Memory Songs

By James Cook

A personal journey into the music that shaped the 90s

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Do You Remember the First Time? #5. The Clash

Although Joe was the chief inspiration in the Clash, the tune that recalls the first summer in London is one of Mick Jones’, ‘Train In Vain’. It is the slightest of songs, bolstered only by handclaps, harmonica, a shiver of tape-echo delay, and a shaker that arrives towards the end, to add some jalapeno heat. It’s all about feel; Topper Headon’s drum introduction sits perfectly, is neither too fast nor too slow. The restless octave riff in A, achieved by stabbing, and ‘damping’ the strings, underscores the urgency of the lyric. The key line, at 19 going on 20, aswim in a strange new city -- giddy, insecure, afraid – was the one in verse three about having a job that didn’t pay, needing new clothes, a place to stay. There is a suggestion of the lament figure in the bassline too, developed later in the bridges: D – C sharp – B minor. It’s slight, but it’s there, lending the song the yearning it needs. But ultimately, it’s the eager appeal of Jones’s vocal that is compelling. He’s asking for solidarity, for someone to stand by him, for belief when no one else believes. A peculiarly male vulnerability snakes through the song, a nakedness, a hint of desperation even.

There was only one disappointment: no mention of a train.

I spent my days on trains. Rising early to the sound of Radio One, I’d descend to the Victoria Line, change at King’s Cross, emerge at Tottenham Court Road, note the soft, discouraged, bluish sky, and buy a Melody Maker at the newsstand. Then I’d pack the bag in Sleeves’ cramped office, and set off for the first drop. The Fire Station on Stoke Newington High Street usually; a gritty road, long before its Crouch End-ification. Then Liverpool Street, Goldhawk Road, Holborn Circus – taking cheques from office workers in chinos, the bag becoming gradually lighter. Then back on the train. Being underground for so long would play strange tricks with the eyesight. Coming up for air at Blackfriars station, emerging beside the Thames at water level, the sun would burst on the surface, blindingly.

Soon I could find my way around the tube system with my eyes shut, like a salmon swimming upstream. But it wasn’t wise to become too confident. Sometimes, taking a wrong turn, you could find yourself facing oncoming traffic, as it were. It was terrifying, the pleasure the mob took in crushing you. And the concomitant pleasure you took in defying them.

For a break I would drop in at Bestie’s, off Baker Street, run by a certain George Best. You could see him on the bar’s payphone at midday, toxic bloat hidden by a full beard, glass of pinot grigio in hand. A soft, smiling, bemused presence. It was around the time of the disastrous, drunken interview on Wogan. He was lost, but there remained an ineffable air of greatness about him, a bearing that bespoke past glories.

After this I’d kill an hour in John’s Café on Chalk Farm Road, an old Strummer haunt. It was opposite Rehearsal Rehearsals, where the Clash used to practice. Here I could read the Melody Maker, and string out a strong, sour tea.

London in 1988 still had a whiff of the 1970s. You could smoke on buses, and, until the year before, on the tube: the ban was only put in place after the 1987 King’s Cross fire. The IRA were still active. Pubs closed at two and opened again at six. Not much was open at all on a Sunday. No Tescos Metro at the end of the street (almost certainly still a pub). Earnest young men in holey jumpers and crumpled shirt collars sold Socialist Worker at tube exits. London in the late eighties was still quaintly politicized – a Citizen Smith-like idealism – before everyone gave up in the face of the global super-economy. 

After a small, provincial market town, the metropolis came as an overwhelming shock. Sometimes I wonder if it would be easier for a teenager today, used to surfing the web. In 1988, London was the internet, a rapid, bewildering succession of violent, erotic images, all of them transient and unsatisfying. And then the contrast when you returned to your bedsit, and it was switched off.

Everyday you met the world head on: litter, dog-shit, delays, confusion, overcrowding, graffiti, ever-present opportunities for violence. Sordid odours of sweat and stale urine on the tube. Entire carriages of commuters nodding out over their Evening Standards (‘Theatre-goers are getting used to stepping over bodies in the Strand . . .’), the first kids my age begging . . . 

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