King's Cross

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 1987
Original album - Actually
Producer - Stephen Hauge
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - Pandemonium

King's Cross is one of the busiest and most well-known railway/subway station in London. Back in the 1980s it was recognized as a common "gay pickup" spot as well as a notorious hangout of prostitutes, with many of the nearby hotels offering rooms "by the hour," although apparently the area has been "cleaned up" considerably in recent years. Whatever the case, the album cut that takes its name from this station has proved a favorite among PSB fans, perhaps acknowledged by Chris and Neil in that they have performed it live on many occasions.

A rather ominous-sounding track, it took on an even greater sense of foreboding—in the most literal sense of that word—in late 1987 when King's Cross became the site of an underground fire in which 31 people died. Neil sang about seeing "dead and wounded on either side, you know it's only a matter of time," leading some fans to believe that the song was written in response to this disaster. Yet the Actually album, including this song, was released before this terrible event. To add to the general eerieness of it all, the scene during which this song plays in the Boys' film It Couldn't Happen Here features a man dressed in a suit, carrying a briefcase—and on fire.

Setting aside the possibility that our musical heroes may be clairvoyant, just what is this song about? The opening image of a man who feels "the smack of firm government" waiting in a long line suggests general social decay and dissatisfaction. The lyrics seem to offer social commentary on the conditions in and around this crowded railway station—although Neil tosses in a more personal observation when he notes, almost in passing, that he (that is, his persona) "went looking out today for the one who got away." It has been suggested elsewhere that these images and feelings may be based on those that Neil himself observed and felt when he left home and moved to London as a very young man. Taken altogether, perhaps King's Cross serves as a "double metaphor" for sociopolitical conditions in Britain at the time as well as for the confusion and disorder in the narrator's own troubled mind. As Neil has described it, the song is "a hymn to the people getting left out of Thatcherism" (the economic policies of the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher).

Given the fact that, as already noted, King's Cross was at the time this song was written (and possibly is still) a notorious area for gay "cruising," it has been suggested by more than one of my site visitors that this is precisely what the song is about. Several lines readily lend themselves to such an interpretation, such as the references to "lingering" and "hanging around" as well as the especially poignant line "So I went looking out today for the one who got away"—possibly cruising aimed not merely at a quick sexual encounter but as the start of something longer-lasting and more fulfilling. On the other hand, the recurring language of violence employed in the song ("smack," "fight," "hurt," "dead and wounded," "murder") evokes thoughts of something darker, including rough trade and S&M. Even if this is not what the song is "about," the use of such words may be a way of teasing or "playing with" the audience, or at least that portion of the audience attuned to such things. (For another take on this "gay cruising angle," largely inspired by Derek Jarman's video for the song, please see the bullet-point annotations below.)

Other site visitors have suggested that AIDS may also play a role in this narrative, which could explain the air of narrative guilt that seems to permeate it. Is the narrator expressing "survivor guilt" because he has had "good luck … waiting in a line," whereas others no less deserving have had "bad luck"? The line "Dead and wounded on either side" may refer to the fact that both gay and straight people are affected by the disease. Neil, in fact, confirmed that the lines "Dead and wounded on either side, you know it's only a matter of time" indeed refer to AIDS in the booklet that accompanied the 2001 reissue of the album.

Annotations

To summarize, Ian states, "In quite a few of his gay-themed songs Neil Tenant expresses a sort of weariness about interactions with men—fragmentary, lacking connection, plagued by doubt and hesitation, impersonal, detached, and cynical—and 'King's Cross' has all of these in spades. This is also reflective of the gay scene in London at the time when there was a lot of fear of AIDS and gay men were still highly stigmatised in mainstream society."

Personally, I can't attest to the accuracy of all this, nor to (assuming the facts are accurate) whether it might actually any bearing on a likely "meaning" of the song. I provide it here simply as another possible dimension for gaining greater understanding of its lyrics, which admittedly can be regarded as somewhat cryptic.

Mixes

Officially released

Official but unreleased

List cross-references