This song is indeed one of the threads that ties the tapestry of Rock N Roll, Rock, Heavy Metal, et al, together. It has started some of the biggest names playing together and remains a seminal work in the history of music. Those are fairly strong statements, so let’s explore the story of this song.
Written by Tiny Bradshaw and first recorded by his band in 1951, the lyrics are based on “Cow-Cow Boogie”, a 1942 song about a singing cowboy. Bradshaw rewrote lines, such as “a ditty he learned in the city” and “get along, get hip little doggies, and he trucked ’em on down the old fairway”, to meet his new scenario. Although the King Records single lists “Bradshaw-Mann” as the songwriters, reissues and subsequent recordings of “The Train Kept A-Rollin'” credit Tiny Bradshaw, Lois Mann (a pseudonym of King Records’ owner Syd Nathan), and Howard Kay. BMI, the performing rights organization, lists the songwriters/composers as “Myron C. Bradshaw, Sydney Nathan, and Howard Kay”. According to music historian Larry Birnbaum, “Mann’s name was plainly added to allow Syd Nathan to siphon off a share of the publishing royalties, as label owners routinely did in those days; as for Kay, his identity remains a mystery”.
In 1956, Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio reworked Bradshaw’s song using a rockabilly/early rock and roll arrangement. The Trio’s version features guitar lines in what many historians consider to be the first recorded example of intentionally distorted guitar in rock music, although blues guitarists, such as Willie Johnson and Pat Hare, had recorded with the same effect years earlier.
The song continued to be played by many groups for the next nine years until, in 1965, the Yardbirds decided to record their version and introduce it into the early days of Rock. It is based on Johnny Burnette’s adaptation, with the Yardbirds’ lead guitarist Jeff Beck, who is a fan of early rockabilly, said that he introduced the song to the group: “They just heard me play the riff, and they loved it and made up their version of it”. Giorgio Gomelsky, the group’ first producer, states that Sonny Boy Williamson II’s use of blues harp to imitate train sounds during his 1963 UK tour with the Yardbirds also inspired the band’s adaptation of the song. Two combined takes of Keith Relf’s vocal were overdubbed with some differences in the lyrics.
In June 1966, bassist Samwell-Smith left the Yardbirds to become a record producer. His initial replacement, well-known studio guitarist Jimmy Page, soon switched to guitar with second guitarist Dreja taking over on bass. With both Beck and Page on board, the Yardbirds had one of the first dual lead guitar teams in popular rock. Movie director Michelangelo Antonioni saw the group’s September 23, 1966, performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London and, being impressed with their version of the song, requested that they perform “Train Kept A-Rollin'” for his upcoming film “Blowup”. Unable to secure the movie performance rights from the song’s publisher, singer Keith Relf wrote new lyrics, renamed it “Stroll On”, and included credits to the five band members. The Yardbirds also introduced an updated arrangement to go with the new lyrics.
Shortly after Keith Relf and Jim McCarty left the Yardbirds in mid-1968, Jimmy Page searched for new musicians for a successor band. When the future members of Led Zeppelin rehearsed together for the first time in 1968, the first song they played was “Train Kept A-Rollin'”. In “When Giants Walked the Earth”, biographer Mick Wall quotes Page:
[W]e did ‘Train’ … It was there immediately. It was so powerful that I don’t remember what we played after that. For me it was just like, ‘Crikey!’ I mean, I’d had moments of elation with groups before, but nothing as intense as that. It was like a thunderbolt, a lightning flash – boosh! Everyone sort of went ‘Wow’.
In an interview with Q Magazine January 2008, John Paul Jones recalls this was the first ever song he played with Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Bonham after joining Led Zeppelin:
I can remember the first song I played with Led Zeppelin in a tiny basement room in Soho in 1968, with wall-to-wall amps. That was ‘Train Kept A-Rollin’,’ the Yardbirds song, which I didn’t know at the time. But I knew immediately, ‘This is fun.’
They never recorded it in the studio but played it frequently during tours.
In 1974, Aerosmith brought “Train Kept A-Rollin'” into the hard-rock mainstream. Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, and Tom Hamilton had performed the song prior to joining Aerosmith. Perry recalled,
“Train Kept A-Rollin” was the only song we had in common when we first got together. Steven’s band had played ‘Train’ and Tom and I played it in our band … It’s a blues song, if you follow its roots all the way back … I always thought if I could just play one song, it would be that one because of what it does to me”. Perry’s band began performing the song regularly after he had been moved by the performance of “Stroll On” in Blowup;
Tyler recalled his band opened for the Yardbirds in 1966:
I had seen the Yardbirds play somewhere the previous summer with both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page in the band … In Westport [at their supporting gig on October 22, 1966] we found out that Jeff had left the band and Jimmy was playing lead guitar by himself. I watched him from the edge of the stage and all I can say is that he knocked my tits off. They did ‘Train Kept A-Rollin” and it was just so heavy. They were just an un-fuckin’-believable band.
“Train Kept A-Rollin'” was included on Aerosmith’s second album “Get Your Wings”. It consisted of two different versions of the song. The first part was slower, “more groove-oriented”, while the second was a spirited rocker. To give the second part more of a live sound, producer Jack Douglas overdubbed crowd noise from “The Concert for Bangladesh” recordings. Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, who worked with Lou Reed and Alice Cooper, were brought in to record the guitar parts. According to Hunter:
We [Wagner and I] wanted to keep the solos equal so we’d sit down … and go through the material so it was totally even … We didn’t want it to look like there was a rhythm guitar player and a lead guitar player, because that’s what we both did.
Hunter later elaborated:
Aerosmith was in Studio C of The Record Plant and I was doing work with Bob Ezrin in Studio A. I had a long wait between dubs and was waiting in the lobby. Jack Douglas popped his head out of Studio C and asked ‘Hey, do you feel like playing?’ I said sure, so I grabbed my guitar and went in … I had two run thru’s [sic], then Jack said ‘great that’s it!’ That turned out to be the opening solos on ‘Train Kept A Rollin’.
The Johnny Burnette Rock and Roll Trio rendition of “Train Kept A-Rollin'” is included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s exhibit of the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. Music historian Larry Birnbaum notes the song’s lasting appeal and discusses renditions by Jeff Beck, Dread Zeppelin, Tav Falco’s Panther Burns, Foghat, Guana Batz, Haymarket Square, Colin James and the Little Big Band, Riot, Métal Urbain, Hanoi Rocks, Motörhead, Nazz, Shakin’ Stevens and the Sunsets, Skid Row, Screaming Lord Sutch, Sugarloaf, The Tragically Hip, Twisted Sister, and the Up. He sums up the various influences and versions:
As it evolved from ragtime through jazz, boogie-woogie, big-band swing, small combo rhythm-and-blues, rockabilly, blues-rock, acid rock, heavy metal, punk, thrash, psychobilly, and points beyond, ‘Train Kept A-Rollin” became increasingly wild and dissonant, as if each performer were trying to surpass the intensity of the previous one. Through all the transformations, the essence of Bradshaw’s original survives — a semblance of the melody, a smattering of the lyrics, and the immortal refrain ‘The train kept a rollin’ all night long’, a cogent sexual metaphor for power and endurance.