“I Often Dream Of Trains”

I spent a not inconsiderable part of the 80s in buses. Every day I drove from my hometown to school in the neighboring town and back. The result is moderate trauma. Come what may, I will never set foot on a bus again.

While I did my homework on the outward journey, the return journey at least offered the opportunity for musical research. My main source of information was the Malibu mailorder catalogue, which I regularly devoured greedily.

The authors of the catalog were particularly impressed by the British songwriter Robyn Hitchcock. This was shown by the fact that they didn’t praise him as a “British songwriter”, but as a genuine weirdo genius, as a “phantom of the island”. The Malibu team considered “I Often Dream Of Trains” from 1984 to be the obscure bard’s masterpiece. There was talk of Syd Barrett, of English eccentricity and bold songs. I had to have this record.

I first heard it alone in the dark living room on my parents’ Bang & Olufsen system. An unforgettable first encounter with this strange night record. The instrumental opening piece “Nocturne” it sounded as if a spooky count had sat down at the piano in a sinister mood at night. “Sometimes I Wish I Was a Pretty Girl” actually sounded like Syd Barrett, but with bat wings. “Incorrect Personality Traits” barbershop vocals met sexual psychology, “Flavour Of Night” sounded exactly as it said and the title track was a surreal sleeper car ride through a chilly December Britain. In between, Hitchcock sang about ice cream hands and hearts full of leaves. Pale moonlight fell into the parental living room. I was in another world.

Robyn Hitchcock was disgusted with the world

But in addition to the romantic eccentricity, there was something else at work here, an alienation from existence, almost a world disgust, which, despite all their whimsy, never made these postcards from Thatcher England sound like hippie music. Sure, it’s the record of someone who withdraws into his own world – unlike Syd Barrett, Hitchcock, once the singer of the power psychedelic The Soft Boys, did this of his own free will. The background to which these spooky songs were created is illustrated by the title of a Hitchcock outtake collection from this period: “While Thatcher Mauled Britain”.

“Trains” is sort of an anti-eighties record, the sound of an artist defending himself against the present with the sounds of the sixties. A bizarre growth. A spindly web. And the album that made it clear to me like no other that almost anything is possible in the art form of song. The eloquent songwriter from Paddington became my musical beacon with this record.

That was the eighties, ladies and gentlemen: I was on buses and Robyn Hitchcock dreamed of trains. The former is a thing of the past. The latter probably hasn’t changed.