Yes, folks… DJ MJD is back! Today is April 20th (4/20), so I have selected a suitable song in honor of this very special date.
For those who may not be familiar with the term, 4/20 (also written 420 or 4:20 and pronounced “four twenty”) is a coded reference to the consumption of cannabis. There are various stories about how 420 came to have this meaning. Wikipedia says it was originated in 1971 by a group of students at San Rafael High School in Marin County, California.1 Sure, why not? April 20th (4/20) has become a sort of counter-culture holiday, notoriously celebrated at—where else?—my dear old alma mater, UC Santa Cruz.2
So, to commemorate 4/20, the song I chose for this post is “That Acapulco Gold” by The Rainy Daze.
According to AllMusic, The Rainy Daze formed in Denver, Colorado in 1965.3 I’d always thought the group’s name was inspired by the Bob Dylan song “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35”4 (much better known to the general public as “Ev’rybody Must Get Stoned”). However, Dylan’s song was released in April of 1966, so apparently—if AllMusic is correct—that is not the case.
Originally, The Rainy Daze mainly played blue-eyed covers of soul tunes like “Baby I Need Your Loving” and “Knock on Wood”…
“…parlaying a string of frat party gigs into a local television appearance that reportedly caught the attention of famed producer Phil Spector, who extended a management contract. A massive publicity campaign was in the planning stages when the spectacular failure of his magnum opus, Ike & Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep, Mountain High,’ left Spector’s career in shambles; the Rainy Daze were among the collateral damage… ”5
Tim Gilbert, the band’s singer and guitarist, co-wrote “That Acapulco Gold” with his college roommate, John Carter. The Rainy Daze released it as their first single in 1967 on the tiny IP label. Then, Denver-area producer Frank Slay bought the rights and released it on his Chicory label. It became a local hit, which in turn led to the UNI label purchasing the national distribution rights. It reached #70 on the Billboard charts before the management of radio stations discovered just what “Acapulco Gold” was. As an article in an April 1967 issue of Billboard magazine said, it “caused consternation in some quarters when it was learned the term referred to marijuana.”6
Well, I think it’s time to cause consternation in some quarters… let’s fire up “That Acapulco Gold.”
Not exactly “psychedelic” sounding, is it? In the mid-1960’s, while much of rock was becoming more avant-garde, there was a minor counter-trend: a resurrection of vaudeville- (American term) or music hall- (British term) style songs. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band embodied both directions, with the Indian-influenced “Within You Without You” being immediately followed by “When I’m 64.” The best-selling example of this faux nostalgia was “Winchester Cathedral” by The New Vaudeville Band, which reached #1 on the charts in December 1966. Trading blue-eyed soul for red-eyed schmaltz, The Rainy Daze mashed-up the old-timey musical approach with lyrics dosed with 60’s reefer-related references (e.g., keys, bricks, zig-zag, and matchbox). And, of course, the title referred to one of the earliest “brand name” types of weed.
The song was quickly removed from radio playlists. While The Rainy Daze never had another hit, Tim Gilbert and John Carter soon went on to write “Incense and Peppermints” for Strawberry Alarm Clock (really!).7
There is a cover version of “That Acapulco Gold,” recorded by a group called Big Sonny and the Lo Boys on their 1979 album, In Heat. This El Paso-area bar band featured founding member of The Mothers of Invention, Jimmy Carl Black,8 on drums and vocals. They play the song faster than the original—which probably inspired some exuberant two-stepping by the patrons in West Texas roadhouses.
So… Happy 4/20. “Acapulco Gold for ev’ryone!”
[NOTE: Stay tuned for my April 20, 2013 post on “Don’t Bogart Me” and my April 20, 2014 post featuring 420 Snoop Dogg songs about smoking pot, with hologram cameos by Tupac Shakur and Louis Armstrong.]
- Jason Ankeny,
- For a hilarious account of the recording of “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35,” check out pages 203-204 of Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan by Howard Sounes (Grove Press, 2001).
Fun Fact: 12 x 35 = 420 (oh wow, man!)
- “…he (Black) achieved lasting fame primarily for a single ad-libbed line on the third album by the Mothers of Invention: ‘Hi boys and girls, I’m Jimmy Carl Black and I’m the Indian of the group.’”
When I decided to blog about “The Train Kept A-Rollin’,” I envisioned a four-part series discussing the versions by Tiny Bradshaw, Johnny Burnette and the Rock’n’Roll Trio, The Yardbirds, and Aerosmith—which were the only ones I knew. Then I looked on iTunes and allmusic (AMG) and was amazed to find more than 70 performers had recorded the song.
I faced a dilemma—I liked “The Train Kept A-Rollin’,” but there was no f***ing way I was going to write 70+ posts about it. I doubted anyone would want to read that many posts either.
I previewed the tracks and most of them were knockoffs of those four versions mentioned above:
- Rhythm and blues bands (with names like King Pleasure & the Biscuit Boys or Eugene Goss & Rich Uncle Skeleton) were copying Tiny Bradshaw.
- Rockabilly groups (from the well-known—Stray Cats—to the obscure—Travis Mann Band) were doing the song à la Johnny Burnette. One of the most unlikely performers in this category was actor Jim Dale—winner of two Grammys for his narration on the Harry Potter audio books—who sang it in a 1958 British movie called 6-5 Special.
