The Blog Kept A-Rollin’ — Part 3: “The Train Kept A-Rollin’” by Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages
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.