London Moves: Soundtracks For the Journey

I am the London commuter who listens to music.


If my iPod is not charged, I won’t leave the house. There have been times I’ve been late for lecture or for work because I’m fiddling about on iTunes, trying to change the line-up of albums to listen to on the commute, because god help me if I don’t have the *one* album I want to listen to after I get out of work. One of my friends has had a go at me for putting my earphones in for a 5-minute walk from a bus stop to my house. Even when I’m just going to a shop to buy stuff for breakfast, the earphones are in, playing something or another.

Looking around–at the bus stop, on the bus, on the platform, in the train, on the street–I know I’m not the only one listening to music on my journey to wherever I’m going. Not everyone is, though. I have one friend who works in music, and sometimes he can’t be bothered to listen to music after working session after session. Another friend just doesn’t listen to music, and that’s that. He reads instead. Many people roam the streets and travelways of London without the need of audio accompaniment.

I am not one of those people.

One of the things I most looked forward to when moving back to London was to be able to climb up the stairs of a double decker bus, sit next to the window and watch the world go by while listening to music. It was something I did frequently during my first year living here, whether I was en route to SOAS or to one of the jobs I held at the time. In fact, certain albums I listened to at the time have somehow seared themselves onto the memories of certain journeys, particularly regular trips I made along certain bus routes, so now when I listen to these albums, I’m reminded of all these moments when I was first listening to the album.

Much like how certain songs or albums evoke memories of times past, I have some tunes that are deeply linked to travelling around the city, even to the point where I associate them with a particular bus route.

Some examples:

Help by Thee Oh Sees always makes me think of riding the 29 in the summer of 2010, hot as hell, while I was living out my last month on Holloway Road. It is the album of sweat, sunglasses, summer dresses and bendy-bus shenanigans.

Also while I lived on Holloway Road, I was working in a little shoe shop in Islington. In the mornings, when I made the dash to get in to work, I would listen to music, even though sometimes my journey would be all of ten or fifteen minutes. Still, it was enough time for me to listen to some bits of full-length albums, or possibly all the songs on an EP. For a short journey, I’d sometimes put on an EP by the Cold War Kids called Loyalty to Loyalty, which I would often finish right as I was getting in. The first track, “Audience,” is a good one to listen to while getting ready to get out of the house. The EP is something I associate riding the 43 with, or the 271 if the damn 43 never showed up.

More recently, Austra’s Feel it Break was an album I listened to excessively this past winter as I made the commute to Covent Garden where I worked at the time. The first time I listened to the album on my iPod, I was struggling to keep myself from dancing on the platform at Manor House station. Austra is the Piccadilly Line in December, pressed against strangers in a crowded train car, wondering if there’s enough time for coffee before showing up acceptably late to the office.

It’s soundtracking memories, really, and when living in London, a lot of time is spent commuting.

When I worked at the pub, I would walk home late at night, listening to music. The albums I would listen to after my shifts at the pub were often winding-down music, particularly when I was working two jobs and had finished a long day at both. The Clientele would feature heavily on these walks home through the streets of Stoke Newington, with the hushed tones of their earlier albums keeping me company as I walked beneath lamplights, catching glimpses of foxes slipping through the night. Broadcast was another old favourite I would turn to in the late hours. Upon going through a small, personal country revival (which I’m still going through), I would sometimes listen to Patsy Cline, Hank Williams Sr. or older Dolly Parton.

Then there’s Smog’s “Say Valley Maker,” which is just sublime when you’re tired and ready to collapse into bed.

One of the best memories I have of music and commuting linking together beautifully was in December, as I was taking the Piccadilly down to Covent Garden. I had been listening to Hearts from I Break Horses, and as I emerged from Covent Garden station, I walked out to see snow. As I watched it softly fall from the sky, the song “Cancer” was playing and seemed to match the perfectly with the falling snow I was so excited to see–it was the first time I’d seen snow since moving back to London, since the snows of 2010.

It was the loveliest thing.

What do you listen to when you’re commuting through London? Or do you prefer to hear what’s going on in the city around you?


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