- Rock bands imitated The Yardbirds. Some versions were by arcane 60’s garage bands (examples: Fort Worth’s The Cynics and The Brave New World from the Pacific Northwest); others were by semi-obscure groups like The Nazz (featuring a 19-year old Todd Rundgren on guitar). Even Alex Chilton (The Box Tops, Big Star) covered it—but not very well—on his Live in London album.
- Heavy metal bands like Hanoi Rocks and Skid Row tried to top Aerosmith and, to use Woody Allen’s phrase from Annie Hall, “achieve total heavy-osity.” Sometimes “heavy” turned into “bloated”—Twisted Sister included a 10-minute version on their Live at Hammersmith CD.
While the majority fell into those categories, there were “outliers”: I found two bluegrass versions, one surf version, and, incredibly, some yutz named Brian Funshine even did a children’s version—sort of a faster “The Wheels On The Bus.”
During this extended “listening party,” I found the recording by Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages—which I included because of his Beck/Page connection. I also decided that the stories about “Stroll On” warranted giving it a separate post.
For some reason a seven-part series sounded better to me than a six-part series. I considered adding Motörhead’s punk rock rendition. Motörhead may not technically be a punk band, but their aggressively sloppy version of “Train Kept A-Rollin’” is punk—Lemmy Kilmister’s vocal went beyond mondegreen into pure glossolalia. Ultimately, however, I just didn’t have much to say about Motörhead—my favorite thing about the band is their metal umlaut.1
Then, while fact checking info about The Yardbirds, I learned of a very significant—but lost—version of “Train Kept A-Rollin’.”
Okay, let’s rewind for a moment—back to that Yardbirds’ gig in Connecticut when Steven Tyler carried Jimmy Page’s amp. Well, about a month later, “the grind [of touring] caused Jeff Beck to come unglued.”2 He bailed on the group and Page took over lead guitar duties. This line up lasted until July 1968, when singer Keith Relf and drummer Jim McCarty decided to call it quits. However, there was a problem—The Yardbirds were already contracted to play a series of gigs in Scandinavia. Relf and McCarty authorized Page and bassist Chris Dreja to use The Yardbirds’ name to fulfill these obligations.
“Page set out to find a replacement vocalist and drummer. Initially, he wanted to enlist singer Terry Reid and Procol Harum’s drummer B.J. Wilson, but neither musician was able to join the group. Reid suggested that Page contact Robert Plant, who was singing with a band called Hobbstweedle. After hearing him sing, Page asked Plant to join the band in August of 1968, the same month Chris Dreja dropped out of the new project. Following Dreja’s departure, John Paul Jones joined the group as its bassist [Page had played on Jones’ arrangement of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man.”]. Plant recommended that Page hire John Bonham, the drummer for Plant’s old band, the Band of Joy. …By September, Bonham agreed to join the band.”3
Of course, every school child knows that Messrs. Page, Plant, Jones, and Bonham eventually became Led Zeppelin. What I did not know was what happened when they came together for their first rehearsal in a basement room below a London record store:
“…we all met in this little room just to see if we could even stand each other. It was wall-to-wall amplifiers and terrible, all old. Jimmy said, ‘Do you know a number called ‘The Train Kept A-Rolling?’ I told him, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘It’s easy, just G to A.’ He counted it out and the room just exploded, and we said, ‘Right, we’re on, this is it, this is going to work!’ And we just sort of built it up from there.”4
Yes folks, the very first song ever played by Led Zeppelin was “The Train Kept A-Rollin’.” And—maybe to reinforce what key it was in—Jimmy Page even put back the “g” in “A-Rollin’.”
Honestly, when I started writing these posts I had absolutely no idea Zep had ever even played it. Let’s hear it for life-long learning.
Earlier, I referred to a “lost” version. It seems that, despite playing it live—they opened many of their 1968 and 1969 concerts with the tune and also played it on their last tour in 1980—Led Zeppelin never officially released a recording of “Train Kept A-Rollin’.”
There are, however, numerous “unofficial” recordings from those concerts.5 Despite the generally crappy sound quality of those bootlegs, you can hear that Zep employed a take-no-prisoners approach when performing “Train Kept A-Rollin’”—the rhythm section’s raw power underpinning the frenzied wailing of the guitar and vocal. And, like others I’ve mentioned, Plant didn’t let not knowing the lyrics get in the way of his singing.
With no legal Led Zeppelin version available, I still didn’t know how I would wrap up this series. That’s when I discovered Dread Zeppelin’s extraordinary rendition.6
What’s a Dread Zeppelin? Why, it’s a Pasadena, California band “best known for performing the songs of Led Zeppelin in a reggae style, as sung by a 300-pound Vegas Elvis impersonator7” named Tortelvis. What else would it be?
The band played its first gig on January 8, 1989 (celebrating what would have been The King’s 54th birthday), and released its debut album Un-Led-Ed in 1990. Their sophomore (and sophomoric) recording, 5,000,000*, which came out in 1991, included their cover of “Train Kept A-Rollin’.” The album’s full title—5,000,000* (*Tortelvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong)—is a play on the 1959 record 50,000,00 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong, which was Presley’s second Greatest Hits album. The cover of Elvis’s album featured multiple images of him wearing a gold lamé suit designed by Nudie’s of Hollywood.
