Some music is almost too venerable for parody. As 2005 began, the 1980 UK chart classic Going Underground seemed like a case in point. Its composer, Paul Weller, had by then become an iconic musical journeyman, an artist whose stylistic evolution had paralleled the maturation of a generation of Londoners. The Jam's pounding anthem was revered as a brazen and cocksure statement of the attitude of its time.
It was in the middle of January that an incongruous recording was posted on the internet. Within weeks, it had achieved cult status, and the 'Modfather's' early masterpiece would never sound the same again. The opening bars of the parody suggest a travesty of the original. The vocal is querulous and tentative, and strident guitars are replaced by a gentle piano. The first lyrics are a seemingly-pointless ramble about different means of travelling to work.
Just before the listener succumbs to total bemusement, however, this trivial ditty transforms into a glorious and vitriolic tirade at the London Underground and its execrable standards of service, along with its cleanliness and the workers' tendency to strike over pay. The language is, to say the least, immoderate. The song is very, very funny, and surely captures the prevailing public opinion of its subject to perfection.
The performers of London Underground turned out to be a pair of junior doctors, Adam Kay and Suman Biswas. In the autumn of 2004, they had recorded a collection of songs in support of Imperial College London's Rag Week. The collection became an album, called Fitness to Practice and all proceeds went to the Macmillan Cancer Relief charity.
The album was not expected to do particularly well. Through a combination of frantic promotion on the college website and the efforts of Kay's father (also a doctor) at a BMA conference, the original run of 500 CDs sold out in just three weeks. From there, word of mouth catapulted the work to notoriety.
London Underground is untypical of the rest of the collection, because it doesn't have a medical theme. Many of the other songs are rather more cerebral, though nearly all of them are as likely to give offence.
Kay and Biswas remain moderately prominent on the revue circuit, although the former seems to have felt compelled to fake his own death in order to maintain the publicity. It's likely, of course, that Fitness to Practice will prove to be the duo's zenith in terms of critical acclaim. We can be fairly sure, however, that London Underground itself will stay in the public consciousness for years to come, perfectly expressing the derision of the apoplectic traveller.