This month – January 2013 – marks an important transport anniversary, the 150th anniversary of the first London Underground line, therefore the 150th annniversary of the first underground system in the world. It is kinda hard to imagine what an earth London would be like without it’s dense and complex transport system, and so to see the warm reception to the celebrations has been really quite great in a city as cynical as London.
Transport has been in the news for other reasons this week, too, with the announcement of the HS2 route at last, and god only knows how many stories about issues during the recent snow and now rain.
Anyway, keeping this to just London would have been hard, so I’ve widened it out – songs about transport. Getting from A to B, etc, and trying to cover as many modes as possible (I have to admit, though, that I struggled to find a decent song about air travel that I could fit in).
Down in the Tube Station at Midnight
All Mod Cons
Being underground isn’t, and hasn’t, always been a good place to be, particularly late at night. CCTV, better lighting and perhaps more staff on platforms generally has made things safer nowadays, but back when this was written, the Underground had a more unpleasant reputation, as this song so clearly articulates. There is a feeling of menace and dread all the way through the song, but particularly in the intro, as the train recedes into the distance, and that bassline sounds so ominous.
Mind The Gap
Mind The Gap
I’ve mentioned the quite wonderful Metroland recently, of course, when I came across them at BIMFest, and I couldn’t miss them from this list. Their entire album is based around the idea of urban transport, with all kinds of nods to the London Underground in particular – from the Harry Beck-inspired cover art, to the song glorifying the same man, to the glorious Theme From Metroland (Metroland being the region of North West London that pretty much evolved thanks to the Underground, and the “Met” in particular, hence the name), and onto this – a lower-key, almost ambient track that uses vocal samples from announcements on the tube – in other words, the oh-so-common backdrop to a Londoner’s day.
Trans Europe Express
Trans Europe Express
And yes, from there to their spiritual forebears in Kraftwerk – who perhaps more than any other musical act, glorified transport in various forms. Particularly those that were sleek, modern and forward looking. So there was their epic trip down the Autobahn, and much later there was their nods to the Tour de France. But in between, there this the celebration of the new Europe, manifested in the sleek network of the TEE, cream and crimson trains shooting across Western Europe. And the sound of the song – the beat like the chug of the train down the track, en route to some destination in the distance – seemed to epitomise that new vision, sounding as modern as the trains were. Ironically enough the TEE didn’t survive that much longer, replaced instead by the various High Speed Trains like the TGV and ICE, and EuroCity trains crossing a now much-enlarged Europe. As I proved in December, too, you can still cross pretty vast distances in a day (Prague to Antwerp, in my case).
Nowadays, the Underground is littered with adverts for dating services, perhaps the best captive audience they will ever find. And perhaps few songs detail the loneliness of travelling than this one, full of desire and more than anything hope. In this case of seeing the object of his affections one more time on the train into ‘town, before seeing his journey return to mundanity by her non-appearance.
Folsom Prison Blues
With His Hot and Blue Guitar
The train has been the subject of many, many songs over the years, covering all kinds of stories and imagery, but The Man In Black’s famous prison ballad uses the train as a metaphor for escape, as the protagonist muses about the mistakes in his life that have led him to be behind bars in Folsom Prison, and he hears the passing trains and the people that have their freedom within them, and fantasises about what it would be like to be with them.
Talking of fantasies…here’s Alison Goldfrapp with a (very) different take on the rhythm of a train. This is perhaps heading for a destination, of sorts, but one that is most definitely not (directly) about transport… So taking the ideas of Kraftwerk (TEE) and Prince (Little Red Corvette, another song with transport metaphors but absolutely not the subject!), and leading them down a different route.
The Pleasure Principle
Finally heading off the rails, let’s head to the one vehicle that has perhaps done more than any other to reduce the romance of the train – cars. And where else could we start other than Numan’s iconic retro-futurism, and the song that has perhaps become his best-known across wider culture. A love letter to the inside of the car, the safest place he can think of mentally and physically. The casualty figures may suggest otherwise, Gary…
No Particular Place to Go
St. Louis to Liverpool
A song that initially suggests another ode to the joys of cars and driving, and in particular sharing that sunny day with his girlfriend, as the song goes on it transpires that the protagonist actually does have a destination in mind, but is scuppered by a stuck seat belt…Not the first song to celebrate cars and girls, and not the last, either – something the Beach Boys became even more famous for around the same time.
From the sunny streets of the southern United States, to the grimy, northern streets of Sheffield, where Pulp perform one of their greatest character sketches, of joyriding teenagers up-to-no-good, who like women and “might even meet some one day“. I’ve never been exactly sure where the term came from (Dictionary.com helpfully suggests it is much older than I thought), but I certainly remember that the late 80s and early 90s were a time when there was a particular hysteria about it in the UK.
Death of A Bike Thief
This Life Is Where You Get Fucked
Lastly, from four wheels to two wheels, and JP Anderson is really, really pissed. The reason is pretty simple – some fucker has stolen his bike. In many cities, of course, those bikes are dead useful (I have one myself, but must confess I’ve not cycled into work as much as I should have done in the past year), but it appears generally agreed that London has some catching up to do. But here, it is made out to be rather more important than just being a mode of transport, and I hope that whoever did steal it, owned up in the end…