In the shuffling madness
Of the locomotive breath
Runs the all-time loser
Headlong to his death

Oh, he feels the piston scraping
Steam breaking on his brow
Old Charlie stole the handle
And the train it won't stop
Oh no way to slow down

He sees his children jumping off
At the stations one by one
His woman and his best friend
In bed and having fun
Oh, he's crawling down the corridor
On his hands and knees
Old Charlie stole the handle
And the train it won't stop going
No way to slow down

He hears the silence howling
Catches angels as they fall
And the all-time winner
Has got him by the balls
Oh, he picks up Gideons bible
Open at page one
I think God he stole the handle
And the train it won't stop going
No way to slow down

No way to slow down
No way to slow down
No way to slow down
No way to slow down
No way to slow down
No way to slow down
No way to slow down
No way to slow down

Lyrics submitted by KidArt, edited by teffjweedy

Locomotive Breath Lyrics as written by Ian Anderson

Lyrics © BMG Rights Management

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Locomotive Breath song meanings
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  • +12
    My InterpretationSome misunderstandings I see:
    Old Charlie is an old euphemism for the Devil.
    The song is about growing old and losing control of one's life, be it from drug abuse or from corporate de-personalization.

    Locomotive Breath can refer to drug abuse, but it is a reference to the de-personalization of the modern industrial society which treats people as parts of a machine.

    He is the all-time loser, who has tried and failed to earn the big promotions. "Old Charlie stole the handle" refers to his loss of control over his own life.

    "Crawling down the corridor" is his struggle to keep going, though crushed by the weight of his failures, be they alcohol related or simply the weariness of age.

    "The all time winner has got him by the balls" is a reference to the impersonal corporate management that keeps him locked into his position as a broken cog in the corporate machine, a position from which he can only escape by dying.

    He loses his family and friends in his downward spiral. Gideon's Bible is a reference to the motels he must live in, and when he "opens at page one" he is seeking some salvation from the train-wreck his life has become.

    The context of this song is the album Aqualung. In the late '60's and early '70's, rock albums were thematic modern operas. This was the age of Godspell, Hair, and Jesus Christ Superstar. The theme of the Aqualung album as a whole was the failures of the modern industrial society. Not the failures of the system, but the people within it, or falling out of it. (Cross-eyed Mary, the sexually abused teen, and Aqualung, the homeless alcoholic are examples of this.)

    Locomotive Breath is about the corporate worker who never measured up and wound up in a dead in job with a dead end life that consumed him.

    The central question of the album is, what part does God play in a de-personalized industrial society? The album asks the question, but gives no answer.
    brian333on March 21, 2013   Link
  • +6
    General CommentThis is what was listed at Cup of Wonder, a great Tull fansite:

    * "'Locomotive Breath' is another song about dying, but it's not so serious as 'Slipstream'. It's an analogy of the unending train journey of life; you can't stop, you've got to stagger on. But it's not that serious. All of the songs have an element of humour, and sometimes pure silliness".
    * Ian Anderson in Disc and Music Echo, 20th March 1971

    * This song is about modern man ("the all-time loser"), who can hardly keep up with the pace of life in our society ("locomotive breath"). He suffers from all kinds of desillusions, alienation and solitude, cannot get hold of his own life and in the end resorts to religion: "he picks up Gideons Bible, open at page one", in the hope to find a solution. The verseline "The train won't stop going, no way to slow down" symbolizes his/our life that goes on and on without a pause until we inevitably die. At this place in the bible one will find the book of Genesis in which is described how the universe, the world and all living beings on it were created. Roland Tarmo points out that "old Charlie" is a reference to Charles Darwin and his evolution theory, that offered a scientific alternative for the unconditional belief in creation as worded in Genesis, thus questioning the self-evidentness of this belief. In other words: he "stole the handle", that for centuries had defined men's position. I assume that "the all-time winner" refers to God.
    "Gideon" is the organisation that aims at spreading the Bible by having it placed in public buildings like hotels.
    * Jan Voorbij
    Taobethon December 16, 2004   Link
  • +2
    General Comment"He picked up Gideon’s Bible…I thank God he stole the handle and the train it won't stop going..." With the only means of slowing and stopping the train removed, Loser became willing to consider spirituality. So, Anderson thanks God for allowing the painful circumstances, the panic and terror and the urgency that moved him to open a bible to see if it held answers to his misery, just in time. Just before his time ran out…
    smiledownuponyoursonon May 14, 2009   Link
  • +1
    General CommentThis is a great song. The song is telling about a man who is a loser in a death spiral. He loses his wife and kids. As he rides this 'train' to his inevitable death, there is no way to slow down.
    Anomaly57on May 20, 2004   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI'm as suprised as Mojo, although I only have 15 years into Tull. I had assumed that the song was somehow describing a soldier going to his death. I find this belief structure interpretation much deeper and more true to the lyrics. I knew this site had to be good for something. :)
    onelokikittyon January 04, 2007   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI learned a lot by reading many of you.
    This song started to have new meanings for me and also triggered me new thoughts.

