Feb 242012

Great Scotsman!

I fondly imagine that the homes of most Town Folk are filled with music for much of the time, and have been since childhood.

As I have mentioned previously, Mrs Happiness mistrusts as a matter of course any of the music I enjoy, having awoken once too often to the dulcet strains of Trout Mask Replica, Oar, a bootleg tape of Smile, or something by the Incredible String Band while dozing with our eldest still on board as I tested the theory that babies will respond positively once born to music they have heard in the womb.

Consequently, although music plays almost constantly in my head, almost all of my actual listening is through headphones, as is the (electric) piano practice of our first-born. I will occasionally pluck up the courage to strum an electric guitar unamplified as far away from where she sits reading as possible, but mostly we enjoy a house full of silence, punctuated only by the bickering of children and the happy screams of an over-stimulated 5 year old trying to use up the last of his energy before bedtime.

I am quite used to it, having grown up in an environment where music might as well not existed. Mrs H’s dislike of The Rock and All Of Its Doings is nothing compared to the pathological disdain exhibited by my Father towards any music other than the big bands of Glenn Miller or Joe Loss, whose records he still wouldn’t have in the house. It came as a real shock when I discovered a few years ago that he and my Mother met at a weekly dance: I had to go and listen to Trout Mask Replica, Oar, Smile, or something by the Incredible String Band to get over it.

When I was about 4 or 5, he brought home a Radiogram, comprising a high-end-of-the-market record player and a fantastic looking valve radio that lit up when it was switched on but which despite many Dad and Son hours trailing a long aerial made of pink plastic out of the back and through the house in a variety of directions we never actually succeeded in getting it to work. It was a great big piece of furniture as tall as me at the time and wide enough for myself and both of my younger sisters to lay behind end-to-end without any part of us sticking out, and speakers more than adequate to provide cover during games of hide and seek. I was not supposed to touch it, but eventually he gave up trying to stop me as I acquired records of my own and demonstrated vinyl-handling techniques to his satisfaction.

The coming of the Radiogram heralded the arrival of a box-set, or at least a large number of albums encased in an Apple Green vinyl sleeve with gold lettering. Dad would wake up on a Sunday morning, make a cup of tea, repair to the front room and the house would be full of the sound of these records, played at quite startling volume.

I can’t remember exactly how many records there were in the set, although the number 12 seems to have stuck in my memory.

Side one began with a rush of steam, the closing of doors and a whistle, then a slow clanking growing faster, as the Flying Scotsman – brought into service on the 24th February 1923 – set off on its record-breaking journey from London to Edinburgh, a journey of eight hours on the fastest steam train of them all.

It has been said many times that Lou Reed‘s Metal Machine Music is repetitive; some even find it boring, but at least it doesn’t simply go CHUFF-chuff-chuff-chuff CHUFF-chuff-chuff-chuff across 24 sides of vinyl without respite, apart from having to either flip them over or change the record. Neither does it take 6 minutes longer than my average working day plus a half-hour lunch break to listen to in its entirety. Mum would take us out for the day and we’d get home in plenty of time for the final WHOOOOOOOSSSSSSSSHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH as the driver opened the thingy to let the steam out. Lou may have thought that he looked cool in those specs on the cover, but compared to this baby he wasn’t even trying.

Here is a 28-second clip of this magnificent machine in action, which is probably enough for most of us, but there are many more hours on YouTube if you feel inspired to investigate further.

I have searched high and low across the internet for a copy of the set, mainly to prove to myself that it wasn’t just a figment of my imagination, and to confirm how many records it did actually contain, but have drawn a complete blank. A considerable body of evidence would suggest that the bulk of them have ended up in Germany, while something more than circumstantial evidence points to Malcolm McLaren and Brian May having owned them as well.

It was about halfway through the 1970s when I started to notice that the history contained in those grooves had started to permeate popular music. There was something quite CHUFF-chuff-chuff-chuff-y about the disco records of Giorgio Moroder and others coming out of Europe – take a listen to the drums on Donna Summer‘s “Love To Love You Baby” (on which the CHUFF-chuff-chuff-chuff-iness is at its most pronounced) and “I Feel Love.” One can almost picture Giorgio sitting in his studio in Berlin, his mates encouraging him to come down the pub for a pie and a pint, and being sent away because he had only got to side seven of the Flying Scotsman box set.