Dread Zeppelin replaced lamé with lame—an in-joke parody of the cover of Led Zeppelin’s fourth album. In place of a mystic man holding sticks, they had Tortelvis’ towel and water man, Charlie Haj, holding pool cues, a paint roller, and a towel.
Wanna listen to Dread Zeppelin? No problem, mon.
Thank yuh… thank yuh very much!
Frankly, I’d like this version twice as much if were half as long—six minutes and eighteen seconds is excessive. Still, there’s more going on here than just a joke. The musicianship is good—particularly the harmonica by guest Dread Bun E Slopes and the guitar work by Jah Paul Jo. I like the arrangement—my favorite bit is the looped sample of “Mystery Train” on the chorus—that voice singing “train I ri-ide” sounds more like Levon Helm (from The Band’s Moondog Matinee version) than Sun Session-era Elvis, but who knows? It could also be someone in Dread Zeppelin.
Interestingly, Tortelvis chose to sing Steven Tyler’s lyrics (quite clearly too) except that he correctly de-trained in El Paso.
So… we end the series with post-modern genre bending—which already is 20 years old! This train is a-rollin’ to the end of the line, and I’m getting a little farklempt. Talk amongst yourselves. I’ll give you a topic—actually, two topics:
- Which is your favorite version of “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” and why? If I left out your favorite, feel free to tell me about it.
- What contemporary performer—in this context, a singer or band that mainly performed and recorded after 1991—would you like to hear perform “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” and why?
Please reply as a comment to this post—I want other readers to see the responses.
Thanks… I hope you enjoyed this ride as much as I have!
- The mysteries of the metal umlaut are revealed at
- Cub Koda’s liner notes for the Rhino two-disc set The Yardbirds Ultimate! © 2001 Rhino Entertainment Company, p. 19.
- Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s allmusic biography of Led Zeppelin,
- Steven Rosen’s article, Led Zeppelin’s 1977 Tour – A Tragic Ending!
- In August 1999, Led Zeppelin topped the list of Britain’s most bootlegged musicians with 384 bootleg titles, as compiled by the Anti-Piracy Unit of the British Phonographic Industry (BPI)
- My little joke: “extraordinary rendition – the process by which a country seizes a person assumed to be involved in terrorist activity and then transports him or her for interrogation to a country where due process of law is unlikely to be respected”
On October 14, 1966, The Yardbirds finished filming their scene for Blow-Up at Elstree Film Studios in North London. They embarked on a U.S. tour a few days later and on October 22 played a gig in Westport, Connecticut. The opening act that night was a band from Yonkers, New York called Chain Reaction; the drummer and singer in that band was a teenager named Steven Tallarico.
“…opening for the Yardbirds… we were in seventh heaven. We drove up in my mother’s station wagon with our equipment. The Yardbirds had a van. We pulled out our gear and put it on the sidewalk while they took theirs out. They had some fantastic equipment, so I made this little joke, like ‘Let’s not get it mixed up.’ I saw Jimmy Page struggling with his amp and I said, ‘I’ll help you with that.’ Hence: ‘I was a roadie for the Yardbirds’… ‘Train Kept A-Rollin’’ was bone-rattling… there was steam and flames coming out of it, and the whole place quaked like a Mississippi boxcar on methadrine.”1
A few months later, a young guitar player by the name of Anthony Joseph Perry had a similarly emotional experience, though he describes it less colorfully:
“I saw the movie Blow-Up in Boston in 1967 and I got goose bumps when I heard the feedback that started the Yardbirds’ ‘Stroll On,’ the re-titled version of ‘Train Kept A-Rollin’’ in the movie… Jeff Beck was incredibly influential to my development as a player.”2
These kindred spirits met in 1969, when Tallarico saw Perry’s group, The Jam Band, playing at The Barn in Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire. Steven describes watching them play for the first time:
“Then he played the Yardbirds’ number ‘Train Kept A-Rollin’,’ which became our top-this-motherf**ker closer. Like me, an old Yardbirds fan—hence our mantras: ‘Train Kept A-Rollin’’ and ‘I Ain’t Got You.’ My ear was a little more finely tuned than these guys’, but what I saw was this rough, raw, uncut rock’n'roll thing… It was so f**king great it made me cry, and then the thought came into my mind just like the midnight train steaming into the station: What if I take… the melodic sensibility I’ve got, with the broken glass shards of reality that these guys wove together? We might have something.”3
By 1970, that “something” had become Aerosmith, with Tallarico coming out from behind the drums to be front man. He changed his name to Steven Tyler in 1972; later that year, the band signed with Columbia. Their first album, Aerosmith, was released in 1973. The following year they recorded their follow-up, Get Your Wings, with Jack Douglas producing.
Seven of the eight tunes on Get Your Wings were originals—the only cover was “Train Kept A-Rollin’.” According to Douglas:
“One of the last things we worked on was ‘Train Kept A-Rollin’’… The Yardbirds owned it in the sixties. Now Aerosmith had taken it over and wanted to show how it should be done in the seventies. It was their signature song.”4
Well then, show us how it was done in the seventies.