    I first thought was of Waiting for Godot from Samuel Beckett and its overwhelming sensation that time never stops. And the issue of no solution neither with God or without God, nor winning or losing.
    And the handle is like Godot, something that could stop the suffering but never comes or was stolen, the same. An ilussion, even if it comes the suffering will not stop.

    At a universal level, all of us with different intensities, including the author of the song, feel somehow that way.
    It could be better or worse, with drugs, death, religion, modern life, old life or any addiction, winning or losing, with good or bad wife, victim or victimary. Whatever.

    The images are wonderful and so powerful.

    Silence howling: Haven't you ever hear it? A silence of no answers to the ultimate questions that hurts so much!

    These things that happen to believers and non-believers, to modern man and to the traditional man, to the winner and the loser.

    Catching angels as they fall: They are the falling angels like Satan or the falling angels of not believing or just falling angels. Cathching them for good or bad? Who knows?

    The all time winner could be God or a human winner but could also be inside oneself, the image of winner we all have in mind (and cannot stop having it) and that makes a slave of us to it throughout our life. We all have an all time loser and an all time winner inside.

    We always talk about "other things" when we write, but simultaneously we talk about ourselves at a different level of meaning.

    We all have children jumping at the stations, for god or bad, who knows?
    We all have woman and best friend in bed hurting us in our mind, whatever it means (like low self esteem in some cases, for example).

    I love the image of someone stealing the handle: God or Darwin or whoever is Charlie. But remember also that we (you who are reading this, myself, etc.) stole the handle and we have to face it. We are also responsible at some level.

    Very-very interesting: I googled "Old Charlie" and found "MTA" in Wikipedia. It talks about a song written in 1948 called Charlie in the MTA: "The lyrics are about a man named Charlie trapped on Boston's subway system, then known as the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA)... It has become so entrenched in Boston that the city's subway system named its electronic card-based fare collection system the "CharlieCard" as a tribute to this song...The song's lyrics tell of Charlie, a man who gets aboard an MTA subway car. Charlie CAN'T GET OFF the subway as he didn't bring enough money for the "EXIT FARES" that were established to collect an increased fare without upgrading existing fare collection equipment.

    When he got there the conductor told him,
    "One more nickel."
    Charlie could not get off that train.

    Did he ever return,
    No he never returned
    And his fate is still unlearn'd
    He may ride forever
    'neath the streets of Boston
    He's the man who never returned.

    After the third line of the chorus, audiences familiar with the song often call out "Poor Old Charlie!"

    In the Kingston Trio recording, after the final chorus, the song's lead singer Nick Reynolds speaks the words: "Et tu, Charlie?", an echo of Julius Caesar's famous "Et tu, Brute?" ("You too, Brutus?")."

    (my comment: This sounds to me like that Charlie is at the same time a victim ("poor") and a victimary ("the one who killed". "That's all humanity" as is said in Waiting for Godot. Life moves and never
    returns for us, like Charlie)

    Interesting coincidences, or not! Hope you enjoy it as I did!
    trackon November 22, 2009   Link
  • +1
    General CommentDamn! When I first really heard this song I was on 55 mgs. of 2ci, and was tripping balls. Instead of saying no way to slow down, I thought he was saying you know it puts lord down. I thought and the train it wont stop going was saying something about a watchtower boy. In other words taking too much trip and ending up on a watchtower all the time. I figured this song was about a man who tripped too much and already had severe mental disturbances, such as depression and self-defeating personality. I was much more comfortable with that, but I still think it is one of the greatest songs ever made
    kesey42on September 21, 2013   Link
  • +1
    General CommentThis song is about a man who is experiencing a spiral downward, "headlong into death". The imagery in the song revolves around the "fall", "catching angels as they fall", and the book of Genesis. Through a stream of consciousness reverie, we catch glimpses of the man's personal fall - "crawling down the corridor on his hands and knees", and his woman is in bed with his best friend. As he heads towards his death, - given the times, most likely drug induced - the silence (death) is howling. Locomotive breath may refer to the stench of death and the smell of a drug addict. "The piston scraping" and the spraying steam "on his brow" shows all coming to ruin. His way of living not only destroys himself, but also those with whom he comes in contact or to whom he's close - "children jumping from the train one by one."
    nightHawk47on May 01, 2012   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThis is a great song. The song is telling about a man who is a loser in a death spiral. He loses his wife and kids. As he rides this 'train' to his inevitable death, there is no way to slow down.
    Anomaly57on May 20, 2004   Link
  • 0
    General CommentI love this song, it always pumps me up when I'm working out and I love just rockin' out to it, it's one of my fav. songs.
    Olexon September 17, 2004   Link

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