to Strawberry Recording Studios’ premises in 1967. The Inter-City name was inspired by Stockport being the next stop after Manchester Piccadilly on the London Euston service.
7. The Day Before You Came, Blancmange (1984)
You cannot keep a good cover version down. In 1984, Blancmange covered ABBA’s The Day Before You Came very well. In place of the snowy Swedish scenes in its promotional video, we got stunning footage of the London and South East Region. Shots of London Bridge station with BR blue electric trains. Well before Southern Rail and their union-bashing friends mucked it up. Before Chris Green’s Network Southeast and Operation Pride.
As the video progresses, we also get cameo appearances of Thumper DEMUs and Agnetha Faltskog. As a passenger. Priceless! Not to mention the cornucopia of slam-door third rail EMUs. Also a few AEC Routemasters and Leyland Nationals in London Transport red.
- ABBA’s original version from 1981: why not listen to the two versions and make a comparison? I like both, even if Blancmange’s version is chosen due to the trains.
8. Leaving on the Midnight Train, The Nick Straker Band (1980)
For about ten minutes in 1980, The Nick Straker Band had a Top Twenty chart hit with A Walk In The Park. Peaking at Number Twenty, it is seen by many as their only charting single. How many remember the other one, Leaving on the Midnight Train? The follow up reached the dizzy of Number 61 in the UK singles chart, hence the One Hit Wonder tag.
Leaving on the Midnight Train is a similarly bouncy sister to their best known work. There is a bit more falsetto thrown in and a slight funky beat. Perhaps some purchasers were confused between the Nick Straker Band and New Musik, which leads us to our other connection.
- New Musik: the closeness of New Musik and the Nick Straker Band was about the same as Manchester Exchange station was to Manchester Victoria station. Or Oldham Clegg Street to Oldham Central. They were in some way joined to the hip with Tony Mansfield the songwriter for both groups. New Musik had greater chart success with Living By Numbers, Sanctuary and This World of Water their best known tunes. Oh, and their 1980 LP, From A to B is well worth a listen.
9. Next Train to Timperley, Frank Sidebottom (1990)
Our second cover version is an adaptation of The Monkees’ Last Train to Clarksville. The late great Chris Sievey, better known to many as Frank Sidebottom, had previously been in early 1980s group, The Freshies. Their place in chart history was I’m In Love With The Girl On A Certain Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk. After The Freshies split, his next incarnation saw him feature on children’s television programmes, Piccadilly Radio, and in the Oink comic.
Next Train to Timperley was one of several, gloriously unprofessional and humorous sounding cover versions and adaptations. As well as quoting the Altrincham line in its pre-Metrolink guise, there is reference to the bus routes at the time: for example, The Bee Line Buzz Company. Also the 99 and 108 services, then operated by GM Buses. Greater Manchester’s 99 has gone to bus service heaven alongside the 153 and the 400 express routes. The 108 service only has three weekday journeys – in the northbound direction. We miss the man behind the papier maché head dearly.
- Regular Metrolink trams stop at Timperley station, a short walk away from Stockport Road. This is where the statue of Frank Sidebottom is situated. It is close to Costa Coffee and the bus stop for Stockport-bound 11A buses.
10. Duke’s Travels, Genesis (1980)
For our last entry in the Not So Perfect Ten, we look at the penultimate track of Genesis’ 1980 album, Duke. Originally, the album was going to have the Duke suite in its entirety (like Supper’s Ready was in Foxtrot). This would have started with Behind The Line before finishing with Duke’s End. Sandwiched between the two would have been Duchess, Guide Vocal, Turn It On Again, and this one: Duke’s Travels.
The Duke Suite focused on the story of Albert, the gentleman on the cartoon cover art. The penultimate part was undoubtedly its crowning glory. From the beginning, we hear how the keyboard work of Tony Banks creates the hissing of a steam locomotive. He achieves this very well (almost as good as Alan Fernie’s arrangement of The Beatles’ Ticket To Ride). With Phil Collins’ drumming and Mike Rutherford’s guitar in full throttle, the rhythm is reminiscent of a train in motion. For my money, well and truly in the Champions League for train-based songs. Even better when segued with Duke’s End.
- Driving The Last Spike, Genesis (1991): one of the stand-out tracks from their 1991 LP, We Can’t Dance, it offers another perspective on the railways. This time with reference to how many flogged their guts off to build our railways. Several of which paid with their lives due to the working conditions. After reading a book on the navvies, this inspired Phil Collins to write the above tune.
Any Other Honourable Mentions?
Feel free to add a few amendments and additions to our run down. Did you think Blancmange’s version of The Day Before You Came knock the spots off ABBA’s original? Feel free to comment away.
S.V., 15 March 2017.