London’s train stations are no strangers to budding musicians belting out a tune or two. Whether it’s everyday travellers having a go on one of the two pianos at St Pancras, or the eclectic rotation of buskers that serenade us through the Tottenham Court Road interchange, a small dose of live music can make the commute a bit more bearable. (Let’s be honest, London train stations can be some of the city’s absolute worst places to be.)
Recently, several household names have been taking a leaf out of the busker’s handbook and surprising unsuspecting Londoners with mini-concerts. We’re talking big names, too, like Rod Stewart, Alicia Keys and Gabrielle. But what gets legendary artists like these inside London’s railway stations? Well, Elton John has a lot to answer for. The singer delivered an impromptu performance at St Pancras way back in 2016, before leaving a signed Yamaha piano behind as a donation with the message: ‘Enjoy this piano. It’s a gift. Love, Elton John.’
Since then, a flurry of big names like John Legend and Jeff Goldblum have taken to the instrument to give commuters a little musical lift along their journey. But unlike nimble-fingered members of the public, who stop by the piano spontaneously, the celeb appearances aren’t entirely ad lib or out of the pure goodness of their hearts. Most of the time they are – of course – publicity stunts.
There’s been a particular swarm of such stunts over the past couple of months. First, Rod Stewart popped up at St Pancras on December 5 with Jools Holland and a band of 18 backing musicians in tow. As commuters rushed to their platform and awaited the arrival of loved ones, the duo lit up St Pancras with sweet jazzy symphonies to promote their upcoming collaboration album, ‘Swing Fever’. (The pair are both self-confessed model railway fanatics, so the train thing makes a lot of sense.)
Rod Stewart (and Jools Holland) put on a Christmas show in St Pancras station today! ????pic.twitter.com/Anu7uuwdOZ
— Philippe Marlière (@PhMarliere) December 21, 2023
A week after that, Alicia Keys emerged through the crowd at St Pancras and took to the piano to plug the special 20th anniversary edition of the ‘Diary of Alicia Keys’. The American singer-songwriter performed a small selection of well-known songs from her catalogue, including ‘Empire State of Mind’, as well as her latest release ‘Lifeline’, which features on the upcoming ‘The Colour Purple’ movie.
— WHIT IN THE CITY (@WHITNEYtweets) December 11, 2023
Artists can expect a healthy dose of content from their station shows to go viral ahead of the launch of whatever they’re pushing, particularly if the performance comes as a shock to the public. Watch any video from the gigs and you’ll see a thick wall of smart phones, essentially doing the promo for them.
Brands are clearly catching on. The Sugababes also made an appearance on station stages before Christmas: in early December, the band headlined Trainline’s intimate ‘Train Live’ event at Paddington Station accompanied by a selection of ‘London’s finest buskers’. The vibe of this one was a little different to the surprise St Pancras gigs, mainly in that it was a ticketed occasion – but slightly odd, all the same.
@dantredgetmusic Station 87 (Special Edition): Paddington #londonunderground #singing #gig #busking #sugababes @Trainline UK @Sugababes ♬ original sound – Dan Tredget Music
Most recently, noughties pop star Gabrielle treated travellers at Waterloo Station to a rendition of her 1999 tune ‘Sunshine’, off the back of her ‘30 Years of Dreaming’ tour. That was in partnership with yogurt brand Actimel to brighten up the January blues of commuters. Random? We thought so too.
PR stunt or not, train station gigs prove that a little bit of live music can bring a hell of a lot of joy to an otherwise gloomy journey. We’re not aware of any upcoming star station appearances, but that’s what makes them all the more exciting. Elton’s piano is ready and waiting.