Train Songs No. 4: ‘The Last of the Steam-Powered Trains’ by The Kinks
How to summarise the song-writing genius of Ray Davies? At certain moments he seems to capture the soul of England, in all its pathos, absurdity and beauty, better than anyone else. For long periods he has disappeared from view, returning each time with a face a little craggier, hair a little less full but that thin-lipped impish smile, eerily reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman, always in place. This is a vintage performance from the vaults of the BBC, recorded in 1969, dry ice turning the studio into a steam-era station.
Like the last of the good ol’ puffer trains,
I’m the last of the blood and sweat brigade,
And I don’t know where I’m going, or why I came, sings Davies.
By choosing a steam train as the subject of his song – indeed, by identifying himself as one – Davies taps instantly into a vein of nostalgia for a vanishing world; but it isn’t really trains he’s worried about, it’s all the other things that are disappearing: the North London culture he grew up surrounded by and that lives so vividly in his songs, the friendships of his youth, the British working class itself.
Like the last of the steam powered trains
I’m the last of the good old renegades.
All my friends are middle class and grey
but I live in a museum, so that’s OK.
The world in Davies’ songs does indeed feel like a museum. He’s still young and hip, but he sees forwards in time with a prophet’s vision that marks him as spectrally old: all this richness, the complexity of the world he knows, will slip out of focus, to be replaced by Starbucks, Facebook, The X-Factor. Before it goes he is intent on capturing it all on vinyl, an anthropologist in his own back yard.
He’s the poet laureate of small, overlooked things, from sunsets on Waterloo Bridge to custard pies and Desperate Dan comic strips, and once he’s catalogued them and they are combined with brother Dave’s killer guitar riffs (albeit in this case one lifted pretty straight from Howlin’ Wolf), they gain an immortality of sorts. That’s the only way he knows as an artist to counter the stranglehold of conformity that has mutated his friends into nine-to-fivers. He’s not ready to clean up and settle down – all this peaceful living is driving him insane.
But Davies isn’t just a sentimentalist. Of course he knows the technology he’s singing about is an obsolete pile of junk; by implication, so is he – one of the scum and soot brigade. The world’s probably got no more place for a Muswell Hillbilly than it has for a good old steam-powered train. But he wasn’t ready to give up the struggle all those years ago and it seems, from what we see and hear, he still isn’t ready. In fact, as he promises in this song, he may well keep rollin’ to his dying day.
To listen to the song, click here
This entry was posted in Train Songs, trains and tagged soul music, trains on .