And then – during the session – the drummer playing along with side 11 for 17 minutes and 4 seconds while the bassist tries anything he can think of to distract the listener from the traininess of it.

And finally the executives at Casablanca: “Hey Giorgio, we think this instrumental has something, but how about getting Donna Summer to fake an orgasm for quarter of an hour over it to stop it sounding quite so trainy?”

By now the steam-driven floodgates were wide open, 1977 bringing the greatest album side ever in the history of album sides which sounded exactly like a train: Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express.” They may claim that it was inspired by German trains, but I bet if you took a look around Kling Klang you’d not have to look far to find that great heap of vinyl in its green plastic cover with gold lettering, full of proto-techno promise.

I will spare the Hall clips of Malcolm McLaren’s protegees Bow Wow Wow and Adam and the Ants, and even in the midst of their schism Malcy’s copy must surely have inspired not only the drumming on most early PiL records but also the Metal Box the second album came in – they may have all told the music papers that they were inspired by the Burundi drummers, but that sure sounds like the LNER Class A3 4472 rumbling from London to Edinburgh to me.

I considered posting a clip of Queen doing “We Will Rock You” – if that wasn’t inspired by a ruddy great green engine clattering along at 100 mph then my name’s not Stan and my other half isn’t called Mrs Happiness.

She definitely wouldn’t like this one: Can, looking and sounding like they’ve reached side 23 with the prospect of just one more to go.

Happy birthday Flying Scotsman, harbinger of Great Rock Things!


  20 Responses to “On This Day in History: The Roots of Euro-Disco, Kraut-Rock, including Kraftwerk (also Queen) and Crashy, Bashy, Hitting Things White “Tribal” Percussion-Type Music”

  1. Here’s a somewhat odd train-related song…Kevin Ayer’s “Stop This Train” from his 1969 album Joy of a Toy.

  2. Happiness Stan

    Love that album, have spent years puzzling over how it can be possible to adore Kevin Ayers’ solo output so enthusiastically, but be unable to bear anything by Soft Machine.

  3. Easy: Ayers avoids all that proto-fusion wanking on his solo albums. We could get into a really obscure thread someday: Most Tasteful Musician in a Band Full of Prog-Fusion Wankers:) Peter Blegvad, for instance, played with that Slapp Happy/Henry Cow crowd all those years, managing to write “regular” songs to be performed with his bandmates between all the pretentious stuff (some of which I like, by the way).

  4. tonyola

    It’s probably because Ayers was only one leg of the Soft Machine stool. The band also had the inimitable Robert Wyatt who straddled the rock/jazz fence and organist Mile Ratledge who was committed to the jazz-fusion camp. Ayers left after the quirky first album and the band became jazzier. By the fourth album, the journey to fusion wankery was complete and that’s the point where my own interest in Soft Machine vanishes.

  5. Here’s a slightly offensive question, but I don’t ask it to be a dick: If Robert Wyatt had not fallen out of a window and gotten paralyzed would his musical legacy have been anywhere near as legendary as it is? I’m not asking this to suggest there’s some “sympathy” for his paralysis behind his status, but to wonder whether he would have been able to make the albums he made after his accident if he’d still been able to make that jazz-fusion-prog stuff he was doing with Soft Machine. In other words, would have have been thought of as nothing more than “one of those prog guys only people like tonyola care about.” And this is not to cut on tonyola and other dedicated prog fans. I have tried a couple of Soft Machine albums but always found them to be somewhere between the earlier hippie-ish King Crimson records and Genesis. Did Wyatt display any of his future unusual solo talents while he was playing paradiddles with Soft Machine?

