Every once-in-a-blue-moon, a song is written that is so good that it lives an eternal life apart from the artist who created it. It only happens when the inherent quality of the song jumps from the grooves of the vinyl (or the Zeros and Ones of your digital player) to grab the listener by the ears and whisper it's cult-leader charm: "Drink my Kool-Aid." This is when the song spreads like a virus to the next artist who interprets it their way, and then spreads to the next and the next and the next. George Gershwin's Summertime, Richard Berry's Louie Louie, or Billy Robert's Hey Joe fit the criteria. And so does our choice for the first Song of the Week for December 2008: The Train Kept A-Rollin'.
Train Kept A-Rollin' was originally recorded in 1951 in Cincinnati, Ohio by it's composer, Tiny Bradshaw. Bradshaw led a jump blues/swing band that recorded for King Records and had a number of regional hits, but his recording of The Train Kept A-Rollin' is his most enduring legacy. Again, not for his recording of it alone, but for what the song would become in the hands of others (as well as his). Bradshaw's original is a rollicking up-tempo swing number that features solid saxophone playing, subtle jazz guitar, driving drums and a great vocal performance filling out a largely tradition I-IV-V jump blues arrangement. It's a great song and worthy of praise in it's own right. But that's not where we are stopping this week on our Train ride.
About 500 miles from Cincinnati, South of the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi rivers, a Memphis boxer named Johnny Burnette, his brother, Dorsey, and a local electrician named Paul Burlison were performing Country and Western numbers as the Rhythym Kings. About the same time a good looking young truck driver from Tupelo, Mississippi strolled into Sam Phillips' Sun Studios in that same riverside town and laid down a couple of tracks in which he merged C&W with R&B. The hillbilly trio saw their calling and changed their name to Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio. They picked up on Bradshaw's song and merged their country stylings with the R&B of the original Train Kept A-Rollin', much as that pioneering town-mate of theirs had done with Junior Parker's Mystery Train the year prior. The Rock and Roll Trio's seminal 1956 recording of The Train Kept A-Rollin' gave the song an entirely new arrangement and an entirely new attitude. Recorded in Owen Bradley's Nashville studio, the song, from the opening notes of studio guitarist Grady Martin's distorted descending notes to Dorsey's bass slappin' and Johnny's hillbilly hollerin', attacks the listener like a runaway freight train barreling down a winding mountain track. Perhaps the most aggressive song put to wax at that point in history, the song does away with the cool demeanor of Bradshaw's recording, rewrites a number of the lyrics, and replaces the horns with a guitar attack that was 100% original in tone and attitude. It is probably best described as sounding like a schizophrenic badger on an all-night crack bender. This radically rewrttien Train had left Bradshaw's station and was now on the nascent track towards becoming something much bigger. [editors note: For detailed recording info on this pioneering session, I strongly urge On The Flip-Side readers to check out a superb article by Vince Gordon and Peter Dijkema which turned my understanding of this song on it's head].
Even with these two drastically different stellar recordings logged in the history books, Train Kept A-Rollin' was still a song perhaps destined for obscurity. But Train's life span wasn't up yet. Fourteen years after the song first appeared on wax, and nine years after it had been turned into a rock-n-roll number, a gang of pimply faced, shaggy-haired, wide-eyed youths from London walked into Sam Phillips' Sun Studios to pay homage to the king of Rock-n-Roll.
The band in question was the Yardbirds and they were touring the United States with their brand new guitarist, Jeff Beck, who had just replaced Eric Clapton in the first chair. The young Beck was a serious student of rockabilly and an aficionado of groundbreaking guitar tone. He and bassist, Paul Samwell-Smith, quickly went to work rearranging The Train Kept A-Rollin' and in doing so demonstrated how far rock had come in 9 short years. The Yardbirds' arrangement took the song in a largely new, more modern direction. Gone was the cruising blues-shouter version. Gone was the jaggedly frenetic rockabilly version. In place was an aggressive rhythm, that, for the first time, replicated the chug-chug-A-chug-chug of a train (note Beck opening the song by imitating a train whistle). Burnette's version was undoubtedly the framework for the song, however. Included in the Yardbirds version is the promotion of two Grady Martin riffs from the lead: the repetitive G-E interplay and the A-A-B-A-G-F#-E riff (both can be heard between 1:11 and 1:16 of the Burnette version) that would become the signature turnaround in the Yardbirds' take on the song. Overlaid were dual blues harp attacks, octave busting bass runs and two guitar leads that spun off the train and fought for control of the song with a doubled vocal by Keith Relf (one vocal track being a late-night boisterously drunken slur, the other the next morning's sober recital).
Each of the three versions of the song are radically different from the next and each as great as the next in their own way. Ultimately the Yardbirds' arrangement caught on like a wildfire and became the standard arrangement of countless covers of the song by bands as diverse as Aerosmith, Motörhead, the Mossmen, and Iggy Pop. It is unquestionably the approach that endures today. it doesn't necessarily mean it is the best, however. Let me know, what is your favorite version.