The Price We Pay For Progress: I Like Trains Live & Historical Rock

As I Like Trains bring their songs of death and the past to the Jazz Cafe, Luke Turner is on hand to ask why history isn't more of a source of inspiration to songwriters.

Photo by Eleonora Collini

I Like Trains’ narrative – briefly feted, dropped by a big indie, now surviving by PledgeMusic, forever mired by that terrible name that really doesn’t do them justice – would on a glib level rather fit their aesthetic: The Book Of Heroic Failures in musical form, a serious and bookish collection of songs about natural disaster, humanity’s self-destructive idiocy, dead explorers, plagues, murderers and the like. But that’s only part of the picture.

For at the heart of every supposedly hopeless case are a band (musical or otherwise) of plucky souls battling against the odds, no matter what the odds might throw at them. That’s the position I Like Trains find themselves in.

They start their set in the Jazz Cafe in bold fashion by airing what’s arguably their finest moment, ‘Terra Nova’. It’s accompanied on the screens behind the band with their animation of small figures tracing Captain Scott’s route to the South Pole and not quite far enough of the way back again. It remains one of my favourite music videos – simply executed, with a care that so many of the form lack, and as ever seems to provoke an irksome piece of dust to land in my eye…

There then follows a run through of the rest of the band’s recently reissued Progress Reform long player. Normally these classic (or not) album entirety gigs are dispiriting affairs – you know exactly what’s coming next. But in I Like Trains’ hands it seems to work, perhaps because each song is such a perfectly crafted narrative, a history lesson in miniature.

Very few bands have nailed integrating songs with post rock ‘there’s a big sky there’ quite as well as I Like Trains – as I’ve written before, they’re a perfect meeting of Mogwai at their most stately, the gothic drama of Suede’s Dog Man Star, and British Sea Power’s sense of yearning. Arguably there’s a similarity at play throughout the music – whirling guitar interludes, rolling toms, calving glacier climaxes – but they act as the glorious canvas on which these meticulously researched songs are delivered in David Martin’s rich baritone vocals.

In fact, most of the rapt crowd (apart from a few chatting pricks I’d gladly leave in Scott’s last camp for the winter season) seem on the verge of bursting into song throughout. The deep timbre of the songs rather lends themselves to communal, hymnal singing. It’d certainly be educational to put I Like Trains on the school curriculum for historical songs of doomed explorers and railway rationalisation.

After Progress Reform, the band head into other parts of the encyclopedia of their back catalogue – ‘The Deception’ (about Donald Crowhurst, who vanished off his boat after trying to falsify his position in a round the world yachting race), ’25 Sins’ (the Fire of London) and ‘Spencer Perceval’ (the sole British Prime Minister to have been assassinated).

Most would argue that it’s not very sexy, and on most levels you’re probably right. I, though, have always had the appreciation for a submariner’s gasp under horsehair blanket, or the final touch of a lover’s skin before a train pulls out towards the front. Death can, after all, be a mighty aphrodisiac, and the past is full of the greatest romances – doomed and otherwise – ever told.

Apart from Fat White Family’s disgusting back seat fiddle with indie rock, the form is currently in a state of rather bland stasis, content merely to make pretty sounds and shake its hair. It makes a refreshing change, as it always did, to hear musicians who clearly spend so much time considering and researching lyrics. History has been going for as long as love, and it’s a shame that more artists haven’t chosen to mine it for inspiration and words.

When it does happen, it tends to be in the musical outer reaches and often connected to soundtracks – see Simon Fisher Turner’s recent wonderful accompaniments to The Epic Of Everest and The Great White Silence, or his work with Derek Jarman’s queer history play, Edward II. Horns up for metal’s noble tradition of exploring histories mythic or real. There’s folk, of course, but that has become overly mired in nostalgia for an arcadian golden age that never existed anyway, the songs become sepia-tinged postcards from a forgotten age. (It’s surely a tragedy that even much of folk music’s more radical edge now feels nostalgic, and in the public imagination has been entirely co-opted by Mumford & Sons and their ilk, who twat around like gap year students volunteering on a reconstructed 19th century farm.) Darren Hayman’s records themed around the East Anglian witch trials are a notable exception, as is the odd record by Manic Street Preachers, who mine the past for political ends – "libraries gave us power", after all. These, however, are notable exceptions.

Perhaps songwriters’ fear of exploring the past comes in part because it’s so easy to do it badly. Why Public Service Broadcasting are top of the historical band pops and not I Like Trains is is quite beyond me. Their music – which so many have told me I would love – is an appalling hangover from late 90s graphic designer-beloved group Lemon Jelly, mixed with sputtering one cylinder kosmische and samples from obvious sources. Much as I love the film Night Mail, I don’t need to hear it atop flimsy electronica, a musical Keep Calm & Carry On poster for people who keep cupcakes in Bakelite containers, trite, twee, misty-eyed.

The past was defined by chaos, error, passion, and I hear none of it there. I Like Trains and their fellow travellers British Sea Power, on the other hand, are perhaps too faithful to the cock-ups and catastrophe narrative of history to win acceptance among a wider audience, who look to a cosy version of the past to tell them that the future will turn out alright too. As British Sea Power sang on ‘Lately’, our relationship with the lives of our ancestors is simply far more complex than that – it’s not a place to merely wallow: "And you know how they say / The past is a foreign country / How can we go there / How can we go where we once went?" It’s more complicated and more dangerous, which is of course what in the end makes groups like BSP and I Like Trains, against the odds, so romantic.

For all their pomp and circumstance, I Like Trains are probably forever going to be limited to an audience largely of men with bookshelves that creak with non-fiction. Despite that – or perhaps because of it – I think there’s a place for them to, as one historical great put it when at his lowest ebb, "keep buggering on".

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