Scanner ‘Runaway Train’

‘Runaway Train’, a stark live recording of radio communication between the driver of derailing Canadian train and his controller, appeared on vinyl in 1993, uncredited on the Ash International label. It was of course an early Scanner release. Robin Rimbaud talks us through the extraordinary release…

“The story of ‘Runaway Train’ stretches all the way back to childhood. I’ve been collecting sounds since I was about 11. ‘Runaway Train’ was a direct result of my cassette archive, some 400 recordings I’d amassed. I’m still archiving and gathering new sound material all the time. I had 12 workmen in my house recently, so I’ve been recording all their drills and the scaffolding going up.

I spent last summer digitising my whole collection. I recorded quite a lot of films, long before the days of video recorders, and I even used to record myself reading the Spiderman credits aloud from the television. I came across a tape of my brother’s 21st birthday. He died a year ago, my mother died the year before, my grandmother 10 years ago, but listening back to this tape, suddenly all my family were brought back to life. It was an incredible moment. To actually hear these voices, hear the space, the kitchen sounds, the acoustics, the television on in the background, that’s something remarkable.

Much of my history is compressed into this archive of tapes. I also kept a diary and I’ve never missed a single day since the age of 12, so I could go back and dig out whatever I’d taped on a certain day. Those cassettes played quite an important role in my life and ‘Runaway Train’ was one of those cassettes.

There was a huge “social network” in the 70s and early 80s of people swapping cassettes. I don’t want to sound too nostalgic, but it was an amazing time, it was just you, on a very individual path discovering obscure things. Some guy I used to swap tapes with, but never met, sent me a cassette from Canada in the late-80s that his dad had passed on to him. When I heard it I just thought it was incredible. It was ‘Runaway Train’. It was recorded in 1948 and it’s essentially a conversation between the controller and the driver of a train that was rapidly slipping from his grip. It’s a piece of theatre, a moment of high drama caught on tape.

Around that time I had just set up a label called Ash International with Mike Harding from Touch Recordings, who’d released many eclectic and beautiful recordings. We decided to set up Ash to release these tapes from my personal archives. A lot of my work at that time was about capturing conversations, these indiscreet signals that float around in the ether which we tune into for a moment, so ‘Runaway Train’ followed that thread. The tape was one of those legendary bootlegs that had been circulating for years, but because of the sender’s family connection I felt very close to the source recording, which was hugely exciting, though I never heard from any of the protagonists families.

There was something perverse about releasing a record with no music on it. The audio wasn’t treated in any way, all I did was clean up the tape a bit and edit out a section because it was a very long recording with a big gap in the middle, when the communication had cut out. We just made sure that it ran the length of one side of an LP. It was uncredited because all of the early Scanner recordings were conceived as the outputs of some kind of unknown, corporate entity. It was only when I started to become a bit more composed and musical that I thought I’d better put a proper credit on my records.

We felt that we were providing a type of public access service in a way and it was always intended as a copyright-free release. Many people used the track in DJ sets and I’m not sure how many times it’s been sampled. I’d only find out when someone told me, but I know Richie Hawtin used it, which was a very thrilling moment for me. We made a few similar things around the time, like ‘Blind’, taken from black box recordings of plane crashes. We did talk about doing a record of car crashes too, but we never got around to it.

For me, ‘Runaway Train’ is still quite a magical thing, it captures a moment in time that could have disappeared forever. And because it’s caught on a vinyl record it takes on more of a collector’s aesthetic. I know that many trainspotters are keen collectors of audio recordings, and I hope the record is an interesting artefact for them too. There’s a magic about somebody capturing the sound of a train and a unique moment that’s significant to them.

There are certain things you collaborate and work on and you can step back from and think, “Actually, this had an impact”. What we did with Ash International and ‘Runaway Train’ certainly had an impact in terms of pushing what a record label can release. We shook those ideas around.

‘Scanni’ by Scanner & Anni Hogan is out on Cherry Red

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