InterRail celebrates its 40th birthday this year. Hard to believe that such a fixture of many a gap year is now staring down the barrel of middle age itself.
No self respecting InterRailer would attempt to criss-cross the European railway map without an ipod judiciously packed to the gunwales with some choice tunes, so to celebrate I have composed this playlist route, which takes you around the InterRail map in 40 songs.
Those of you who – like me – are nearing 40 (or already past that millstone, I mean milestone) will probably remember the significance of ‘the Top 40’ chart, which always used to enliven otherwise humdrum Sunday afternoons, so the 40th anniversary of InterRail carries a nice bit of serendipity with it.
This isn’t a Top 40 rundown though. The tracks have been ordered simply to create a vaguely plausible route map, departing from my home city of Edinburgh.
The Rules I’ve Applied
Songs must mention a city or town on the InterRail map, either in the title or in the lyrics of the song. They must also be sung in English. I’m sure there are many, many more songs about all of these cities and more besides in their native tongues. If you know a few, please share them with a comment below and perhaps I’ll add them on to the map. One track per artist.
Many of these songs are well-known of course, but where there are multiple options for a city, I have tried to avoid the most obvious one. There are a few obscurities in here – some which reflect my taste, some which really don’t – and a fair few which I had never heard myself before researching this post. And there is one ‘wild card’ too.
Well, finding 40 tracks has not been that easy, but I had a little help. A big thanks to everyone who made suggestions on twitter!
The 40 Tracks
Killermont Street – Aztec Camera
For the sake of convenience, our journey sets off from Glasgow, which one man bag of jangly guitars and lovelorn melodies Roddy Frame eulogises in this low key, acoustic ballad. From Love, 1988.
Belfast Child – Simple Minds
Belfast – Boney M
I’m not sure which song is the less excusable diatribe on ‘the troubles’: Simple Minds’ pompous bombast or the ruminations of Germany’s leading late 70s studio disco poppets Boney M, so I’ve included both for bad measure! And did someone mention the Cranberries? No, please don’t.
Dublin – Prefab Sprout
Plenty of local songsters have memorialised their fair city of course, but I have soft spot for the wistful romanticism found in this song from one of the North East’s most unfairly maligned troubadours. From Protest Songs, 1985.
Galway Girl – Steve Earle
Texan Steve Earle is probably best described as a ‘roots rocker’. His voice is unmistakably ‘country’, but he’s just as preoccupied with blues, rock and folk, including that of the Celtic variety. The Irish fiddle comes courtesy of County Clare’s premier bowfingerer, Sharon Shannon, who is often credited with the song. Few transatlantic mash-ups sound so joyous. It could be hokey, but somehow it just works. Magners used it for their ad campaign a few summers back.
London – The Smiths
Few bands are as rooted in their geography as the Smiths, who also sprinkled their songs with more than their fair share of train references. This furious rockabilly stomper witnesses the departure of a feckless boyfriend from the mean streets of Manchester, heading for the bright lights of London Willage:
‘You left your girlfriend on the platform with some really ragged notion that you’ll return. But she knows when he goes, he really goes. And do you think you’ve made the right decision this time?’ asks an accusatory Morrissey, long before he deserted ‘dear old Blighty’ for the glamorous climes or Rome, Paris and LA.
Paris – Friendly Fires
‘One day we’re gonna live in Paris. I promise. I’m on it’
I wonder how many well-meaning romantic types have uttered these very words to their beau? It’s hard not to get carried away by the sentiment and the euphoric ‘rave rock’ rush with which it’s belted out here.
Nantes – Beirut
Effortlessly louche multi instrumentalist, Zach Condon is from neither Nantes nor Beirut, but actually hails from Santa Fe, New Mexico. No matter, this song with its strange, vaguely Germanic, halting waltz rhythm conjures up Old Europe rather well. From The Flying Cub Cup, 2007.
Lisbon – The Walkmen
Madrid Song – Julian Plenti
Julian Plenti is actually Interpol frontman Paul Banks’ solo outing, who pitches Bowie vocals over a plaintive piano backing. From Julian Plenti is Skyscraper, 2009.