To double our listening pleasure, the Toxic Twins5 gave us two, two, two versions in one. The first features a Zeppelin-esque heavy metal arrangement—the tempo is slower than The Yardbirds’—that’s spiced up with some very funky touches. Check out the phrasing of the song’s classic riff: Where The Yardbirds had played it steady, Aerosmith gave it a groove—hitting the first note hard on the one beat, laying out completely on the two, and accenting the rest of the notes ahead of and behind beats three and four. This is complemented by a drum pattern at the end of each verse that also shifts the accents ahead of and behind the beat.
In contrast, the second basically gives us a revved-up version of The Yardbird’s arrangement that was supposed to capture the excitement of an Aerosmith live performance. Producer Jack Douglas describes what he did:
“They wanted to record it live in front of an audience because it was their big showstopper, but that was really impractical at the time. So I took the track we cut in the studio and some really big speakers, Joey’s [drummer Joey Kramer’s] PA… and I blasted it into the famous stairwell at the Record Plant. We were on the tenth floor, and I put microphones on the eighth, sixth, and second floors so we’d get various delays and make it sound live. A couple years earlier, I had worked with George Harrison on the film mix of The Concert for Bangladesh, and I had all this applause from Madison Square Garden on wild tracks. I just slowly moved this out to the stairwell and brought in the crowd. Sounds pretty live. Most people were fooled.”6
The faked live recording is a studio trick that everyone involved with Get Your Wings admits to. There is less openness regarding another aspect of the recording—who really played the lead guitar parts? Several sources state that Bob Ezrin, who was the executive producer on Get Your Wings, brought in guitarists Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter (perhaps best known for their amazing guitar work on Lou Reed’s live album Rock’n’Roll Animal, as well as several albums with Alice Cooper, all produced by Ezrin) to perform the dueling solos on this song. They are not credited in the liner notes, but the official websites for Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner both list the song in their discographies. Wagner’s site includes this statement:
“‘Train Kept A-Rollin’’ was one of the best-known secrets in classic rock history—that I was playing on the ‘live’ solo section along with Steve Hunter in one of the very first featured dueling guitar solos in mainstream rock.”7
So… what about the words? With each cover version, we seem to be playing a game of “telephone” with Tiny Bradshaw’s lyrics. To be fair, Tyler could certainly be forgiven for not understanding what the f**k the double-tracked Keith Relf was singing on Having A Rave Up. For me, the question is—mondegreen or rewrite?
A mondegreen is a word or phrase that results from a mishearing of something said or sung—often in a way that is amusing and/or gives it a new meaning.8 Rock music has numerous examples of mondegreens; the two most famous are probably:
- “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy” (from the lyric “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky” in Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze)
- “There’s a bathroom on the right” (from the lyric “There’s a bad moon on the rise” in Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising”)
Let’s compare the first verse in the Bradshaw and Aerosmith versions. Tiny sings:
“I caught the train, I met a real dame
She was a hipster and a gone dame
She was pretty, from New York City
And she trucked on down the ol’ fair lane
With a heave, and a ho
And I just couldn’t let her go”
In contrast, Mr. Tyler sings:
“Well, on a train, I met a dame,
She’s rather handsome, we kind looked the same
She was pretty, from New York City
I’m walkin’ down that old fair lane,
I’m in heat, I’m in love,
But I just couldn’t tell her so”
In the second line, Steve abandons 50′s jive talk in favor of gender bending narcissism. A variation on gender confusion (without the narcissism factor) would resurface in Aerosmith’s 1987 hit “Dude (Looks Like A Lady).” Then, in lines five and six, Tyler goes from horny to romantic to shy—three emotional states in just 13 words!
The only other significant lyrical difference is after the “stop in Albuquerque,” when Steven sings:
“She must’a thought I was a real cool jerk
Got off the train, and put her hands up
Lookin’ so good I couldn’t let her go
But I just couldn’t tell her so.”
Tiny’s lady friend thought he was a real “gone” jerk… Tyler updates the slang while giving a shout out to The Capitols’ 1966 R&B hit “Cool Jerk.” In the original, she got off the train “in El Paso”—I don’t know if putting “her hands up” is supposed to be a sexual rebuff, but I’d label that one a classic mondegreen. As for the other changes, my answer is: rewrite. Get Your Wings, with Tyler-penned songs like “Lord of the Thighs” and “Pandora’s Box,” just oozes lasciviousness. To make “Train Kept A-Rollin’” an Aerosmith song, Tyler had to put his mark on it. Still, for all his testosterone-fueled bravado, he is unable to tell the dame on the train ”I’m in heat, I’m in love.” Maybe he’s putting on the “sensitive guy” mask to see how that works for him.
Perhaps to compensate for the non-live “live” version on Get Your Wings, Aerosmith put “Train Kept A-Rollin’” on three live albums: Live! Bootleg, Classics Live, and Rockin’ the Joint. They even did an acoustic version during their MTV Unplugged show.
In addition to their regular version, the band sometimes performs a slowed-down version known to fans as “Slow Train.”
Next—the final installment and the weirdest version (warning: genres will be bent).
- Steven Tyler, Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? A Rock ‘n’ Roll Memoir (New York, New York: Harper Collins, 2011), p. 61-62.
