I’m sure you remember a train journey like this…
It was bright and sunny when you boarded the train but dark clouds rolled in and now it has started to rain. All you can see in the window is a few orange streetlights outside and the reflection of the seats and the passengers inside the carriage. It feels as if you’re wrapped in a cocoon. You’ve read the paper, eaten your sandwich, finished your coffee. Those around you are hidden behind books or staring vacantly into space, each with their own private thoughts. Dull, drab people. It’s going to be a long and boring ride.
You settle back in your seat, close your eyes and listen to the rhythmic clattering of the wheels and the gentle hum from the air conditioning vents. Your thoughts turn to home: the walks in the park, the restaurants, the nights out with friends. We had some fun, didn’t we? Lost in reverie you could be going anywhere – another town, another time, another world – it doesn’t matter.
Nothing captures that sense of being carried along effortlessly in the belly of a big metal snake quite like Stop This Train (Again Doing It). It starts slowly with a low, pulsing unidentifiable sound. Gradually the thrumming speeds up and rises in pitch like a steam train huffing and puffing as it pulls out of the station. Soon there’s a steady, infectious beat: tum ti tum tum, tum TI tum tum, tum ti tum tum, tum ti tum tum … The train is rolling down the track … and it will go on for ever. Nothing can stop it now.
There’s hardly any tune, just an insistent bass, dead string guitar, a tambourine, a little bit of tinkly piano and the prominent rasp of an electronic organ all rocking along to the rhythm of metal wheel on metal track. A voice begins to describe the scene. We’re on a railway train to anywhere, watching the world go by, when a peculiar incident interrupts the monotony. The driver says he sees no stations and we’re riding aimlessly. This alarming comment stops the listener in his tracks.
While we wait to see how things develop the singer paints a picture of the scene in the carriage. Sleepy passengers going nowhere for the ride. Conversation aimed at anyone, bouncing questions off the wall. Two excited children burning caterpillars in the hall. Crikey! We seem to have a mad driver and some cruel, depraved children. This is scary!
The vocalist thinks so, too. “All at once I got quite frightened”, he sings. “Stop this train and let me out!” But the driver just smiles and shakes his head. The narrator is trapped on this ghost train with unconcerned, zombie passengers. The organ wails and warbles louder as the carriages thunder on through the gloom. Tum ti tum tum, tum TI tum tum …
A flat hand high on the organ keyboard creates two blasts of a badly tuned train whistle; piano and organ notes flutter and swirl around. The train rumbles rhythmically on.
Then things become utterly surreal.
Someone came and gave me sandwiches,
Saying that I looked unwell.
He took my pulse and he gave it back to me,
And then he hit me with his bell.
Then, finally, our terrified traveller is offered a way out. “Step outside and walk this way”, says the pulse-taking passenger, pushing open the door. Eager to escape the fearful madness inside the carriage the narrator goes to the door and looks out, but all he can see is a blinding white light. More organ notes skip and scurry along wildly, like a manic laugh rising in pitch as the tempo increases and slowly fading as the train rolls away down the track and disappears into the distance.
Do you remember a journey like that? A time when you had fallen asleep on the train and when you opened your eyes you were looking straight into the sun? Do you remember the dream you had then? That sense of helplessness as you watched events that were beyond your control? The weirdness that can only occur in dreams? I’m sure you do. And when he wrote Stop This Train Kevin Ayers must have done, too, because he captures it perfectly.