Monday, December 1, 2008

Song of the Week: The Train Kept A-Rollin' (multiple artists)

We're going to take a bit of a different path this week with our Song-of-the-Week post. Instead of highlighting a song by a particular artist, we're going to highlight a particular song as performed by multiple artists. You with me?

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.


  1. Don't know how I never got the sexual innuendo of this song ("with a heave and a ho, I just couldn't let her go"??), but it is plain as day in the Tiny Bradshaw recording. If it were written in the 70s, it surely would've been titled The Van Kept A-Rockin'. That solo in the Burnette version is devilish, I don't know what to make of it.

  2. I learned at least three things from this post: 1) "Train" is not a Johnny Burnette original (shame on me for assuming this), 2) The dame on the train was a "hipster" and NOT "hefty" or "handsome" as I had previously believed, and 3) Paul Burlison may not have played guitar on that track. (I read the Gordon/Dijkema article and, though they make a very compelling argument and no doubt they know WAY more than I do about both Burlison and Martin, I hesitate to concur until I do some research and hear the "evidence" for myself.) Thanks for the learnin'.

    My favorite version? Pretty hard to say. I'd never heard the Tiny Bradshaw version 'til now, and I must say its a groovy little number. And I am quite fond of the rickety bombast of the Motorhead version. But I think I'd have to choose the Johnny Burnette version as my favorite. Which is a tough call 'cause the locomotive propulsion of the Yardbirds version is so damn punchy, and I love Beck's playing. But that Burnette version, especially the guitar (regardless of who is playing it), is totally unhinged in a recklessly enthusiastic way.

  3. It's hard to pick a version as they are so different. For me it is between the Burnette and Yardbirds version and comes down to whichever version of the song I listened to last.

    Re: the guitarist on the Burnette version, I would suggest listening to the earliest recordings of Johnny Horton (such as Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor and Honky Tonk Man) and early George Jones (revenuer man). They both feature Grady Martin on guitar and the similarities between that guitar phrasing and tone are striking.

  4. From JBC-15: Can you give us non-musicians an explanation of the old I-IV-V? This is a chord progression that is most often used in country music, no?

    Also, I too never thought of the obvious double-entendre going on in this song. Pretty much every other jump-blues song is loaded with them. So many of those songs are done with a nudge and a wink.

    The Yardbirds version, the version I heard first, would have never led me to believe it was anything but a runaway train in the middle of the night. Keith Relf's double tracked, but not always matching in lyrics or timing, vocals have long confused the hell out of me. What is he saying? Honestly, I thought he was singing "She was a heifer!", which made me wonder why he was so worked up about the girl. There is another part where on one track he seems to be singing "I just couldn't let her go.", while on the other track he sings, "Yes I did!" Huh?

    I have loved the Johnny Burnette Trio recordings ever since I picked up the vinyl best of on the Solid Smoke label back in 1984. This has since been supplanted by the "Complete Coral Rock N' Roll Trio Recordings" on Universal Import. Actually this collection includes a few less than stellar ballads, but most of it is totally essential to any serious music collection. Here is a link:

    As for the best recording, it is hard to deny the Yardbirds version. Tiny Bradshaw may have come up with the tune,the Johnny Burnette Trio the blueprint on how to play it, but the Yardbirds recorded the Sistine Chapel of versions.

  5. The I-IV-V is a music rubric that is most commonly associated with the blues, but yes, it lives strong in country as well. Essentially your root key is the 1. The 4 and the 5 are relative positions on the scale. So, if you are playing in a root of E (1) you count up the scale (include your root note). E=1; F#=2; G#=3; A=4; B=5. And so on. Relative to this example, many blues songs will incorporate four counts on the I; two counts on the IV; two counts back on the I; one count on the V; one count on the IV; one count on the I and one count back on the V for the turnaround. It provides a common framework on which musicians can build a countless array of flourishes and riffs.

  6. its all good shit but Johnny Burnette Trio gets my vote. the original version is great, dripping with sex innuendo, but I reckon I am moved by the primal rock and roll of swampy guitars and echo'd vocals.