- Aerosmith with Stephen Davis, Walk This Way: The Autobiography of Aerosmith (New York, New York: Harper Collins, 1997), p. 64.
- Tyler, p. 79-80.
- Aerosmith with Stephen Davis, p. 217.
The Toxic Twins is a nickname given to Steven Tyler and Joe Perry in the 1970s, due to their rampant use of drugs both on and off stage, which was a “toxic” combination that almost ended their careers and their lives.
[NOTE: Tyler/Perry should not be confused with Tyler Perry.]
- Aerosmith with Stephen Davis, p. 217.
- For everything you always wanted to know about mondegreens (including how Sylvia Wright coined the term) check out:
In the previous post, I marveled at the fact that The Yardbirds’ lead guitarists were “first Eric Clapton, then Jeff Beck, and finally Jimmy Page.” While that statement is true, there was a brief period (6/66 to 10/66) when Beck and Page were both in the group. Coincidentally, it was during that time that The Yardbirds wound up recording “The Train Kept A-Rollin’ ” again (sort of).
The Yardbirds’ original bass player Paul Samwell-Smith quit the band in June 1966 and they approached Jimmy Page about taking his place. He accepted and played bass in the group for about six weeks. While on a short U.S. tour that summer, Jeff Beck was hospitalized with tonsillitis. The rhythm guitarist, Chris Dreja, switched to the bass and Page filled in as lead guitarist for the rest of that tour. “But when the band got back to London in mid-September, a recuperated Beck and Page finally teamed up for the mother of all six-string fests—a two-guitar psychedelic hootenanny.”1
Only two songs have been released that document this pairing. The first was the single “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago”—which is definitely psychedelic, if not exactly a hootenanny. The second was “Stroll On,” which was used in the film Blow-Up.
Blow-Up, the first English-language film by director Michelangelo Antonioni, was set in “swinging London”—the main character, Thomas, is a fashion photographer (played David Hemmings) who coolly observes this demimonde of models, drugs and parties.
To reflect another element of this trendy scene, Antonioni wanted to include a rock band playing in a club. Oddly, given that he was in London, Antonioni’s first choice was The Velvet Underground—a band closely associated with Andy Warhol’s New York scene. This may have been because, at that time, they were signed to a division of MGM Records (MGM was the U.K. distributor for the film). However, according to V. U. guitarist Sterling Morrison, “the expense of bringing the whole entourage to England proved too much for him.”2
Antonioni was fascinated by Pete Townshend’s guitar-smashing routine, so he approached The Who. Nothing came of that. A fairly obscure psychedelic British band called Tomorrow, which included guitarist Steve Howe (later a member of Yes) recorded two songs for the film—including one called “Blow-Up”—but neither was used.
“Simon Napier-Bell [The Yardbirds’ manager at the time] happened to run into Antonioni at the London discotheque Scotch of St. James and made his case that The Yardbirds were the group for his film. Antonioni caught The Yardbirds live on September 23 and was convinced that Napier-Bell was correct. The Yardbirds wanted to do original material and offered five tracks recorded at Sound Techniques Studios… but Antonioni loved The Yardbirds’ version of ‘The Train Kept A-Rollin’ ’·and felt it would work best within Blow-Up. However, copyright permission for the song could not be obtained by the October filming date, so Keith Relf modified the lyrics and created ‘Stroll On’ the day before actual shooting took place.”3
Here’s another version of the “Stroll On” story, with a bizarre added detail:
“Unable to secure permission from the publisher, Relf made a quick dash to the toilet to write new lyrics.”4
Ah, the glamorous life of a rock star!
Let’s take a trip back to London circa 1966:
Where “The Train Kept A-Rollin’ ” on Having A Rave Up With The Yardbirds was, for all its energy, very tightly focused, “Stroll On” threatens at every moment to go out of control—creating dramatic tension. The train whistle opening has been replaced by an extended blast of two-guitar feedback, reminding me of a whistling tea kettle on full boil (how English). Given the high-powered reputations of the guitarists, the dueling solos are, on first listen, somewhat disappointing… but, ultimately, they do go further out into the stratosphere than on the Having A Rave Up version.
As I mentioned, “Antonioni was enamored with the visual image of The Who’s Pete Townshend destroying his guitar and amp… he wanted Jeff Beck to do the same.”5
Beck was not happy about this:
“When Antonioni said that he wanted me to break my guitar I had a fit. I said, ‘Wait a minute, that’s Townshend’s thing.’ I didn’t mind playing a very wild number with lots of violence in it, lots of chords smashing away, but I didn’t actually want to destroy the guitar.”6
“To appease Beck, breakaway prop guitars [which earlier had been] made to Tomorrow guitarist Steve Howe’s specifications were given to him to smash during the three days of filming the scene and a studio recording of ‘Stroll On’ was used for the band to mime to.”7
Here’s the scene from Blow-Up with The Yardbirds performing “Stroll On.”
Jeff Beck had a unique reaction to the film:
“I was thoroughly embarrassed. I had a f***ing hard-on in the picture, man! This chick I was going out with at the time said, ‘Oh my god, don’t go see that film, it’s so embarrassing, I didn’t know what to do, I took my mother to see it and there you were … this horrible, sinister thing hanging down the side of the screen.’ It gets hot under them lights, after all, rupturing myself with those tight trousers.”8
Hmmm… that gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “a wooden performance.”
