Feb '11

When trains inspire songs

What are the sources of inspiration for songs? Love, for example: uncountable songs inspired by love have been written; persons, like in Patti Smith’s Frederick or Toto’s Rosanna; cities, think at New York New York or Viva Las Vegas; social and politics arguments, like in Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, Sting’s Russians or John Lennon’s Imagine. And the sun, the moon, sex, money, the sea ……. and trains ! 🙂

Yes, trains: maybe because they recall traveling, going away, they makes you dream, and have inspired many songs without genre barriers. The following are a few examples, rigorously in alphabetical order because I’m nerd inside 🙂 :

Chattanooga choo choo

This masterpiece is a big band/swing song that is still a classic that everybody knows, and its first recorded version was the first gold disc in history in 1942.

This song was written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren as reported while traveling on a train. The song tells the story of traveling from New York City to Chattanooga, a city in Tennessee, and was performed for the first time in the movie Sun Valley Serenade in 1941 by Glenn Miller and his orchestra and sung by Tex Beneke, Paula Kelly, and the Modernaires. If you take a look at the scene in the film while it’s performed, you can see an example of pure joy in playing and singing good music, a spirit that we miss nowadays.

Many versions and covers have been made among the others by Cab Calloway and his Orchestra, Bill Haley & His Comets, Carmen Miranda, Floyd Cramer, The Shadows, Harpers Bizarre, Steve Lucky & The Rhumba Bums. Think that only in Amazon MP3 download service you can find more than 450 versions !

Today there is a namesake Hotel in Chattanooga, TN, converted by the old terminal station in downtown.

I treni di Tozeur – Franco Battiato

Another song inspired by trains from an original and talented Italian musician and composer, Franco Battiato, released in 1984 and originally sung by him and Alice, an Italian singer.

It is difficult to identify it with a genre, it’s a mix of electronic pop and classical sonorities, that creates a sophisticated atmosphere. Lyrics are in Italian, where I treni di Tozeur means Tozeur’s trains, and talks about trains that still pass slow from Tozeur and make you wish for an instant to live at another velocity. Tozeur is a Tunisian town.

Jumping someone else’s train – The Cure

This is an alternative rock example from The Cure, even if they don’t like this definition and use to say that it’s Cure music. The Cure is an English band founded in 1976 and still around.

A minimalistic song, based only on guitar, bass, drums and one vocal line, that has been extensively covered by as a maybe incomplete list: Stereotyperider, Army Navy, Kill Switch? Klick, Dichroic Mirror, Luff, Vitamin Piano Series.

Last train home – Pat Metheny Group

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you a brilliant example of contemporary jazz. This instrumental song belongs to Pat Metheny Group, the band founded by guitarist Pat Metheny and keyboardist Lyle Mays back in 1976 and still around. Even if they are a high level jazz ensemble, they have been able to reach even the big audience with compositions like this.

The song was released in 1987 and is one of the first examples of usage of guitar synthesizer because Pat Metheny, that has always been an innovator and a pioneer in guitar sounds and techniques, uses it to simulate a sitar sound to perform the main melody giving a special personality to the entire composition.

Last train to London – Electric Light Orchestra

What a pleasant song, I like it very much. It’s an example of what we could call symphonic-melodic-pop-rock genre, but you can recognize even disco music influences, typical of the Seventies and Eighties. This song belongs to the British band Electric Light Orchestra, also known as ELO, formed in 1971 and still around, that has sold over 50 million records worldwide. This track was the fifth track inside the album Discovery released in 1979, and was released as a single in 1980.

The characteristic riff at the beginning of the song is played with a keyboard using a sort of dirty electric piano tone, not a bass like many people think, and in some part this keyboard tone and bass play unison. It’s my opinion that the arrangement of this song is a masterpiece, listen to it carefully and you will agree with me.

And what about lyrics? No doubt that they have been inspired by a train, isn’t it ?

Locomotive – Motorhead

Yeah, fast your seat belts because we are going to accelerate !! Here is an Heavy Metal or Hard Rock, whatever you prefer, example played hyper-fast with tons of notes from Motorhead, so fast that even a real locomotive may experience difficulties in keeping their rhythm. 🙂

Motorhead, whose real name is written Motörhead, is a British band formed in 1975 and still around that describes itself simply as “rock ‘n roll”, have a long list of released albums and a considerably amount of tribute bands worldwide and tribute albums.

Locomotive breath – Jethro Tull

Directly from the best of progressive rock, another example to cite is Locomotive Breath from Jethro Tull, the English band established 1968 and still alive, that have sold over 60 million albums.

Another milestone in recent music, it has many distinctive characteristics: the piano introduction played by John Evan, that performed one of its best versions in the famed concert Live at Madison Square Garden 1978 from the Heavy Horses tour; the following powerful riff played unison by guitar, bass, keyboards and drums, the core of the entire song; than the unique flute solo played by Ian Anderson.

This song was included into Jethro Tull‘s album Aqualung released in 1971, and has been covered by W.A.S.P., Styx and Helloween.

Long train runnin’ – The Doobie Brothers

This is a classic of rock, with an unmistakable guitar riff at the beginning that everybody knows. Long train runnin’, also known as Long train running, is a song written by Tom Johnston and recorded by The Doobie Brothers, an American rock band formed in 1970 and still alive that have sold over 30 million albums.

The entire song is a creature of Tom Johnston that wrote it, composed the lyrics, performed rhythmic guitar riff, harmonica solo and the lead vocal. It was included in the band’s album The Captain and Me released in 1973, and has been covered by many artists like Bananarama, The Gypsy Kings (with pseudonym Alma de Noche), Traks, Dejan Cukić, La Unión.

A curiosity: because the word “doobie” it’s a slang for marijuana cigarettes, try to imagine what was the other passion in common for these guys after the music … 🙂

Trans Europe express – Kraftwerk

This song is one of the first example of electronic music, having been released in 1977. It was an innovation at that time, but nothing special listened today in my opinion.

Kraftwerk is a German electronic music band formed in 1970 and still alive, whose name stands for power plant or power station in German. Strong innovators, they have influenced many artists across genres.

Zion train – Bob Marley and the Wailers

And finally a reggae song from Bob Marley, the famous Jamaican songwriter, musician and singer, and his the Wailers.

The song’s lyrics have a strong political meaning inspired by Bob Marley‘s belief in the Rastafari movement. For this movement Zion stands for a Utopian place of unity, peace and freedom that is to be found in Ethiopia, Africa, where Rastafarians have the goal to repatriate. Reggae music is full of references to Zion, and this song is probably the most famous one talking about it.

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