Week 18: “Midnight Express” by Extreme

Yes, this is an entry about a song by Extreme. Yes, that Extreme, the hair band from the late 1980s. Yes, I’m serious.

I got to know this song pretty much by accident. I had joined one of those mail-order music clubs, which in the pre-internet days was the best way for a music-obsessed yet largely music-ignorant teenager to be exposed to the maximum amount of music for the minimum amount of money. Overwhelmed by choice while browsing their catalogue (an insert ripped from Rolling Stone), I picked out an album called “Waiting for the Punchline”, mainly because it had cool and darkly ironic cover art involving a clown.

When the album arrived, I suddenly realized that it was by Extreme. The only song of theirs that I knew at that point was the sappy-yet-creepy “More Than Words”. In the age of Nirvana, only the wussiest of wusses would own an album by Extreme. I considered beating myself up, but instead gave the album a try. It was a bit sad; the band was obviously trying to veer away from its hair band image, in an effort to appeal to the grunge generation. Songs with faux-edgy titles like “There Is No God” and “Cynical Fuck” dominated the album, but there were also ballads that seemed to try to recapture the band’s “More Than Words” glory days. The overall impression was a band with a severe identity crisis. They broke up within a year of the album’s release.

However, the instrumental “Midnight Express”, as out-of-place as it seems on this mostly forgettable album, made my hasty purchase seem not so ill-advised.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Virtuosic guitar playing. Okay, so it’s a bit of a guitar wank song. But Extreme, as hilariously 80s as they were, was a band of solid musicians. Guitarist Nuno Bettencourt proves it in this song.

2. The subtly Spanish sound. Not sure what it is exactly—maybe maybe there are some castanets hidden in the mix somewhere, or maybe it’s that guitar again—but this song wouldn’t be entirely out of place as a soundtrack to the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Anyway, it gives the slightest hint of exotic-ness to the song.

3. It uses sound instead of lyrics. Various light percussive elements and the ever-present guitar really make it clear that this is a song about a train ride. The ride gets bumpy. The train speeds up. There’s a sudden vista as the train passes over a valley. You really don’t always need lyrics to tell a story.

Recommended listening activity:

Taking a train through the countryside.

Buy it here.