There’s a song that perfectly encapsulates the darker side of traveling on the London Underground, The Jam’s 1978 classic “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight.” It’s lead singer Paul Weller’s ode to the Tube, to going home late at night and getting into trouble. It’s a meditation on the odious side of public transport.
To me there’s something beautiful in the way it captures the mood, sights and sounds of the Tube outside the relative protection of rush hour, when you don’t want to be there: “Whispers in the shadows; gruff blazing voices; hating, waiting,” Weller sings.
Just writing the words makes me shiver and remember when I’ve felt like that on the underground: it’s cold, my shoulders are hunched and I’ve maybe had one beer too many – and it’s the last place I want to be.
The music itself uses a brilliant, persistent bass line that to me echoes the repetitive and relentless motion of a train. Weller’s use of the lyrical refrain “Down in a Tube Station at Midnight” over and over again does the same thing.
The grim scene that unfolds is set perfectly as the song opens with actual sound of the underground and the words: “A distant echo; of faraway voices boarding faraway trains.”
It feels like you’re walking alongside him, trying to get to the platform through a maze of tunnels as human and mechanical sounds drift along on that peculiar underground wind.
The Tube is “cold and uninviting … except for toffee wrappers and this morning’s papers,” the song goes. Around midnight, and if you’ve experienced the Tube yourself at this time, this is precisely how it feels. The lyrics transport you right back there.
And, you’ve got to feel sorry for the protagonist (or is it Weller himself?); all he wants to do is get home to his wife with his take-out before it gets cold. Fat chance, and the sense of foreboding builds as the song progresses and you just know that something bad is going to happen.
Weller pulls the listener in with a description of an attack that takes place – a physical assault, but also an assault on each of his senses, married to the sights, smells and sounds of the station – as he’s beaten unconscious by a group of strangers.
Three-quarter of the way through, the song reaches a crescendo after a simple drum solo that mirrors the sound of train on track, with the real sound of a passing train mixed in, and he describes our man’s fate. Maybe that was the train that was going to take him back home to safety?
It’s the final verse of the song where Weller uses a truly superb device to downplay the actual violence of what happens on the platform.
Instead of simply describing the pain of a beating, we look through the victim’s eyes at a promotional rail company poster he notices and it contrasts absolutely with the situation: “Have an away-day – a cheap holiday – do it today!”
It conjures up a vivid scene, like a boxer hitting the canvas in slow motion and capturing the sight of something on the way down before the lights go out.
So happy birthday to the London Underground, with a song that brutally, yet elegantly, highlights the downside of being down in the tube station at midnight.