The Blog Kept A-Rollin’—Part 6: “Train Kept A-Rollin’” by Aerosmith
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: