Perfect Sound Forever

The Clash

The story of "Train in Vain"
by Marcus Gray
(December 2010)


The following is a (slightly) abridged and adapted excerpt from Route 19 Revisited: the Clash and London Calling. The book includes chapters on the writing and recording of the album, on the packaging and promotion, and on the initial impact and long-term influence. But at its core is a section telling the tale behind each of London Calling's 19 tracks. From that section, this is the story of "Train in Vain." It's atypical in the respect that it focuses on one member of the band far more than the others, but otherwise it's fairly representative.

Like the rest of the section from which it comes, it takes its time to arrive at its destination, but it's not a gratuitous shaggy dog story. I made a conscious decision to explore each of the songs in detail and take a few diversions off the beaten track, so there are all kinds of trails and wormholes criss-crossing the album's unusually rich four-dimensional hinterland. Themes, places, people, events and inspirations recur, so that the histories speak to each other in the same way the songs do. As I once read in a David Bowie album sleeve note, the result is at once microcosmic and macrocosmic. Though, hopefully, only occasionally that pretentious.

Books of this nature are not aimed at the casual reader: they're intended for enthusiasts. And what would be the point in trying to tempt such folk with a pamphlet rehashing what they already know, or could find for free in a few minutes via the search engine of their choice? That said, I'd like to think Route 19 Revisited isn't just a wallow in Deep Clash Theory (or Shallow Clash Minutiae) for the sake of it; it's also about trying to catch an occasional glimpse of the force that through the green fuse drives the glory of rock'n'roll. As one of those Dylan guys almost put it.




"Train in Vain"

Over the years, a considerable mystique has grown around the last song on London Calling. It wasn't listed on the original LP cover, inner sleeve or label, which encouraged people to refer to it as a 'hidden extra' track. This was interpreted as a typically generous gesture from the Clash. And in a way, it was. But it wasn't pre-planned. It has its origins in something else that was even more typical of the band: a chaotic, skin-of-the-teeth rush to finish a project.

In the Clash On Broadway box set booklet, originally released in 1991, Kosmo Vinyl recounted what subsequently became the accepted version of how "Train in Vain" came to be, and how it came to be on London Calling. Continuing in the role he had assumed for the Clash's September-October 1979 Take the 5th tour of the USA, upon the band's return to London, Kosmo began discussions with the NME about a promotional freebie that would be timed to coincide with the planned release of the album in December: a flexi-disc of a previously unreleased Clash song to be attached to the UK music paper's cover.

In early November 1979, the band returned to Wessex studios in Highbury Park, London to record "Armagideon Time" for the flipside of the official UK single release, and to add a last few overdubs to several London Calling tracks prior to the final mix. At this time, when the Clash could not have needed the extra pressure less, Kosmo started badgering them to come up with something to meet the NME's looming deadline for the flexi. In the Vinyl Version, Mick Jones obligingly wrote not just the tune but also the accompanying lyric overnight, and the rest of the band put all other considerations on hold the following day to make sure the song was completed on time. Road manager Johnny Green confirms that Mick came in to start work on the song just as he and drum roadie Baker - believing all recording had been completed - were starting to clear the Clash's equipment from Wessex Studio One.

Kosmo adds a double sucker-punch line to his tale of heroic endeavour. Firstly, had he known the Clash already had unreleased songs in the can - like their cover of Booker T. and the MGs' "Time is Tight" - he would have simply offered the NME one of those, and saved the band the trouble. Secondly, even while "Train in Vain" was being recorded, he learned the NME couldn't go ahead with the flexi-disc, after all: their owners, IPC, rejected the idea out of hand. Determined to give their fans the freebie anyway, the Clash opted to put the track on London Calling instead, presenting themselves with even more frantic deadline problems.

It's a good story, but Kosmo hadn't been at Wessex throughout the main August 1979 album sessions, and was only aware of the endgame. Similarly, Johnny and Baker weren't physically in Studio One for every minute of every recording day (or night). Chief engineer Bill Price was, though, and he recalls the genesis of "Train in Vain" slightly differently. 'When we did "Train in Vain" for the NME, I seem to remember that we had done the backing track earlier, maybe under another name,' he says. 'I'm sure it was started, but not finished, before the American tour. At the time, I guess the band thought "Train in Vain" to be a pop song too far, and it was not originally scheduled to be on the album. But they were looking for something to do with it to keep Mick happy. It's Topper and Mick, not really the Clash.' When it was decided to revive it in early November, there was no time to teach Paul Simonon the bass part, and Joe Strummer had little or no interest in the track: as he told journalist Chris Bohn just a month later, he found 'jealousy and heterosexual complaining songs' boring.