For years, the only way to hear “Stroll On” was to purchase the Blow-Up soundtrack album—where it was incongruously sandwiched in the middle of Herbie Hancock’s jazz-oriented film score.
In 2001, that situation was remedied when the song was included on Rhino’s excellent two-disc set The Yardbirds Ultimate! which also includes a booklet with the liner notes by Cub Koda that I’ve quoted.
Next—wrap a scarf around the microphone stand; a future American Idol judge is about to mess with the song’s lyrics.
- Cub Koda’s liner notes for the Rhino two-disc set The Yardbirds Ultimate! © 2001 Rhino Entertainment Company, p. 17.
- Victor Bockris and Gerard Malanga, Uptight – The Velvet Underground Story (New York, New York: Quill, 1983) p. 67.
- Greg Russo, Yardbirds: The Ultimate Rave-Up (Floral Park, New York: Crossfire Publications, 1997-2001) p. 78-79.
- Koda, p. 40.
- Russo, p. 79.
- Andrew Bailey, “Jeff Beck Is Back In Action,” Rolling Stone June 24, 1971: p. 23.
- Russo, p.79.
- Bailey, p. 23.
Early in 1966, I joined The Columbia Record Club. Hey, to a naïve 16-year old it seemed like a great deal—I got a dozen “free” albums just for signing up! Although my opinion of that deal would eventually change—as, month after month, I was obligated to buy their records at full retail price (then a whopping $4.98)—when the package with those 12 albums arrived, I was really psyched.
After listening to all of them, the album that definitely psyched me the most was Having A Rave Up With The Yardbirds.
It almost defies belief that, in the mere five years The Yardbirds were together, their lead guitarists were—feel free to recite them along with me—first Eric Clapton, then Jeff Beck, and finally Jimmy Page.
In 1963, The Yardbirds started out as a blues-oriented band; they even backed up Sonny Boy Williamson when he toured Great Britain. In March 1965, Clapton left the band over “creative differences”—specifically, the single “For Your Love,” which he thought was rubbish. The band wanted to hire Jimmy Page to replace him, but Page was too busy with studio work at the time and suggested his friend Jeff Beck (among other things, they’d both played on sessions with a fellow named Screaming Lord Sutch), who was in a club band called The Tridents. The “Beck Era” (3/65 to 10/66) was The Yardbirds’ creative and commercial peak and side one of Having A Rave Up With The Yardbirds included their second and third U.S. singles ”Heart Full of Soul” and “I’m A Man.” More relevant to this blog post, that side concluded with their incredible version of “The Train Kept A-Rollin’.”
“Taking a tip from the Stones, they started squeezing in recording sessions whenever and wherever they could. Stops along the [U.S.] tour produced recordings from the Chess Studios in Chicago (“I’m a Man” and “Shapes of Things”)… and Sam Phillips’ Studio in Memphis ( …successor to his legendary Sun Studios, where they recorded the basic tracks for “You’re a Better Man Than I” and “The Train Kept A-Rollin’”) with Sam Phillips engineering the session himself.”1
Those basic tracks were recorded on September 12, 1965. On September 21 and 22, at Columbia Recording Studios in New York, with another legendary engineer, Roy Halee (better known for producing Simon and Garfunkel), they did some overdubs and mixed the track. Having A Rave Up With The Yardbirds was released in the U.S. on November 15, 1965.
About three months later, I placed a copy of it on the turntable of my little portable stereo.
After I heard “The Train Kept A-Rollin’” for the first time, my heart was pounding. I felt so exhilarated that I cranked the volume, picked up the needle, and put it back at the start of the track—in retrospect, probably causing permanent damage to the record (yes children, we actually used to listen to music by putting needles made from diamonds onto revolving discs of black vinyl).
Here ’tis… my favorite version of “The Train Kept A-Rollin’.”
It starts with Beck’s guitar simulating two whistle blasts—a warning to clear the tracks for what’s coming. Then, instantly, the band is at full throttle—the song relentlessly driven by that propulsive riff.
Let’s talk about that riff. It wasn’t on the Tiny Bradshaw original and there’s only a vague suggestion of it on The Rock and Roll Trio’s version of the song. So… where did the riff come from? The answer, my friend, can be found on the B-side of that Johnny Burnette and the Rock’n’Roll Trio single—their version of Big Joe Turner’s song “Honey Hush.” Just listen…
Not only the riff but parts of the guitar solo are there in all their primitive, distorted glory. By grafting elements from “Honey Hush” into their arrangement of “The Train Kept A-Rollin’,” The Yardbirds forever transformed the song.
Beck’s solos built on the templates provided by Grady Martin/Paul Burlison—for example, alternating between runs of high notes and low notes—and then, cranking up the fuzz tone and other effects, veered off into terra incognita… bending strings, bending minds.