Barcelona – Weezer
No, not the Freddie Mercury number!
So Nice in Nice – The Stranglers
Like the Police, the Stranglers waded from choppy New Wave waters into the arena-friendly rock remarkably swiftly. This from their mid-80s pomp is not their finest moment.
Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick – Ian Dury & The Blockheads
‘From Milan, to Yucatan, every woman and every man..’
Giapponese a Roma – Momus
I realise I’m breaking a rule here, but I think I can wing it, given that the song’s author is no Roman. Scottish polymath, ‘unreliable tour guide’ and hyper-literate songwriter Nicholas Currie is the sort of guy who writes a song in Italian, just because he can. This one was penned for Japanese pop star Kahimi Karie, but her vocals are a little too coquettish for me, so I prefer to plump for the camp Caledonian phrasing of the ‘one man Pet Shop Boy’ instead. From 20 Vodka Jellies, 2000.
19 in Naples – Jonathan Richman
A piece of wide-eyed transatlantic travelogue pie, from the eccentric Bostonian proto-punk behind Egyptian Reggae, That Summer Feeling and Roadrunner. From I’m So Confused, 1998
Sorrento Moon – Tina Arena
Whatever happened to Tori Amos-Lite? Oh this. Nuff said then.
Ms Sarajevo – The Passengers
The Passengers was the pseudonym adopted by U2 and Brian Eno for a record hastily produced to raise funds for those besieged in Bosnia during the Balkan war. Bono has never been one to shy away from a charity record charabanc, but credit’s due here also for putting the region on the song map. Pavarotti lends his considerable lungs to the endeavour too.
Sexuality – Billy Bragg
‘I had an uncle who once played, for Red Star Belgrade. He said that some things are really best left unspoken, but I prefer it all to be out in the open.’ .
I have no idea what this line means in the context of the song, celebrating sexual tolerance and openness, but for some reason it’s lodged itself firmly in my brain. From Don’t Try This At Home, 1991.
Istanbul (Not Constantinople) – They Might Be Giants
TMBG were wordy princes of American geek chic – long before such a thing was remotely hispterish. With its quirky wit and educational lyrics, one could easily believe that TMBG wrote this. Actually it’s a cover of a novelty song from 1930, when the Turks had only just re-named their city. From Flood, 1990.
Budapest – Jethro Tull
Apparently something of a ‘live favourite’, this song appears to be about a ‘hot night in Budapest’ with a silently obliging groupie. Take a look at the blatantly sexist lyrics. Makes you realise that Spinal Tap was not that all that far from reality! Living in the past indeed…
Girl Vii – St Etienne
This breezy piece of post-club summer shimmer from the band’s debut album Foxbase Alpha (1990) namechecks dozens of cities across the globe, interspersed with the names of London tube stops and enclaves. A sure-fire winner for anyone taken with the simple romance of faraway-sounding place names on maps.
Vienna – Ultravox
Obvious I know, but I couldn’t really leave it out. For some it represents the apotheosis of empty New Romantic posturing. ‘It means nothing to me’, sang Midge Ure and he was not alone on that. But Ultravox were one of the first bands I became besotted with and I loved the song so much that I remember sitting in the bathtub, bawling my eyes raw at the injustice of the song being denied the number one slot by Joe Dolce’s Shaddupaya Face, of all things. I was 7 at the time. From Vienna, 1980.
Radio Prague – OMD
From the same era, this was the opening track of OMD’s Dazzle Ships (1983) album, a wildly experimental (and commercially suicidal) thinly veiled homage to Kraftwerk, bursting with speaking clocks, industrial ambient clanking, speak and spell machines and fragments of radio broadcasts, such as this very evocative jingle, from a time when anywhere east of the Iron Curtain seemed like an impossibly remote part of the world.
Pop Music – M
‘New York, London, Paris, Munich, everybody talk about..’
24. St Moritz
Where Do You Go To My Lovely? – Peter Sarstedt
‘And when the snow falls you’re found in Saint Moritz. With the others of the jet-set.’
