Wednesday, 21 October 2009

'Rain, Steam & Speed': A Steampunk Anthem?

For some reason, I guess it is because of the steampunk novella I am currently writing (I am on the third part so hope to be able to post it at the start of November) I had the phrase 'steam is the burn' in my mind and realised it came from a song that I had not heard in many years, 'Rain, Steam & Speed' (1989) by The Men They Couldn't Hang. I played it once as a student DJ and had a cassette recording of it, but guess I have not listened to it in about 15 years. I went looking for it on the internet and found one YouTube video of it: It is a song which celebrates/commemorates the work that went into building railways in 19th century Britain. To some extent The Men They Couldn't Hang are what you would expect from a folk rock group aware of labour and radical history; such issues permeate the bulk of their songs. To some extent I imagine they were probably channelled into stereotypical looks by video makers, especially in the 1980s as when they appear in 'navvie' clothing in the video.

In some ways The Men They Couldn't Hang seem to stem from the legacy of that 1970s combination between folk music that was very popular at that time, an interest in 'everyday history', i.e. history of ordinary people rather than monarchs and politicians which began to be taught in schools at that time and political, especially labour, radicalism. Folk music has not disappeared, there is a weekly programme on Radio 2, annual awards and a number of festivals, but it seems to impinge less on the mainstream than it did in the 1970s and it is very rare that you hear anything even folk-influenced in the charts; Seth Lakeman being the notable exception. Certainly in our apolitical times none of it has any political flavour even to the extent of praising the efforts of workers let alone making any more political-orientated suggestions. Workers are not lauded in contemporary pop music, only those who make money through performing and the use of that money to lead a hedonistic lifestyle is the only 'acceptable' path shown. Alright, have aspirations, but do not forget the bulk of us will never come close to that lifestyle, but that does not make us worthless; take pride in the ordinary things you do. I suddenly seem to be turning into an advocate for folk music which was not my intention at all!

Anyway, back to The Men They Couldn't Hang. I saw them perform at a university in the late 1980s probably when they were at their peak of success. Like most acoustic bands they are great to see live because atmosphere is important for that kind of music and I suppose it would be a step a way from what their songs talk about if they were on a huge stage with numerous special effects. They started releasing records in 1984 and they covered the whole range of labour movement history from their first single, 'The Green Fields of France' (1984) about a First World War veteran. 'Ironmasters' (1984) linking historic and current working conditions; 'Ghosts of Cable Street' (1985) pretty self-explanatory; 'Shirt of Blue' (1985) about the 1984-5 Miners' Strike; 'The Colours' (1987) about a mutineer in the Napoleonic Wars and 'The Crest' (1987) about a stretcher bearer in the Second World War. By 1990 they were supporting David Bowie on tour, though I do wonder how Bowie's fans received them. 'Rain, Steam and Speed' was released as a single off their 'Silvertown' (1989) album, but by 1990's 'The Domino Club' album they had left behind folk for more conventional rock. It is interesting that this was the time when The Manic Street Preachers, though formed in 1986, were coming to much greater public attention with the release of their first album, 'Generation Terrorists' in 1992 and whilst touching on some similar themes to The Men They Couldn't Hang did it using a rock/pop approach. The Men They Couldn't Hang split in 1991 but reformed in 1996 and played their 25th anniversary gig earlier this month. The lyrics you can find online generally come from this latter period of recording.

The title 'Rain, Steam & Speed' comes from a painting by J.M.W. Turner, 'Rain, Steam and Speed - the Great Western Railway' first exhibited in 1844. It is also the name of a 1999 album by the New Zealand band, the Mutton Birds. I know there is much discussion about what steampunk encompasses and the modern manifestation of the genre was very young when this track was produced, but to me, it seems a suitably steampunk anthem in both celebrating steampower but also recognising the human cost of its application. Like some other songs by the band it also draws parallels between historical developments and current ones.

I guess the denizens of The Smoking Lounge steampunk site will not be happy with me linking a song from a politically-interested group (though as you will see below, this song itself makes no blatant political points) and the steampunk genre. I suppose that is partly because many of them are located in the USA where politics is an even dirtier word than it is even in the UK. In addition, a lot of steampunk involves the writers, artists and commentators naturally projecting themselves into the roles of people of the Victorian elite, such as nobles, scientists and military officers, I do this myself. The thing is, with that comes an attachment to the Victorian-style hierarachy which in the UK is pretty much as it was 150 years ago. Thus, politics, especially labour politics seems to jar with elements of this take on the genre. In reflecting on this I think I have come to understand Michael Moorcock's complaint that what is being written now is 'steam opera' rather than 'steampunk'. I have no problem with that and will happily portray myself as a steam opera writer, but this does not mean that those who adopt a more '-punk' approach should be disparaged. The Smoking Lounge denizens seem to be very exercised by any connection, even in passing, from politics to their genre; I guess this stems from a fear that such an association will endanger them with censure from those who loathe any reference from politics and instead they want what they produce to continue to appear 'harmless', especially to the US public.

Despite extensive searches I have been unable to find a full set of lyrics for 'Rain, Steam & Speed', though you can find quite a few others by The Men They Couldn't Hang. Consequently, I have to apologise as these lyrics are derived from me listening to the track and writing them down and as with many songs, I could not work out everything that was being sung. I have put the bits I have guessed at in [ and ] and if you know what the real words are please email me so I can put the correct ones in.

Rain, Steam & Speed

'One man drills a powder hole, the colour of a bruise.
One man blows a bugle and another lights a fuse.
Blow, pick and shovel it; carry earth away.
Brains and brawn with hammers [strong], blasting through the glade.

Rain is the cold; steam is the burn;
Speed is the way the World turns;
Speed is the way the World turns round.

Draughtsmen and surveyors work at pegging out the shaft.
Ten of us to breathe the dust; ten to do the graft.
Underneath the Pennine waste, the bodies lie in rags;
Forty miles of steel and [soil] follow in their tracks.


Some men build a monument; some men build a tomb.
Some men move the World around to give them breathing room.
And some men carve a statue of Isambard Brunel;
Some men carve a tunnel into Hell.


Drill the hole; pack it tight; [sound the horn];
Blow the rock; swing the pick;
Spade and hand will carry it.

Soon they'll build a tunnel under England through to France.
Will it make the tide run quicker? Will the [port] trade advance?
Underneath the ocean there's land of chalk and sand,
But coming up through the virgin rock will be a human hand.'

Chorus x 4


Centuryhouse said...

Great song. I haven't heard it in years. I used to have the tape, but have never seen a CD copy anywhere. It's a shame - great music.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! I haven't heard this song since I was a boy and my brother had the record.