The Blog Kept A-Rollin’—Part 4: “The Train Kept A-Rollin’” by The Yardbirds
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.