Another exciting element was added by Keith Relf. The harmonica has long been associated with train songs and used to imitate various train sounds—Relf was, however, the first person I found who used the instrument on this song. Then there’s the double tracking of his vocal. Sometimes it’s used to provide the “call and response” element found in earlier versions. Other times, it gives a weird intensity that adds to the manic energy of the performance. Some writers have suggested that he overdubbed the vocal in New York to cover incorrect lyrics he’d recorded in Memphis—alas, Mr. Relf is no longer with us, so we’re unlikely to get a definitive answer about that.
Four installments into this series, I suppose I should mention something that I hope was obvious from the very beginning… this song is NOT really about the train! Tiny Bradshaw and the other performers were NOT rhapsodizing about the capabilities of American locomotives. “On a train, I met a dame”—I don’t think that the two of them passed the time playing canasta! This song is about s-e-x! And, this version (the first that I’d heard) definitely got my adolescent hormones pumping. My hormones haven’t been adolescent for a long, long time (though my sense of humor still is), but listening to The Yardbirds playing “The Train Kept A-Rollin’” still gets my pulse racing—hey, why do you think I’m writing this series of posts?
Next—The Yardbirds (yes, The Yardbirds again) sidetrack this train at the behest of an Italian film director.
- From Cub Koda’s liner notes for the Rhino two-disc set The Yardbirds Ultimate! © 2001 Rhino Entertainment Company.
You won’t find Screaming Lord Sutch, 3rd Earl of Harrow, listed in Burke’s Peerage and Gentry. Born David Edward Sutch, he had no royal blood—and hardly any skills as a singer—but he did have a knack for attracting a stream of very talented musicians to back him up (many of whom went on to significantly bigger and better gigs).
Early in 1960, drummer Carlo Little met fellow rock’n'roll enthusiast David Sutch in Harrow (a borough in northwest London). With Sutch’s assistance, Little soon put together a four-piece instrumental group called The Savages that included the great keyboardist Nicky Hopkins on piano. The original idea was that Sutch would be the group’s manager.
“Carlo Little suggested Sutch to be the singer of the band after he saw him leaping around and screaming while Bernie Watson (The Savages original guitarist) played a 12-bar rock and roll jam… and got a screeching sound out of his guitar. He looked unusual enough to do a stage act.”1
What Sutch lacked in talent he made up for with oddball costumes and props, Grand Guignol theatrics (he was a sort of proto-Alice Cooper), and boundless enthusiasm.
There are differing explanations for how David became Screaming Lord Sutch, but clearly the R&B singer Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (“I Put A Spell On You”) was one inspiration—both for his name and his flamboyant performance style. Specifically, Sutch copied Hawkins’ schtick of emerging from a coffin onstage. He also often wore a top hot to cover up his long hair, which may have given rise to the”Lord” in his sobriquet.
The Savages were a revolving door of musicians, with members continually coming and going (and sometimes coming back)—more than a dozen different lineups between 1960 and 1967.
In 1961 Sutch met a kindred spirit in the eccentric producer Joe Meek.
“Meek developed idiosyncratic production techniques that, much more than the artists he worked with, stamped a vision of mad genius on his recordings… super-compressed sound, wavering sped-up vocals, ghostly backing violins and choruses, spooky echo and reverb, ticky-tack variable-speed piano, and all manners of Halloween and outer-space sound effects. The recordings were all the more remarkable for being produced not in a state-of-the-art studio, but in Meek’s own bedroom-sized facility, located over a shop within the flat he rented.”2
Meek’s most famous recording was “Telstar” by The Tornados. In 1962 it was the first single by a British band to go to #1 on the U.S. charts.3
Joe Meek produced Sutch’s early singles—mainly horror-themed novelty songs like “Jack the Ripper,” “Monster in Black Tights,” and “Dracula’s Daughter”—none of which were hits.
Screaming Lord Sutch had performed “The Train Kept A-Rollin’” for several years before recording it in the spring of 1965—the last of his singles produced by Joe Meek. The particular line up of The Savages that played on the record featured 4 saxophones and Ritchie Blackmore on lead guitar.
Okay… let’s hear what Screaming Lord Sutch brought to the party.
While it is my least favorite of the seven versions I’m writing about, it does have a certain goofy charm. It starts with a train whistle—an idea that will carry over into some future versions—followed by a very “Swinging 60′s” intro. The stop-start, horn-driven arrangement reminds me of another train song: “Night Train.” Joe Meek’s unique production techniques are in evidence—instruments fade in and out, part of the sax solo sounds like a siren, and the whole thing is heavily compressed.
Sutch was a mediocre singer (by his own admission) but he also seems to have had a weak grasp of a) the song’s lyrics—the whole “pretty/New York City” verse disappeared—and b) U.S. geography—perhaps he couldn’t understand what Johnny Burnette was saying. Notably, he moved the train’s stopover from Albuquerque to “out Kentucky”… not once but twice! He will not, however, be the last singer to screw up the song’s words.
The single was released in June of 1965 and failed to make the UK charts. In 1970, Lord Sutch made a bid for commercial success in the US—an album entitled Lord Sutch and His Heavy Friends—produced by Jimmy Page. Check out the Rolls Royce with a Union Jack paint job (the inspiration for Austin Power’s XK-E?) on the front cover.
In a 1998 BBC poll it was named as the worst album of all time,4 despite the presence of Page as well as Jeff Beck, John Bonham, Nicky Hopkins and Noel Redding (all but Bonham had previously played in one or another of the incarnations of Screaming Lord Sutch and The Savages).
