Song: Driving the Last Spike – Genesis

Album: We Can’t Dance

Writers: Phil Collins, Anthony Banks, Mike Rutherford

Time: 10:08 (another long quinn song)

I do not often recommend anything – be it a song, or a film – that tells a part of history, because most people take it as gospel what was stated or shown. Most do not do further research into the subject matter, for a litany of reasons. Now please do not misunderstand me, I do not believe that everyone needs to become an expert on everything; however, if you are going to advocate for something, you should be highly informed, unfortunately we seem to have drove critical thinking off into the ditch and left it there. Apologies for the digression.

Driving the Last Spike gives a glimpse into the lives of ‘Navvies’ – basically semi-skilled workers that used machinery such as mechanical shovels and earth moving equipment, who were used to build civil engineering projects. These men worked hard in some of the worst conditions imaginable, and there was nothing even remotely like workplace safety.

Actor Dennis Waterman gave the original idea for this song to Phil Collins in a conversation they had.

There is a statement that we kind of laugh at, but the statement says this – It is amazing what one can accomplish when they are not the one that actually has to do the work, and they do not give a bleep about the people that do. There are no telling how many people died to build the British Rail System, or the American Railroad, or anything for that matter when people simply did not care about the health and welfare of their fellow man.

I have been a Genesis fan since I was a child. We can debate which version of Genesis was best – the Peter Gabriel years or the Phil Collins years, but for most of my memories, Genesis has been, Phil, Tony, and Mike.

When this album was released, I picked it up within a week. I was working in construction, building a paper mill. I had not figured out what I wanted to do in life, and I was working on a large capital construction project. I was doing demanding physical labor 60+ hours per week. No way did I face what these guys saw every day, but I felt a camaraderie with them, as it was hard work and working like the devil for our pay. But I also knew that this was a hard life, and needed to figure out if I was going to use my brain or my body to earn money.

This song starts slow and builds, and when it gets to the final transition, the beat and pace are like that of a locomotive. The lyrics are deep and thoughtful, especially the last transition – and I will add them below. The album version of this song differs from the live version of the song, although the lyrics match the live version, not the album version.

The song is from an introspective point of view of one of the men. He offers up a prayer for guidance and strength, leaving his family etc. Lyrics below, and I highly recommend a listen.

Leaving my family behind me
Not knowing what lay ahead
Waving goodbye, as I left them in tears
Remembering all we’d said

I looked to the sky, I offered my prayers
I asked Him for guidance and strength
But the simple beliefs of a simple man
Lay in His hands, and on my head (my head)

I gave everything that they wanted
But still they wanted more
We sweat and we toiled
Good men lost their lives
I don’t think they knew what for

I sold them my heart
I sold them my soul
I gave everything I had
Ah, but they couldn’t break my spirit
My dignity fought back
(fight back)
(just fight back)

Ah, can you hear me?
Can you see?
Don’t you hear me?
Don’t you see?

We worked in gangs for all we were worth
The young boys pulling the wagons
We were digging the tunnel, shifting the earth
It was then that it happened

No one knew how the cracks appeared
But as it fell they all disappeared
Stone fell like rain

Ah, can an you hear me?
Can you see?
Don’t you hear me?
(Can) Can you breathe?

The smoke cleared, the dust it settled
No one knew how many had died
All around there were broken men
They’d said it was safe, they’d lied
You could hear the cries, you could smell our fear
But good fortune that day was mine
And it occurred to me that the heart of a good man-
It seems is hard to find

Ah, can you hear me?
Can you see?
(Don’t) Don’t you hear me?
(Don’t) Don’t you see?

We worked, how we worked like
The devil for our pay
Through the wind, through the snow
And through the rain

Blasting, cutting through God’s country like a knife
With sweat stinging my eyes, there has to be a better life

But I can hear my childrens’ cry
I can see the tears in their eyes
Memories of those I’ve left behind
Still ringing in my ears
Will I ever go back again?
Will I ever see her face again?
Cause I’ll always remember the night-
As they waved goodbye to their fathers

We came from the North
We came from the South
With picks and with spades
And a new kind of order
Showing no fear of what lies up ahead
They’ll never see the likes of us again

Driving the last spike
Lifting and laying the track
With blistering hands
The sun burning your back

But I can hear my childrens’ cry
I can see the tears in their eyes
Oh the memories of those I’ve lft behind
They’re still ringing in my ears
Well I’ll always remember that night
As they waved goodbye to their fathers

We followed the rail, we slept under the stars
Digging in darkness, and living with danger
Showing no fear of what lies up ahead
They’ll never see the likes of us again

Ah, can you hear me?
Can you see?
(Don’t) Don’t you hear me?
(Don’t) Don’t you see?


  1. I’ve loved Genesis’ music but didn’t know about this one. It is a powerful story told. The railroad references are clear, but it could apply to many infrastructure projects as you say, such as Hoover Dam, Panama Canal, power plants, oil rig hands, skyscraper beam walkers (how my great-grandpa lost his life in the 1930s). I’m glad to know of this song.

  2. Remarkable tune I had not heard before.

    Frankly, by the time 1991 rolled around, I had grown a bit tired of Phil Collins. Don’t get me wrong, I acknowledge he’s a talented songwriter and musician, but I feel he was way too overexposed in the ’80s.

    I’m also not particularly fond of the song “I Can’t Dance,” primarily for the same reason. You simply couldn’t switch on the radio in Germany and not encounter this song! That’s why I basically ignored the album. I’m glad to realize that “Driving the Last Spike” is far better than “I Can’t Dance”!

  3. I second what Christian said – never heard of this song, at a time I was a big Genesis fan but by then I was a bit burnt out on them & the song “We Can’t Dance” didn’t make me want to look deep into this album. But it is well-written and interesting. But, like Cinci, I’m Canadian so it still pales just a little compared to the similarly-themed “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” by Gordon Lightfoot.

  4. It’s a sweeping tune and acknowledges the forgotten who have built their civilizations across times and places. I like Genesis, but the drums in this really grate on my nerves. Ironic as Phil is the drummer!

  5. I was a fairly big fan of Genesis, though like several who’ve already commented, I was also tiring of them – and Phil Collins – by the early 90s. I’ve never heard this song, nor “No Son of Mine” (which another blogger I follow recently wrote about), but they’re both dark and powerful tracks that stand in fairly sharp contrast to the more poppy songs from the album like “I Can’t Dance”, which I remember not caring for when it came out in 1991, as well as the lovely, introspective “Hold On My Heart”.

    I enjoyed reading about your personal experience with hard working conditions, and why “Driving the Last Spike” resonated with you so deeply.

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