Trains were one of the most important aspects of the Industrial revolution and they caught the public imagination straight away – the earliest song about trains is thought to be The Carrollton March from 1828, though there were probably even earlier folk songs. Railways continued to hold an important place in popular culture for years, and still do. From the luxury of the orient Express to American hobos ‘riding the rails’, Hollywood movies abound with scenes, or even entire films set aboard trains. The music world is no different – I certainly had no difficulty finding songs about trains. As a result, I’ve been able to comfortably steer clear of anything too obvious, so you hopefully get a taste of lots of genres. Having said that, I could have missed out on a total forgotten classic here. Feel free to let me know of any that you think really should have made the list.
1. Steve Reich – Different Trains – After the War (movement 3)
During World War II Reich travelled across america, to visit his parents via train and later was inspired to write Different Trains (of which this is the third movement). He pondered the fact that, as a Jew, had he lived in Europe rather than the US, he may have had an altogether different experience of trains. The speech samples in this movement are taken from interviews with Holocaust survivors given after WWII. The pace of the music blended with the samples of speech (often repetitive) give this piece a fantastic sense of urgency.
2. Cisco Houston – Mysteries of a Hobo’s Life
Trains often appear in American songs and particularly in folk music. The rail network was used as a free (and illegal) means of travel for migrant workers during the depression era. As Cisco sings… “I grabbed a hold of an old freight train / And around this country traveled, / The mysteries of a hobo’s life / To me were soon unraveled.” I’m sure it wasn’t all harmonicas and baked beans.
3. Desmond Decker – Rudeboy Train
I have no idea what a ‘Rudeboy Train’ is, but apparently it’ll be here any minute, accompanied by multiple other forms of transport and possibly James Bond. It’s all very confusing, but in a good way. Reggae and ska songs about trains are particularly numerous, presumably because the rhythm of a train fits well with the music.
4. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Subway
Of course, not all trains are a means of cross-country escape. Subterranean trains give off a more urban and perhaps a more menacing vibe. The obvious choice for menace is The Jam’s Down in the Tube Station at Midnight, or even Going Underground – and those are both great tracks, but I’d like to use something you may not have heard before for this. Despite being ostensibly a love song, I think this tune by the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s fits the bill perfectly. It’s got a train sample in it too – bonus!
5. Goldfrapp – Train
I’m not convinced this song is about actual trains. With lyrics like “Wolf lady sucks my brain”, I’m not sure that even Alison Goldfrapp knows what she’s on about (my best guess – it’s about cocaine). Nonetheless, the song has a strong locomotive-like rhythm to it, and is called ‘Train’ and mentions trains. So it qualifies.
6. Chuck Berry – All Aboard
Again, a song about trains that includes railway engine sounds, this time sung by Chuck himself. It seems like the musical nature of a train’s noises are too much for a pop musician to resist. This is more or less a list of train stations – and much like Johnny Cash’s I’ve been everywhere it was probably a great crowd pleaser during live performances (as you can add in the name of wherever you are playing).
7. The KLF – Last Train to Trancentral
With it’s vocoder vocals, cheesy piano and sampled crowd noises (from U2’s rattle and hum, I’m told) this is about as far from po-faced techno sincerity as you can get. It has backing singers chorusing ‘whoo whoo’ like a freight train whistle. What’s not to like?
If you’d like to listen to all the tunes consecutively – you know, like an old mixtape – check out the youtube playlist.
NEW: You can also check out the spotify playlist (though the KLF aren’t on spotify) so it’s 6 tunes.