“The album is regarded as a kind of Plan 9 from Outer Space of rock LPs: it’s bad, but endearingly so, with Sutch’s growling vocals providing the laughs. Many Led Zeppelin fans—who bought this album when it was released on the heels of the first two Zep records—have never forgiven Page for it.5”
Later in the 70′s, after Ritchie Blackmore had achieved success with Deep Purple, the “Train Kept A-Rollin’” single was re-released with this “unusual” picture sleeve:
Ultimately, I think that Screaming Lord Sutch did play a role in the evolution of “Train Kept A-Rollin’”—if only by keeping it “on the radar” of some of those heavy friends of his.
Next—five Brits, including one of Lord Sutch’s many guitarists, bring the song back to America.
About 5 years after Tiny Bradshaw started this train a-rollin’, the Rock and Roll Trio pulled it into Nashville, Tennessee. They were Johnny Burnette, who sang and played acoustic guitar, his brother Dorsey, who slapped the string bass, and Paul Burlison, who played lead guitar (more about that later).
They formed the group while working at the Crown Electric Company in Memphis—that same company had a delivery truck driver by the name of Elvis Presley. Despite making some classic rockabilly recordings, they never had commercial success outside of the South.
On July 2, 1956, the Rock and Roll Trio recorded “Train Kept A-Rollin’” at legendary country music producer Owen Bradley’s Quonset Hut studio.1 In the 50’s, it was common for white artists to release bland covers of songs that were hits by black performers (Exhibit A: Pat Boone’s version of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”). As mentioned before, Tiny Bradshaw didn’t actually have a hit with “Train Kept A-Rollin’” and—as you are about to hear—the Rock and Roll Trio’s version of it is anything but bland.
Wow… definitely a different energy than the original. Tiny Bradshaw’s vocal had a jovial bounce; Johnny Burnette sounds like he’s got ants in his pants… fire ants! His final “oh-oh-oh” is literally climactic.
And then there’s the guitar solo—almost jazzy-sounding octave runs on the high and low E strings and one of the earliest recorded uses of the kind of distortion that would eventually be known as “fuzz” or “fuzz tone.”
Regarding that solo, there’s the “legend”—as told by Paul Burlison in a May 30, 1978 interview in Guitar Player magazine:
“What happened was, we was playing a show someplace. I still didn’t have a big amplifier. Of course, I didn’t have reverb, and they didn’t have wow-wows [wah-wahs]. They didn’t have all this stuff then. They didn’t even have fuzz tones as all. So we was goin’ into Cleveland, Ohio, and someway or another, just before the show went on I dropped my amplifier. The strap broke, up there on the top, this old leather strap you carried it with. This was that little ol’ blonde Fender amplifier. Anyway, it dropped. So when I plugged my guitar in when we went onstage, it had a real fuzzy sound. So I looked back there in the back of the thing, and saw one of the tubes was just barely sticking in the prong. So it was acting as a rheostat, with the electricity jumping between the prongs. It sounded pretty good, so I just left it there. And from then on, when I wanted to get that’s sound, I just reached back there and loosened the tube. That little ol’ amplifier had half the back off of it, you know. It had cardboard halfway up, and you can reach the tube by reaching up under the cardboard. I’d just reach up there and grab that tube and just wiggle it, shake it a little bit. When you hit the strings, you could tell when you was getting’ it. You get it just right, and it just sound real funky.”2
However, while researching this post, I found an article by Vince Gordon and Peter Dijkema that questioned whether Burlison played on the track:
“Actually, at Quonset Hut it was more the rule than the exception that band musicians were replaced by studio musicians and only the singer was allowed to participate… The studio musicians used to replace band musicians have been named the “A-team.” The ones most frequently used to back-up rockabilly acts were: Grady Martin (Guitar), Bob Moore (bass), Buddy Harmann (drums) and Boots Randolph (saxophone)… For this article I had the luck of getting in contact with Bob Moore through his wife Kittra. He confirmed that Grady Martin played lead guitar for Johnny Burnette & The Rock’n'Roll Trio…”3
Gordon and Dijkema also offered an alternative explanation for how the fuzz tone effect was achieved:
“… (the distortion in the solo) had little to do with the amp, but a lot to do with the pick-up on the guitar. The explanation is simple: First you set your amp to have what would qualify as normal distortion for the time period, but with a lot of bass. Then you take a screw driver and raise the pole piece on the pickup under the deep E-string – and only that one. Raise it as much as possible without making the string unplayable and there’s your Train Kept A-Rollin’/Honey Hush distortion.”4
Hey… whether it was played by Paul Burlison or Grady Martin, it’s a classic!
When the single of “Train Kept Rollin’” was released on October 13, 1956, the group’s name was listed as Johnny Burnette and the Rock’n’Roll Trio.
It failed to make the national charts. Predictably, the group broke up soon afterwards. Later, Johnny transformed from rockabilly wildman to teen idol, achieving success with pop singles such as “You’re Sixteen (You’re Beautiful and You’re Mine)” and “Dreamin’.”
Next: The song crosses “the pond”—courtesy of two authentic British eccentrics.