Talking to Adam Sweeting in 2004, Mick implied the decision not to proceed with the flexi idea was made by the Clash rather than IPC. 'I remember we thought, "This is a bit too good to give away on the NME, so we didn't.' For 'we', read 'I.' It was Mick who was convinced that "Train in Vain" was something special, and who pushed hard for the song to be included on London Calling.

He knew the album as it stood was a showcase for his talents as a tunesmith, versatile musician, studio arranger, and even co-producer (albeit uncredited), but it was still dominated by Joe Strummer to an unprecedented degree. 'London Calling' itself - the lead track, the project-defining song - was chiefly Joe's creation. Mick had been the main writer or instigator of several lyrics on the Clash's first album, and had been practically the sole author of "Complete Control" and of Give 'Em Enough Rope's attention-grabbing "Stay Free." As of 10 November 1979, though, both proportionally and in terms of impact, he had contributed relatively few lyrical ideas to their third album, a double. More so than ever before, Mick's vocals were all over London Calling, but somehow there appeared to be less of his actual voice on the record. "Train in Vain" represented his last chance to clamber up onto the table and put that right.

'I watched the dynamic change. It was very fluid within the band, who called the shots,' says Johnny Green. 'I think, during London Calling Joe's power rose hugely. He'd been at a really low ebb with hepatitis when they were coming out of being a punk group and Mick had taken control. And then with [original Clash manager] Bernie Rhodes going [at the end of 1978], Joe had taken a bit more of a dive. But I think London Calling allowed Joe - because of his creative input, and because of his energy and dynamism - to reassert himself over the band.' Nobody could have faulted Mick's commitment or work rate during the writing and recording of the album, but - as the lyric of "Train in Vain" itself testifies - he had been unhappy and unusually unproductive as a writer for some time before that. 'Even when his star was not in the ascendant, though, Mick would never give up,' says Johnny. 'He was not going to say, "Well, OK, Joe, you take it over for a while." In that way, Mick was tough.'

Even though tacking it on as the last track on the album pulled the rug from under the big finish offered by Joe's 'Thank you, and goodnight from the band' shtick on "Revolution Rock," and even though the Clash had already pushed their record company's patience up to - and past - its limit by insisting upon including 18 tracks on the album, never mind 19. . . "Train in Vain" was added to London Calling.

What rings entirely true about Kosmo's account of "Train in Vain" is the brinksmanship involved in finishing the song. With the absolute possible final deadline for delivery to the pressing plant being 11PM on Tuesday 13 December 1979, mixing of the track - and tweaks to the rest of the album - continued throughout Monday and into the very early hours of Tuesday morning, with the sequenced playback of the now 19-track London Calling not taking place until 5AM. Bill Price then took the tapes to Tim Young at CBS studios in Whitfield Street for mastering to commence at 10AM. After a reviving nap at home, Mick joined them in the afternoon to hear the result. The album sleeve had gone to the printer days before, so he took this opportunity to have Tim etch the legend, 'Track 5 is "Train in Vain"' into the run-off groove of side 4. In more ways than one, then, Mick Jones had the last word on London Calling.



Like "I'm Not Down" and "Lonesome Me," "Train in Vain" is a Mick Jones song that makes multiple references to the classic pop of an earlier era. Former Drifters lead singer Ben E. King recorded "Stand By Me" in summer 1961, taking it to Number 4 in the USA and Number 27 in the UK, but its roots went much deeper than that. In 1905, Psalm 23, verse 4 - 'Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me- had inspired Charles Tindley, the self-educated son of slaves to write a Christian hymn entitled "Stand By Me." It was recorded by numerous other gospel artists before, in the late Fifties, the lead vocalist of gospel group the Soul Stirrers, Sam Cooke, amped up the drama in the verses by throwing in extra biblical references, and, together with the group's manager, J. W. Alexander, claimed co-authorship of the resulting "Stand By Me, Father."

