The story's simple: a guy ducks into the tube late at night, on the way home to his wife—he's picked up some curry for a late-night dinner—when he's approached by a group of guys who ask him if he has any money. He replies honestly ("I've a little") and they savagely attack him, beating and kicking him senseless. As he lies prone, suffering, he imagines his wife, who's likely just opening a bottle of wine, hearing the door of their flat opening and believing it's him—but the thugs took his keys as well as his money. What makes this story riveting are the details, the pacing, and the band's performance. Paul Weller sings the verses plaintively, perfectly capturing the unknowing innocence of the victim, as Bruce Foxton plays a syncopated riff on his bass that amps up the tension as the story unspools, as does a curious "heartbeat" thumping that sounds in the right channel throughout the record—the narrative of bodies inevitably colliding made physical. The chorus, composed only of the title phrase, barrels along, growing more desperate as the song plays, pummeling the well-chosen details in the verses, all riders' individual lives rendered as a noisy blur.
Weller's details are striking throughout. The station's ordinary, daily atmosphere, (the "glazed, dirty steps," the toffee wrappers), the other tube riders, newspaper headlines are all presented vividly. As is well known, as a teenager Weller made regular forays into London, a city he idolized, from suburban Woking, and brought along a tape recorder to capture the city's sounds. (The train in this song was recorded at St. John's Station.) Weller both adored the city and grimly recognized its racist violence, and his lyrics evoke that uneasy blend. Among the song's most infamous lines are the ones dramatizing the attack, and the victim's addled thoughts afterward:
I first felt a fist, and then a kick
I could now smell their breath
They smelt of pubs and Wormwood Scrubs
And too many right wing meetings
The last thing that I sawthe band's previous single, and he's still writing songs reacting to this.
As I lay there on the floor
Was "Jesus Saves" painted by an atheist nutter
And a British Rail poster read "Have an Away Day, a Cheap Holiday, Do it Today!"
As powerful as the song is (it made for a staggering close to All Mod Cons) the band's live performances added fiery dimension to the story. I never saw the Jam live—a loss I'll live with forever—but recordings and videos attest to a stunningly powerful band producing enormously righteous noise. They recorded a gig at The Rainbow on November 3, 1979, and issued a version of "Tube Station" from that show (first on a double-pack 45 of "Going Underground" in 1980, and again the following year as the b-side of a West German release of "That's Entertainment.") Like all great rock and roll, the performance nearly collapses under its own urgency, the band playing so intensely that the song becomes far scarier, not to mention LOUDER, than the studio version, as if they're running to catch up with their own playing. The final third of the song startles: Rick Buckler's drum-pounding breakdown, Weller's slashes at his Rickenbacker, the crowd's clapping in pulse-racing unison, and the breathless crash into the final lines of the final verse remains, to my ears, one of the greatest, most urgent passages in recorded live rock and roll. If it's possible that innocence, love, fear, violence, and heartbreak can be rendered as pure sound, the Jam have done it here.
|The Jam, 1979|
Tube station photo via Geograph; live photo via Toronto Star (Ebet Roberts / Redferns/Universal Music Canada)