Much like the Windmills of your Mind, one hit wonder Peter Sarstedt’s 1969 smash is so much of its time that it could easily be a parody of it. It positively aches with self conscious, sixties sophistication. I’ve always liked it though. Yes I do, no I don’t, yes I do.
Bonzo’s Montreux – Led Zeppelin
This studio outtake is basically an extended instrumental workout from drummer Jon Bonham, recorded in Montreux’s Mountain Studio in 1976.
23 Minutes in Brussels – Luna
Probably another ‘madness of whirlwind touring’ song, from one of the more underrated dispensers of easy-going Americana in recent years. Like their time in the city, the song is way too short.
Trans Europe Express – Kraftwerk
‘Rendezvous in Dusseldorf city, meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie.’ To omit Kraftwerk from this list would just not be cricket, so we’ll place them at the logical start of their journey in hometown Dusseldorf. The entire Trans Europe Express album (1977) is really the perfect soundtrack for shuttling your way across Europe.
Rotterdam – The Beautiful South
Liverpool and Rome also get branded as anonymous anywheres, in the gloomy spotlight cast by a lonely Paul Heaton, who had maybe hopped over the waters on a ferry from his native Hull to find a similarly industrial city lacking human warmth. Or maybe he’d stayed at one too many Travellodges.
Hello Amsterdam – American Music Club
San Fransisco’s leading exponents of ‘Sadcore’ specialise in brewing songs brimming with painfully intense misery and self loathing. In true self referential fashion, this one’s a wry aside on the touring frontman’s sorry lot when greeted with an apathetic audience in a strange town. It’s more upbeat than most of their back catalogue. From San Fransisco, 1994.
Hamburg Song – Keane
Keane? I never have been myself. What can I say? Like the apologetic, lukewarm, squished offering served from the ubiquitous golden arches, it filled a gap.
Drowning in Berlin – The Mobiles
There are no shortage of songs associated with Berlin, but I’ve chosen this one mainly for its chart rundown nostalgia. As far as what it’s about, I’d put this one in the Ultravox Vienna camp, but it has an intriguing atmosphere about it and a powerful Toyahesque chorus. Plus the creepy voice enquiring ‘Sind Sie Allein in Berlin?’ (are you alone in Berlin?) over the slightly nightmarish fairground organ makes it a memorable number in my book. From 1982.
Warszawa – David Bowie
A track from the largely instrumental side of Bowie’s first ‘Berlin album’, Low (1973) which was inspired by the desolation Bowie witnessed in the city and includes a melody from a Polish folk choir.
Gdansk – Test Dept
More industrial, ‘essi-stential’ angst from early eighties politically charged panel beaters of New Cross. From Ecstasy Under Duress, 1982.
Lucinda Williams – Copenhagen
Our House – Madness
I know, sorry Denmark!
Gothenburg – Maia Hirasawa
Maia Hirasawa is a reasonably successful Swedish singer songwriter who sometimes sings in English. Unbelievably, Sweden is now the world’s third biggest exporter of music, so she may well become better known over here before too long.
Oslo in the Summertime – Of Montreal
This song’s author Kevin Barnes married a Norwegian, but still sounds suitably adrift: ‘I practice my Norwegian on poor befuddled waitresses. Who shake their heads completely at a loss.’ Well, we’ve all been there!
Stockholm – The New Fast Automatic Daffodils
The New FADs were one of the many bands that threatened to explode out of Manchester in the wake of the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, like an angrier, angular Inspiral Carpets. One of the few half decent bands to grace the Student Union of Kent University during my time there. From Exit Body, Exit Mind, 1992.
HKI – Gracias
Gracias is a Kinshasa-born rapper based in Helsinki. He seems to like it there if this track is anything to go by.
Riga Girls – The Weepies
So is it even possible to visit all of the places on the map with an InterRail pass?
The longest pass is valid for 30 days. Admittedly it would probably not be the best way to experience these places, but I think it may just be possible for those sufficiently gripped by a challenge to tick off all 8,500 miles of this journey with a 30 day pass, by taking a few ferries and visiting multiple cities in a single day.
Maybe I’ll even attempt it myself and perhaps delve into some of the stories behind these songs?
Which ones did I miss? Share your favourite InterRail tracks with a comment below