The Soul Stirrers recorded it in 1960, by which time Sam Cooke had already left to go solo as a singer noted for secularizing gospel songs, in the process helping to invent what became known as soul music. Ben E. King has admitted his "Stand By Me" was based on Cooke's. He followed Sam's example in three further ways: by addressing his new lyric to a woman rather than to God or his only begotten son; by going solo when the Drifters passed on his request to record the song; and by replacing the previous composer credits with his own name and those of his co-authors, the established rock'n'roll songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

In an early Sixties popular music scene dominated by Milquetoasts idealizing teen romance, King's amended lyric sounded remarkably adult. The inspiration of Psalm 23 is still evident: sung with gospel passion, the song considers love as mutual support and succour through bad times as well as good. If it gets dark and scary, even if the world crumbles, the protagonist can make it through so long as his partner is by his side. And vice versa.

By 1968, it was a long time since country and R&B had had their baby and named it rock'n'roll, and they had pretty much D-I-V-O-R-C-E-D and gone their separate ways. But Tammy Wynette had grown up picking cotton and singing gospel, and mainstream country always kept its commercial hat on and at least one eye open. The provenly popular sentiment of Ben E. King's hit had at least a subliminal influence on "Stand By Your Man," the song Wynette co-wrote that year with her producer Billy Sherrill, especially where the song evokes 'cold and lonely' nights. While the support King advocates is anything from two-way to universal, though, Wynette's would appear to be all one-way. No matter how much your man lets you down or betrays you, she advises, forgive him, stick by him, comfort, love and support him, because, 'after all, he's just a man.' Released as a single in the USA, it reached Number 1 in the country charts and then crossed over into the mainstream chart. The album of the same name went platinum and Tammy Wynette became an instant country superstar.

In the wider world, though, response was mixed. 1967 had been the year of free love, dropping out and turning on, and 1968 itself was the year of fighting in the streets and Valerie Solanas's Society for Cutting Up Men (SCUM). The values expressed in Wynette's song might have been comforting to those who had been brought up in a world where it was traditional for women to suffer and make sacrifices, but to anyone at the cutting edge of popular culture - and the particularly edgy section where the cutting up of men was done - they seemed either hilariously or annoyingly reactionary. The folk who lived there overlooked the gentle humour of Wynette's line 'after all, he's just a man': look after him because, after all, he's just a big baby. Solanas might have been an extreme example - the Anti-Tammy - but feminists would continue to dismiss Wynette as the worst kind of role model for the rest of her life. The song's longevity didn't help. It finally made it to Number 1 in the UK in 1975, some seven years after its initial release, by which time feminism was no longer the preserve of a radical fringe.

Four years later, the Slits' brand of feminism was muddy enough in its ideology to allow them to strip naked and plaster themselves in yet more mud for the cover of their debut album Cut, but it was clear enough to inspire the oddball but irresistible avant-punk-dub composition "Typical Girls." Although attributed to the band as a whole, the lyric is by guitarist Viv Albertine. The titular girls worry about clothes, spots, fat and smells, and conform to one of two stereotypes: either they're 'femme fatales', that is, unapproachable goddesses, a reference to the Velvet Underground song of that title; or they're downtrodden drudges who 'stand by their man,' a reference - of course - to the Tammy Wynette song. The pay-off line is that the typical girl ends up with the typical boy. Viv and the Slits leave the listener in no doubt about their lack of interest in netting themselves one of those.

Whether or not he considered himself a typical boy, "Typical Girls" must have made for tough listening for Mick Jones when released as a single in September 1979. Mick and Viv had become friendly at Viv's Davis Road squat in early 1976, around the time the personnel for the Clash were being assembled. Much like Joe Strummer's then-girlfriend Palmolive, she was inspired to learn an instrument and rehearse with other people in and around the squat, including Sid Vicious and original Clash member Keith Levene. As the punk movement's identity came into sharper focus over the coming months, it revealed itself to be very much down on love and long-term or monogamous relationships. In this, it took its lead from Johnny Rotten's infamous dismissal of love as 'two minutes of squelching noises' (within a year, Rotten was involved with Nora Forster, the mother of Slits vocalist Ari Up, a relationship which has now survived for over 30 years).

