The Blog Kept A-Rollin’—Part Seven: “The Train Kept A-Rollin’” by Dread Zeppelin
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.
Tortelvis did just what he needed to do. Don’t take my word for it—see what Robert Plant had to say: http://vimeo.com/26031144.
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, http://www.allmusic.com/artist/led-zeppelin-p4739/biography
- Steven Rosen’s article, Led Zeppelin’s 1977 Tour – A Tragic Ending! http://www.classic-rock-legends-start-here.com/led-zeppelins-1977-tour.html
- 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) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/422948.stm
- 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”