  6. Before his accident, Wyatt had already gotten some notice with his two 1971-1972 Matching Mole albums. The name is a play on “machine molle”, which is French for Soft Machine. He had also put out a very experimental (read: almost unlistenable) free-jazz solo album called The End of an Ear. With the Mole, he was already showing a penchant for love ballads and oddball artsongs as well as jazzier material. I’ve posted “O Caroline” from the first MM album. Also, Wyatt has claimed that most of the music for Rock Bottom had already been written before his accident. I suppose he would have divided his energy between the song-oriented stuff and jazzy material had he not been paralyzed. He probably would have been more prolific too.

  7. 2000 Man

    Did you know that Mobile Fidelity, the inventors of the niche “audiophile” recording market, first released recordings of things like trains and ferry’s? I don’t get that at all.

    My dad used to listen to the weirdest stuff. He loved showtunes and classical music, but he thought Switched on Bach and Tomita were fantastic, too. I still remember him lsitening to a radio show of non rhythmic music one afternoon. Parts of it sounded like a baby clanking pots and pans and parts of it sounded like birds. I couldn’t stand it. But at least he didn’t have train noises!

  8. misterioso

    (In Homer Simpson voice) I like trains.

  9. BigSteve

    Does anyone else know what Stan is on about? I can’t make it out.

  10. Happiness Stan

    Sorry Steve, I am attempting to make a case for recordings of steam trains, in this case a box set of albums lasting eight hours and containing nothing but the recording of a single journey, being influential in the history of rock.

  11. Stan, would you consider Sinead’s Mandinka a example of the genre?


    Seems to chug-a-long pretty good to me! Her new album is surprisingly good.

  12. BigSteve

    Don’t apologize, I was teasing you. I don’t think anyone denies that mechanical rhythms have played an increasing role in rock/pop music. Even before beats were created by actual machines — sequencers started to become widely available in the 70s — people heard the effects of industrialization in the regular rhythms of electric blues and rock. I’ve just never heard that influence sourced back to steam trains. Insert steampunk reference here.

  13. Happiness Stan

    They’re trying to hide it well down in the mix, but there’s a definite sense of a little engine oil oozing from the joints there, yes.

  14. ladymisskirroyale

    This is another example of the excellent rock investigative reporting for which I turn to this site!

    Thank you for providing additional information to indicate that Train Spotters could also be Train Listeners. Is there a correlation? Was your father also a Train Spotter?

    HS, you also (inadvertently) provided additional video evidence of the seeds for the evolution of another important music video highlight. While watching Donna Summer’s video, I was too distracted by the horrible male dancer in the mid-ground. Not only was he a horrible dancer in the way that only Germans can be but his blinding, all-white ensemble clearly was the forerunner for these guys:

    Just change the lycra to black you have Mike Meyers et al. at their finest! And their musical choice, Kraftwerk, clearly indicates that they were thinking along the same vein as you. Zeitgeist!

  15. ladymisskirroyale

    I’ve also always enjoyed “train-inspired” music; perhaps there is something in the English DNA linking us to trains? Here’s a favorite from a very train-inspired album, Love and Rockets “Express.” This track, “Yin and Yang the Flower Pot Man” is example of the less-known offshoot, Eastern spiritual train music. Note the galloping beat, the initial lyric’s mention of a train, and the evocation of a train whistle at 1:30. I could also suggest that the later guitar squealing is meant to suggest the brakes on the rails:


  16. ladymisskirroyale

    I’m sorry, but that station does not look authentic. How could the National Railway Museum condone that!

  17. Peter Blegvad wrote the song I hope to someday dance with my daughter at her wedding “Daughter”, covered here by Loudon Wainwright: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVam-fshUgw

  18. I thoought I read that Wyatt and Sof Machine parted ways because he didn’t want to ditch the vocals and go for the straight instrumental fusion that they moved into. Wyatt was a great drummer, really capable of that fusion thing, but I think he saw that as one of the ingredients for his stew, not as a stand alone entree.

  19. Ellington was big on train rhythms. I have a live recording from a show in 1940 (Fargo, ND) and underlying it all is the rhythm of the rails, The Ellington band traveled by train and the Duke wrote a lot of his stuff aboard the train at the time.

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