Top Ten Songs About Trains
y girlfriend and I watched the rather excellent The Station Agent the other day, and about halfway through it struck me that I quite like songs about trains—whether they’re literally about locomotives, have train noises in them for one reason or another, or just use the word train somewhere in the title or lyric. My fondness is hardly surprising; in fact it’s pretty much genetic: my dad and I have a kind of unspoken competition to see who can get the most published—me with record reviews and him with pictures of steam trains.
That’s right: my dad is a trainspotter. Not only that; in his retirement he’s become a semi-professional steam-powered locomotive photographer. He often goes on holidays to Scotland in order to take pictures of trains. For my part, trains are an everyday reality of the commute and less than romantic—usually crowded, often late, rarely quiet in the “Quiet Carriage” when I try to read, and appallingly timetabled—but still, there’s something magnificent about a locomotive, even the sleekly impersonal and dirty descendants of Stephenson’s Rocket and Brunel’s Atmospheric Railway that haunt the mainlines today. Here are a handful of my favorite songs about trains.
10. Guns N’ Roses - “Night Train”
In which Axl posits himself as a “west coast struttin’ / One bad mother” with a “rattlesnake suitcase under my arm,” claims he is “loaded like a freight train / Flyin’ like an aeroplane / Feelin’ like a space brain,” and that he has been “drinkin’ gasoline,” furthermore suggesting that “honey you can make my motor hum” before finally remarking that he is able to “smoke my cigarette with style.” All in all the titular night train upon which Mr. Rose has embarked seems less like a device of locomotive transport than a thinly-disguised allegory for drink, drugs, and women of licentious morality. Ergo, #10 and no higher for you, Guns N’ Roses, with your seedy attempt to sully the good name of trains.
09. The KLF - “Last Train to Trancentral”
Just edging out the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville” by virtue of me not owning “Last Train to Clarksville” and thus being unable to re-listen to it in order to ascertain its quality, and also because the KLF’s effort reached #2 in the UK chart while the Monkees only managed a paltry #23. Also, Bill Drummond is kind of a hero of mine. Anyway, on the surface “Last Train to Trancentral” is indeed about locomotives, although I suspect we may be experiencing “train as spiritual metaphor” territory. What’s definitely not a suspicion though is the joyously stupid chant that acts as the song’s Fat Controller—“All aboard! All aboard! Ah-woah-ho!” Yes indeed.
08. Kraftwerk - “Trans-Europe Express”
Everyone’s favorite reclusive German wannabe-robots were keen on songs about transport; as well as this little inter-railing ditty, they did an entire album about the Tour de France bicycle race, plus Autobahn to boot. But “Trans-Europe Express” does exactly what it says on the ticket, propelling the listener from Berlin to the Champs-Elysées, before taking us back to Düsseldorf to meet “Iggy Pop und David Bowie.” Quite.
07. John Coltrane - “Blue Train”
It’s jazz, and the kind of jazz that comes without any words to boot, not even words about trains. It doesn’t sound much like a train either, in the scheme of things (certainly not the way “Trans-Europe Express” does), but it is fast and timeless and by a man with train (almost) in his name, so it gets a pass.
06. The Blue Nile - “From a Late Night Train”
“From a late night train / The little towns go rolling by / And people in the station / Going home / It’s over now / I know it’s over / But I love you so.” Never has a train journey sounded so wistfully mournful as when documented by the Blue Nile.
05. Simon & Garfunkel - “Homeward Bound”
Not that you’d know from the vaguely-pining-for-home-w/r/t-chosen-modes-of-transport lyrics, but Paul Simon wrote the typically beautiful “Homeward Bound” whilst sitting on the platform at Widness train station in England, no doubt during a drizzly shower of rain. Simon was, surprise surprise, at the start of the long journey back home to New York (where else); once he got there he may have experienced feelings similar to those detailed in our next song…
04. Interpol - “NYC”
Paul Banks’ obtuse non-sequiturs are seldom less than cringeworthy. “The subway she is a porno” he wails in “NYC” (an acronym for “New York Cares” rather than “New York City,” I believe). All those tunnels, you see—so obviously vulva-esque; no doubt he sees his masculinity as a steaming train ploughing through the tunnels under the steam-whipped streets of the world’s most romanticized city. And then (possibly), he moans that he has “Got to get some more trains in my life.” What? A strange man, this Mr. Banks; although he almost makes me pine for a loco-erotic adolescence that wasn’t even mine.
03. Electrelane - “Gone Darker”
It’s the duty of every post-rock band to sound like a train on at least one song. I can’t think of anyone who’s gone about it quite so literally as Brighton’s (not actually post-rockers at all) Electrelane though; “Gone Darker” doesn’t just make with the motorik rhythms, it opens with distant, crepuscular train whistles and steam vents that creep ominously closer, until the train practically rolls right over the listener, prostrate and tethered-to-the-tracks. Saxophones assume the call of the train whistle, the pace picks up, and the doom-laden atmosphere makes Godspeed You! Black Emperor sound like...
02. Kylie - “The Loco-Motion”
Not entirely convinced that this is about a train per se, but I’ll let it pass. (No such luck, however, for the Clash’s excellent but not-about-trains “Train in Vain”—trying to fool me, were you?) Let’s see; “Loco” + “motion” = “mad” + “movement” = dancing, surely? The lyrics do at least compel one to “chugga-chugga motion like a railrod train now” though. Kylie’s early hit cover of Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion” (written by Gerry Goffin and Carol King, and also performed, lest we forget, by Grand Funk Railroad) made small waves in the States, but it cemented her status, on the coat-tails of “I Should Be So Lucky,” as a bona fide pint-sized popstarlet in the UK. I doubt she’s traveled on a train herself in many a moon, but she sure did make a lot of eight-year-old girls pretend to be Ivor The Engine once upon a time.
01. Augie March - “This Train Will Be Taking No Passengers”
The metronomic rhythm; the breathless pacing of the vocal melody; the repeated cry of “trraaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiin!!!” that signifies the whistle of a hurrying, puffing locomotive—Augie March’s accelerant number from their superb Strange Bird album is a masterpiece of the “train song” sub-sub-genre. Not only are there enough tenuous musical adumbrations for me to argue semi-convincingly that it sounds like a train, there’s also enough pioneering spirit and sand-blasted leather imagery for one to imagine, while listening, that rather than sitting in a bedroom of a semi-detached house in 2007 one is actually aboard a bustling locomotive loaded with pilgrims, pariahs, and petty crooks heading out for the Wild West to make a living rustling horses and distilling liquor through prostitutes’ pants. That Augie March are Australian and I am English is almost of no matter.