Roads are often used as metaphors in music to symbolise the frustrations that can be encountered along the journey of life: one moment you seem to be travelling along at top speed with the top down and wind flowing through your hair like a beautiful photo-shopped model, and then something unexpected happens with the consequence that nothing moves and everything is cloaked in a fog of pollution and poison. The Beach Boys often used cars and driving to represent the endless possibilities and freedoms that we associate with being young. Chris Rea’s “The Road To Hell (Parts One and Two)” symbolise something far darker.
It begins with a dark and droning sinister sound, and we hear one of the richest and most distinctive voices of the 1980s intone an almost hymnal tone. It is a dark and magical opening:
The legend behind the development of “The Road to Hell” is that Chris Rea wrote the song whilst stuck in a traffic jam. Generally people believe that it was whilst stuck in a traffic jam on the M25 on the way to a record company meeting, whilst others believe that the song was originally to be called “The Road to Hull” – however, the first option has been revealed to be the truthful version, as he later donated the crumpled piece of paper that he located in his car to the Teenage Cancer Trust for them to auction. The paper also included details of an Indian Takeaway that had been recommended to him, and also a reminder to “phone Brenda”.
Stood still on a highway I saw a woman by the side of the road
With a face that I knew like my own
Reflected in my window.
Well she walked up to my quarter light and she bent down real slow
A fearful pressure paralyzed me in my shadows.
Part One of the song seems to be a personal reflection upon the consequences of Chris Rea entering into a deal with the music industry, something that seems to have darkened his soul, as he sees a vision of somebody who we presume to be perhaps the ghost of his mother, or maybe even the ghost of his past dreams and aspirations, warning him to be wary of the action that he is about to undertake. Many musicians have released songs warning of the double dealing, back-stabbing reality of life in the fast lane of music biz life. These songs are often received with the same sense of “boo hoo, it must be really bad to be you in your chauffer driven limo, you pompous bloody dick” as we enjoy yet another year of crap wages and equally crap working conditions. Thanks government!
However, Chris Rea cleverly swerves the song away from what might easily become a self-pitying funeral dirge as Part One segues into Part Two, and the pace picks up to transform it into the driving blues-rock colossus of the late 80s that it became. At this point, the visions that he sees can be seen as being less about his personal hell within the music industry, and is interpreted by many as a broader vision that humanity is rushing forwards towards its inevitable destruction.
Well I’m standing by the river
But the water doesn’t flow
It boils with every poison you can think of
And I’m underneath the streetlight
But the light of joy I know
Scared beyond belief way down in the shadows
One of the distinctive aspects of “The Road to Hell (Part Two)” is the distorted slide blues guitar that was possibly only popularly used by Rea back in the 1980s, before being re-popularised by the likes of Seasick Steve in more recent years. It is a keening, yearning, authentically weeping guitar sounds (sorry George, this is a guitar that angrily weeps) that is perhaps one of the one most memorable guitar sounds of the 1980s. Yes, I know that people will throw a whole selection of names at me now like Eddie Van Halen, Slash, Steve Vai and lots and lots of other virtuoso guitar axe gods. No, I’m not talking about technical ability – I’m talking about the tone of the sound. Perhaps only that huge epic Dave Gilmour sound (of Pink Floyd fame) is perhaps more instantly recognisable in mu humble non-guitar playing mode of thinking. Or perhaps the fiddly widdly guitar picking of Mark Knoffler. Hmmm, maybe I should’ve never started this particular train of thought.
The things about the opening section that stays with me is that I see it being about the sacrifice of individuality either for success or for survival. I feel that I have been guilty of doing this, particularly in the world that we live in right now, when people fear for their jobs as the economy slows and Brexit inevitably looms large, and wages continue to stagnant whilst living costs soar – and we forget that we are always part of a community of similar souls experiencing similar problems because we only concentrate upon our own survival.
This the reality of our times, where we have repeated headlines bombarding us with the politics of fear (whether it is trying to make us fearful of Muslims, or fearful of Europeans, of fearful of the consequences of voting for Jeremy Corbin, or whatever it is that is designed to make us pull up the drawer bridge to of own castle, get reading the Daily Mail and fear footsteps that approach the front door), it is all designed to control our lives and make us fearful to be who we really want to be. This is the tragedy of taking that decision to take that road to hell.
I’m tired of living in fear – whether it is fear of losing my job or my pension or my health or whatever the news is promoting right now. I’m tired of keeping my head down because bringing attention to myself in any way that might be deemed as negative only brings those fears one step closer. I feel that my quality of life is such that my mental health is bound to suffer from the continuous levels of stress that seem to be an integral part of contemporary life.
And the perverted fear of violence
Chokes the smile on every face
And common sense is ringing out the bell
This ain’t no technological breakdown
Oh no, this is the road to hell
Technology – ah yes, Towards the end of the 1980s, people were turning away from buying those terribly old-fashioned circular slabs of vinyl that had been the basis of my music purchasing youth. Instead, they were starting to invest in smaller shiny plastic discs that were (according to a legendary “Tomorrow’s World” item) utterly indestructible – you could spread jam on them and you’d still get perfect sound reproduction out of these wonders of technology. Yes, my arse! I have CD discs that have had a nervous breakdown as a result of taking them out of the jewel case a bit too energetically!
The album that the song came from, also called “The Road to Hell”, was one of the major selling CD releases of the late 1980s. I associated it, along with likes of “But Seriously” by Phil Collins (remember “Another Day In Paradise”?) or “Brothers In Arms” by Dire Straits, as music beloved by that particularly hateful breed of 80s wanker that was known as the “yuppie” – think slicked back hair and red braces and you get the idea, or just watch “Wall Street”. I was once visiting somebody who certainly fitted into this category, and I noticed that “The Road to Hell” was in their brand shiny new CD collection. To my shame, I decided that it obviously wasn’t going to be to my liking despite the fact that I had thought the single was brilliant.
Yup, guilty as charged – I was a bit of a prick, walking around with a classic working class chip on my shoulder having grown up in a poor family, and hated what Margaret Thatcher had created in terms of what I considered to be the selfishness of the 1980s. I’m probably still a bit of prick with that working class chip on my shoulder to be honest, but I’m getting too old to give a damn whether people like me or not!
And all the roads jam up with credit
And there’s nothing you can do
It’s all just bits of paper flying away from you
Oh look out world, take a good look
What comes down here
You must learn this lesson fast and learn it well
This ain’t no upwardly mobile freeway
Oh no, this is the road
Said this is the road
This is the road to hell
So here find ourselves heading into another general election, bombarded with messages from political parties who primarily seem more concerned with the continuation of parliamentary power rather than giving a shit about the population that they allegedly govern. Yes, we seem to be on the road to hell, and I cannot see anyway to get off the damn thing without pain and suffering all around.
So the fear continues – expect the NHS to fall apart as it continues to be privatised by stealth, expect teachers to lose their jobs as schools continue to be underfunded, expect Brexit to go anyway except the way that any politician expects it to go. Welcome to the fear. Welcome to the road to hell.
Apologies for the miserable post – maybe the music inspired me?
Hey – how about a live version to make it up to you again?