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

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Train Songs No. 4: ‘The Last of the Steam-Powered Trains’ by The Kinks

  1. Dave Quayle

    I love the concept of your blog, not least because I’m presuming its title references Randy Newman’s cowboy song ‘Rider in the rain’. I commuted for a decade and in that time was amused by a paperback that was published by Paladin under the authorship of one ‘Tiresias’ entitled ‘Notes from overground: a commuter’s notebook’, its cover bearing the legend “Man is born free and is everywhere in trains.” As far as ‘The last of the steam powered trains goes’ I think its one of the Ray Davies’s best compositions and I would beg to suggest that your crack about that riff “albeit in this case one lifted pretty straight from Howlin’ Wolf” undervalues its wit. I’ve always taken Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Smokestack lightning’ to be a train song, so the juxtaposition of one of those big bellowing American loco chimneys – sparks floating up in the night sky – with a good old British branch line tank engine is particularly staisfying.

    Reply
    • James Attlee Post author

      Thanks, Dave. Of course you’re right about Smokestack Lightning being a train song. So Dave Davies has just diverted the riff down a branch line, as you say. The complexities go on and on. I am sure you have a good story for me about your commuting years… How did you pass your time on the train? Did you have any unusual encounters?

      Reply
  2. Dave Quayle

    My commute was between Euston and Milton Keynes. When I started in the ’80s the motive power on the best rush hour trains was still electric locomotives. Early in the second week the loco failed and then the relief loco failed. We are talking hours here. I was reading Umberto Eco’s ‘the name of the rose’. I was really into it. By the time the relief relief loco got going I was feeling great frustration because the train was going to get into MK before I was going to finish it, still had 15 pages to go. On the whole commuting was a civilised buffer zone between work and home for me. I got a lot of reading done.

    Reply
    • James Attlee Post author

      Dave, thank you for this contribution. I am going to write about the importance of reading on the train in the blog in coming weeks. Trains were, of course, the first mass transportation that provided a smooth enough ride to enable reading (stage-coaches lurched too much), leading to the proliferation of station bookstalls throughout the United Kingdom (notably the WH Smith chain) and around the world. Books (whether printed or electronic) offer a portal through which we can escape our circumstances and also change our relationship to the space-time continuum — suddenly your frustration is not at being delayed but at being about to arrive. It has often struck me how break-downs in transport technology, (for instance, your failed loco), present us with opportunities that end up enriching our lives; (books finished, conversations with other passengers begun, new communities formed). We just have to see ‘em right.

      Reply