The pressures of being in two different high-profile bands with rarely synchronised commitments would have made life difficult enough for Mick and Viv's relationship even if they hadn't been part of a scene with such highly charged sexual politics. She moved into Simon Close with him in spring 1979, but they finally split up over the summer. 'Mick used to cry and cry about Viv,' says Johnny Green. 'She really was quite hard on him. He rarely behaved like that with other women. He played the rock star normally, but with Viv, no. It's the only time I've ever seen him like that. She broke his heart.'

Cut was the distillation of more than two years' work, and it revealed Viv's songwriting speciality to be spiky lyrics inspired by the people she had been close to during that period: "Instant Hit," about a boy who takes heroin because he's 'set to self-destruct', concerns Keith Levene; and "So Tough" developed from a phone conversation she had with Johnny Rotten about Sid Vicious. Side two of Cut begins with a three-song suite of anti-love songs that closes with "Typical Girls." In the middle comes the sardonic "Love und Romance," fluffy (male) sentiments wrapped around vicious threats. First, though, is Viv's "Ping Pong Affair," a song in which the protagonist leaves her boyfriend sulking in his room, walks back down Ladbroke Grove alone, says that he can have his comics and records back, goes out to have fun without him... and doesn't miss him while the next six months pass. Who could this mystery man be?

Although it was probably not Viv's intention to be vindictive, her contributions to the Cut triptych amounted to a rejection of both the romantic ideal and of the person who had hoped to share a version of it with her. 1979 had already been trying enough for Mick Jones. Back in February, some of his most valued possessions had been stolen from the Pembridge Villas pad he shared with Tony James, while Mick was on the Pearl Harbor tour of the U.S. with the Clash, and Tony was in the Top of the Pops studio with Generation X. Together with the financial problems following on from the sacking of Bernie Rhodes, this event resulted in Mick briefly moving back into the tiny second bedroom in his Nan's high-rise council flat. In April, temporary replacement Clash manager Caroline Coon found him his new place in Simon Close, but evidently his month back at square one served to teach him a salutary lesson about the precariousness of the rock'n'roll life.

The other members of the Clash took their partners along for the Take the 5th tour, but Mick travelled alone. 'The Clash is everything to me. I have nothing else,' he told journalist Paul Morley at the time. 'I'm under the impression that I have given up everything else for it. I'm under the impression that I have lost everything: home, personal life, everything. So my dilemma in a way is that I resent the Clash.' This rare interview lapse into Suffering Artist Syndrome came less than two months before he completed "Train in Vain".

The song's oft-repeated chorus is, 'You didn't stand by me,' and the opening line is 'You say you stand by your man...' Literally speaking, the latter is a misrepresentation of "Typical Girls", which says the exact opposite, but the reference is clear enough to qualify "Train in Vain" as an answer song. Mick follows the chain of allusion back to Tammy Wynette and Ben E. King's earlier compositions, and offers a negative echo of both: the walls crumble, and he can't be happy or keep 'the wolves at bay' without the woman's love and support. In the third verse he goes on to detail his other tribulations - a job that doesn't pay, no home to call his own - but these pale in comparison to being dumped. Throughout, the spurned lover fixates on details from the break-up conversation(s), questions the truth of declarations of love made in happier times, feels sorry for himself, resigns himself to rejection, then comes back with more accusations, wheedles, and demands: 'you must explain!' In short, he sulks in his room.

The lyrics are unpolished - time was, after all, very tight - to the extent that three consecutive lines in the third verse start with 'but,' and the negatives pile up in the chorus, tying it up in nos and didn'ts as well as nots. Wounded, raw, repetitive and pouting, it's a painfully accurate encapsulation of a post break-up 'air-clearing conversation': the kind of post mortem that the dumpee needs to have, but the dumper would do almost anything to avoid. As would the dumpee's friends, let alone members of the general public. As the self-deprecating Mick himself commented in the album track notes he contributed to the Clash's 1980 tour programme, The Armagideon Times, 'Oh the misery of it all!'

