Certain Songs #224: The Clash – “Train in Vain”

The_Clash_-_Train_in_Vain_(single)Album: London Calling
Year: 1979.

The first thing you need to know about the infamous “secret hidden track” on London Calling is that it wasn’t all that hidden. Despite not being listed on either the sleeve or the label, it was in all of the publicity, not to mention that you could clearly see there were five songs on side four of London Calling.

To me, the mystery surrounding “Train in Vain” isn’t so much the fact that it was a hidden track, but rather “what kind of music is this even?”

It started off with a kinda soul beat, and of course the “stand by me” in the lyrics echos the great Ben E. King song, but it otherwise didn’t really sound like soul. And it was too rough to be straight pop, despite the great hook and lovelorn lyrics. But while there were guitars and something that sounded like a harmonica, it wasn’t really rock either. Or disco, even though it was clearly danceable. So what the hell was it?

All the times
When we were close
I’ll remember these things the most
I see all my dreams come tumbling down
I can’t be happy without you around
So all alone I keep the wolves at bay
And there is only one thing that I can say

The answer, of course, was that “Train in Vain” was a melange of everything. The first flowering of what I can only call Clashmusic. Of course the The Clash had always sounded like no other band, but after London Calling they started writing songs that sounded like no other music. Not every song — cos that shit is hard — of course, but things like “The Call Up” or “Know Your Rights” weren’t really music that anybody else would think to make.

But before all that, sounding like nothing else in the entire world, “Train in Vain” made the U.S. Top 40 in 1980. In retrospect, that is awesome, though the time, I remember being somewhat ambivalent about the whole thing. It wasn’t so much that I cared about sharing my favorite band with the entire world — I’d been trying to share The Clash with the entire world since the moment I heard them — but rather I still had the version of The Clash as a strict hard rock band rolling around in my head, and I wasn’t quite ready to give that up.

On the other hand, the newfound popularity of The Clash meant that — for the next few years — they were everywhere. Which, of course, in the early 1980s meant pretty much only late-night TV shows, the rock press and MTV. But it was way better than nowhere.

Now I got a job
But it don’t pay
I need new clothes
I need somewhere to stay
But without all these things I can do
But without your love I won’t make it through

But you don’t understand my point of view
I suppose there’s nothing I can do-ooh-ooh

Here’s a question that I’ve never even considered before: if London Calling actually ended with “Revolution Rock,” does it become a beloved all-time all-time all-time consensus classic album? After all, I wrote about eight separate London Calling tracks for Certain Songs, and still didn’t do “Hateful,” “Spanish Bombs,” “Guns of Brixton” or “Revolution Rock.”

My answer is no. I’ve played a lot over the past few days while writing these posts, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the first record is better than the second record, and side four desperately needs the final double whammy of “Revolution Rock” and “Train in Vain” to obfuscate that it starts with three of the weaker tracks. (Maybe someday I’ll like “Lovers Rock,” but today is not that day.)

Nevertheless, I kept playing side four in order to get to that moment where Joe adverts “weddings, parties, anything . . . and bongo jazz a speciality-ality-ty!” and the drumbeat for “Train in Vain” kicks in. And weirdly enough it needs that capper at the very end to bring everything together and point to the future. Maybe it was an accident, but London Calling was built on accidents, so how better to end it?

Meanwhile, 35 years later, “Train in Vain” stands as their greatest and most durable U.S. hit single. “I Fought The Law” was a cover, “Rock The Casbah” remains problematic, and “Should I Stay or Should I Go” is a fun novelty. But “Train in Vain” is forever. Jones’ heartfelt double-tracked vocals are on point, the lyrics smart in their depiction of heartbreak, and a melody that brings it every single time. I’m singing it as I’m writing these words.

Did “Train in Vain” stand by me? Oh totally.

Official video for “Train in Vain”

2 Responses to “Certain Songs #224: The Clash – “Train in Vain””

  1. Aidan says:

    This is another favorite… weirdly it kinda reminds of the 60’s group the Outsiders of “Time Won’t Let Me” fame who had a knack for writing ridiculously catchy songs(just listen to “Little Bit of Lovin'” or “I’m Not Trying to Hurt You” for further proof). Unlike “Rock the Casbah” or “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” which have been played to death and were far from the band’s finest moments to begin with, I never get tired of hearing “Train in Vain.”

  2. Jim Connelly says:

    I’ve always loved “Time Won’t Let Me” but haven’t ever dug into The Outsiders. Maybe I should!