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The Story Behind The Song: The Clash's punk rock classic 'Train in Vain (Stand by Me)'


To declare ‘London Calling’ and ‘Train in Vain (Stand by Me)’ as amongst the greatest album bookends of all time is hardly contentious, but fate nearly played it out very differently. Taken from the band’s uber-iconic masterpiece London Calling the track resided as an oddity in more ways than one. 

First and foremost, for early listeners, the song made an almost mystic appearance etched onto the end of fans recently purchased LP’s as ‘Train in Vain’ never made it onto the sleeves official tracklisting. The reason for this is ultimately down to the Clash’s perfuse level of creative output at the time in an era where everything they touched turned to punk rock gold. 

The original intent of the band was to record a song to be pressed onto flex-disc as part of an NME promotional campaign once the recording sessions for London Calling were complete, unfortunately, the flexi-disc production proved too expensive and the idea was scrapped. The song, however, was far too good to simply shelve. With the album imminently due to go into print there was no time to amend the album sleeves and the track had to be hastily etched onto side-four of the double LP with just enough space on the 12 inches to spare.

This is far from the only way that the song proved unusual, as it also doesn’t mention the words in ‘Train in Vain’ at any point, gaining its name from the train-like melody of the song instead. As Mick Jones explained to writer Johnny Black, “The track was like a train rhythm, and there was, once again, that feeling of being lost.”

The ‘in vain’ side of things seems to relate to love lost. Guitarist Mick Jones takes the lead vocals on the song in lieu of Joe Strummer and lists out lyrics that seem to pertain to the end of his on-off relationship with Viv Albertine of the Slits, a subject also touched upon in ‘I’m Not Down’.

When Jones is not lamenting the demise of his courtship in the lyrics then he is bemoaning the fact that his flat was burgled in the early part of that same year, “I need new clothes, I need somewhere to stay.” As for Viv Albertine’s part in it all, she explained to Eccentric Sleeve Notes, “I’m really proud to have inspired that but often he won’t admit to it. He used to get the train to my place in Shephards Bush and I would not let him in. He was bleating on the doorstep. That was cruel.” Whilst ‘proud’ might be an interesting way to describe that contribution, it is certainly a comment that adds perhaps more depth to ‘train’ than Jones was willing to let on. 

Interestingly, burglary and break-ups are both subject matters that run counter to the tracks rather more light-hearted sounding melody, funky bass riff and upbeat harmonica harping. It was this much more poppy sound that lent the song nicely to the charts and the band scored success with it as a single. 

Behind ‘Rock the Casbah’ the song brought the band the largest degree of mainstream acclaim and commercial profit around that era. Documenting a dogged time for Mick Jones, the song perched on the edge of the album and sounded just like a light at the end of the tunnel, finishing off a masterpiece in fitting style.