The train. One of the key components of pre-rock folk, country and blues music managed to carry over into the rock era as an inspiration and at turns cruel and sympathetic character.
The distance, and hence escape, offered by trains has piqued the creativity of songwriters ever since the first steam-powered beasts began rumbling across the American landscape.
There is also something crucial in the inevitability of the train’s journey — the locomotive snakes its way across mountains, through canyons, shaking off the snow and slicing through the rain. Masculine power meets the sleek feminine beauty of the cars — like the heavy guitar attack of rock and the playful, nimble melodies of the best pop music.
The car may be rock and roll’s preferred method of transport — it is, after all, the most efficient way to get your date to the movies, and then there’s that big handy back seat for after — but the train is rock music’s spiritual chariot.
1. “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” by Bob Dylan
In his foggy 1965 persona, Bob Dylan remembers the tradition of the rail through a spidery, post-LSD gaze.
Train imagery floats through this song, pulling us into the world of the narrator who leans on the window sill of his train car, watching the scenery pass and wondering if he will die on the next hill. A train follows a certain, pre-determined track… but that doesn’t mean they can’t go astray or get lost altogether, especially from the point of view of a fixed observer.
Great train-as-psychological-metaphor song.
2. “Nightrain” by Guns N’ Roses
This train is loaded to the gills, careening wildly out of control, and its riders are loving every minute of it.
Partially a tribute to cheap wine, and partially a tribute to any other substance that gets you out of your head, Guns ‘n’ Roses play and Axl sings as if their lives depend on it (as they do on all of Appetite For Destruction).
Loaded like a freight train
Flyin’ like an aeroplane
Feelin’ like a space brain
One. More. Time. Tonight!
The band’s life in L.A. around this time was as manic, unfollowable and insane as it could possibly have been, and this song is about the inebriation that had become a 24-hour reality for them. Fierce, unrelenting and genuinely scary. And, oddly, appealing…
3. “Little Black Train” by Woodie Guthrie
Woody’s version of this old folk song features his wavering baritone wrapping itself around a remarkable melody and a universal message (train as spiritual metaphor): death (the ‘little black train’) is coming for each of us, and you can not ‘beat the final ride’. Woody accompanies himself with a lightly picked acoustic guitar.
This song proves that the simpler the instrumentation and structure of a song, the better it can invoke an actual, simple emotion. Death will, of course, claim us all; remembering that helps one enjoy life to its fullest. That dynamic, the same one that makes life so much fun, is the same one that keeps this from being a sorrowful lament. It just is, that little black train. You know it and I know it, but let’s not forget it, the song says.
4. “Train In Vain” by The Clash
A spectacular song that was almost left off of London Calling but turned out to be a surprise hit.
An unexpected bouncy beat and neat three-note descending melody, repeated over and over, provide a funky (well, almost) foundation for some extremely loose, emotional vocals.
“Stand by me” the singer pleads, as the band jigs along behind him. This is one that just seemed to gel effortlessly for the band.
5. “Train Round The Bend” by The Velvet Underground
Lou Reed revels in the cacophony of this song, as it represents the diversity, noise and chaos of his beloved New York City.
The lyrics deal with a city boy who has spent some time in the country, “trying to be a farmer” without luck. He longs to be back in the city, and can’t stop fetishizing Gotham.
“Train Round The Bend” is equal parts humorous anecdote, impenetrable fable, and junkie babbling. “Nothing that I planted ever seemed to GROW” he recalls, frustrated at the whole exercise. The lesson? Stick with what you know!
6. “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne
One of the most famous ‘train’ songs in rock, as well as arguably Ozzy’s biggest 80s hit. This song is train-as-metaphor-for-insanity — not just riding this train but watching it gleefully (if helplessly) as it goes “off the rails”.
The album cut features Randy Rhodes on guitar, and it is a mass of creaking, heaving wallops of fleet-fingered electricity, all pinned on an excellent main riff. Ozzy’s inimitable voice reports on his state of mind at the time: he really was going crazy, it seemed; his lifestyle certainly was. (Ask Mötley Crüe for more information about their infamous tour with The Prince Of Fucking Darkness around this time.)
7. “Mrs. Train” by They Might Be Giants
Appearing only on an EP, this song is clever because its tempo slowly (very slowly) accelerates as the song progresses.
The change is linear, and the first time you hear it you may not realize it at first. But by the end, as the band struggles to keep up and the singer mashes his words together, you’ll be having as much fun as they are.
The lyrics are typical TMBG weirdness:
I don’t want to be the first in line to see Mrs. Train …
I’m not in any rush to head the line
And so the line has a missing head …
I don’t want to be the first in line to see the missing head
Only tangentially related to actual trains, this song is what happens when you try to write a pop song about trains without looking back to rock history to do so. Absolutely free, fun, and unique. Be annoyed by its catchiness, if you want, but try to have the same heart rate by the end that you did at the beginning. Especially if you’re singing along!
8. “Downbound Train” by Bruce Springsteen
Bruce sounds here like he is trying to shake off something very heavy, something oppressive that he just can’t wriggle away from. As his life falls apart and his woman leaves him (with the fist-in-the-gut bluntness of her ‘Dear John’ explanation: “We had it once / We ain’t got it no more”) he likens his situation to that of a downbound train.
The difficulties and challenges of ‘regular’ (i.e., non-rock star) people has always been Bruce Springsteen’s bread and butter and raison d’être. Here he borrows the title of a Chuck Berry song to tell a harrowingly simple and direct tale of a man in crisis. This song is, again, train as dark inevitability.
9. “Subway To Venus” by Red Hot Chili Peppers
A subway counts as a train, right?
The Chili Peppers are as furious and funky as they ever were on this song from the first album they made after guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a heroin overdose and forever altered the chemistry of the band.
There is no introspection here, and no time or room to take a rest: the band is too fast and they are jumping around too much, so watch out! Listening to this may confuse your body — do you play air guitar while thrashing your head, or do you pogo around and make Anthony Keidis-style hand gestures with crazed, wide eyes?
How fitting that the only song on this list that rides the train to outer space should be… an underground subway. It’s all about fun on the “Subway To Venus”.
10. “Slow Train” by Bob Dylan
Having ridden an unbelievable wave of activity and notoriety in the 60s, then somehow matched it in the 70s (though the industry was bigger and the drugs were harder by then), Dylan burned himself out by 1978 and found himself seeking solace in Jesus.
Much has been written about this controversial period of his life, but from it came an undeniably great album. Its title song is a gentle warning; its insistency is like the click click click of a moving rain itself: Jesus is coming back, might as well get your things in order. Whoever you are.
This song has a dark air about it, reflecting not only the self-assurance of the lyrics and message but, inadvertently, the heavy atmosphere of psychic exhaustion that generally flowed from the album’s other tracks. Such was Bob’s state of mind after the excesses and length of the Rolling Thunder Revue.
Pristine production and impassioned performance add up to one of Bob’s best albums and one of his most envelopingly dark yet comforting songs.