"Train in Vain" isn't the first song about lost love on London Calling - or, for that matter, even the first song about losing one of the Slits on London Calling - but it is the most naked and direct. The Clash had already chosen to ignore many of the Commandments of Punk in making the album, but defying the edict Thou Shalt Not Sing Blatant Broken-Hearted Love Songs was the boldest and most defiant move yet, and proof, if any more were needed, that Mick Jones was no longer prepared to be shamed out of displaying his emotions - or dictated to in any way - by Johnny Rotten, Bernie Rhodes or Joe Strummer.

That said, had Mick presented the song as a haunting and fey acoustic ballad, he would quite likely have found himself sitting outside Wessex's front door wearing his guitar for a hat. Luckily, the tune to which he attached his lyric saves the day: in this case, a cocky, up-tempo strut which prevents the song coming over as too self-indulgent. The most distinctive feature is the clean, crisp, almost percussive guitar riff: according to Bill Price, courtesy of 'spring reverb on the Roland Space Echo'. Some of the other instrumentation choices were dictated by the limited time and personnel available: the Irish Horns weren't around for the November sessions, and on-loan keyboard player Mickey Gallagher had also packed up and gone back to the Blockheads. In the absence of a brass section or organ, Mick chugs along under his guitar line with a shimmering secondary harmonica riff. Topper Headon further fattens out the sound with a shaker, and gets a handclap sound out of his drums. Mick adds an occasional piano figure for emphasis. All these elements, plus the bass, are mixed so well that each can be heard clearly and distinctly, and yet they blend perfectly into an irresistible groove.

Overall, the style is familiar, but has proven difficult to pin down. This is partly because, as music theorist Patrick Clark explains, Mick has written the song in the key of A, but hasn't established that fact by using E, the dominant chord. Not for the first time on London Calling, this makes the tune modal, the mode this time being Ionic. In his 1979 album review for Sounds, Garry Bushell thought it sounded 'like the Stones bash through an early Tamla number', and that's not a million miles away: in 1965, the Rolling Stones' transitional second album caught them applying their twin-guitar-plus-harmonica R&B style to a selection of recent soul hits by Solomon Burke, Irma Thomas, Otis Redding and the Drifters. Circa 2008, an anonymous contributor to Wikipedia claimed the guitar riff owed much to that of American soul belter J. J. Jackson's 1966 US Number 22 hit "But It's Alright": it's similar, but not a straight lift. The combination of scorned lover lyric and up-tempo pop also vaguely recalls Fleetwood Mac's "Second Hand News" (1977). Then, in the closing few seconds of the song, a series of elongated harmonica trills brings to mind Pete Townshend's synthesiser work in "Baba O'Riley" (1971). And the way Mick sings 'explai-ai-ain' and 'lie-ie-ie' is very early Beatles . . . more precisely, in the latter case, very "Tell Me Why" (1964). As ever, Mick's tune and arrangement run the gamut of styles and throw their arms around the entire Canon of Popular Music.

Given the chorus, the obvious title for the song would have been "Stand By Me," but that would have been too tellingly unoriginal. In the end, Mick let the rhythm provide the name and ended up with a (presumably intentional) reference to yet another inspirational source: for their 1969 album, Let It Bleed, the Rolling Stones covered the 1937 Robert Johnson blues "Love in Vain", in which the protagonist carries the suitcase of his former lover to the station, and stands there distraught, watching as the train takes her out of his life forever.

Although they would have preferred the album to have been half the size, the Clash's American label, Epic, were glad "Train in Vain" was included. The UK single, "London Calling", was hardly designed to appeal to the American market. Lost love is a universal theme, though, and the multiple references to the familiar music of yore on Mick's late addition made it the perfect choice for the American single. The only problem was the potentially confusing title. So it was released in the USA as "Train in Vain (Stand By Me)". Joe Strummer would continue to make it clear that "Train in Vain" was not his cup of tea. Even on the live performance video of the song, shot by Don Letts at the Lewisham Odeon on 18 February 1980, Joe introduces the song by announcing that the Soul Train is about to leave from Platform 1, but 'if you don't want to come, there's always the toilets'. Again, Mick Jones laughed last: the single made the Top 30, a landmark moment in the Clash's campaign to break America.


Edited extract from Route 19 Revisited: the Clash and London Calling by Marcus Gray
published by Soft Skull in the USA in October 2010
also available from Jonathan Cape in the UK
author's website


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