Life with a three-year-old can find you focusing on on forms and representations of transportation you wouldn't otherwise. Trains, for example, hold a particular resonance with the developing mind that challenge their relative rarity compared to cars and airplanes. We've found ourselves meeting constant demands for all things trains by discovering the online world of obsessive documentarians of all things locomotive. Watching this narration-and-music-free modern footage of old-fashioned steam engines has caused us to consider the sensual impact the advent of train travel would have on the rural blues men who would incorporate the sound of trains into their music and use the eeire whistle of the coming train as a metaphor for all great changes in life, love and death.
"Train I ride is sixteen coaches long" sings The King in "Mystery Train" recorded on July 11, 1955, b-side to Sun Single "I Forgot to Remember to Forget," and remake of both sides of the November 1, 1953 Sun platter by Little Junior's Blue Flames, here represented in obsessive collcetor's video document with label clearly displayed before play, as if to prove its very existence:
"Mystery Train" shares its "Train I ride" line with Howlin' Wolf's "Smoke Stack Lightning" recorded here in 1960, but part of his repetoire since the 1930s. Note Wolf's train "shines like gold."
The particular sixteen-coach length of The Mystery Train comes from The Carter Family's 1930 "Worried Man Blues." Why sixteen? Like the 29 personalised links of chain shackling the leg of the titular man, numbers are arbitrary and only seem to mock the existence of the enslaved.
Devo cover "Worried Man Blues" for the soundtrack of Neil Young's 1982 directorial effort Human Highway, references to trains replaced accordingly with trucking and nuclear power, and the Christian existentialism of the Carter Family replaced with Devo's particular brand of sarcastic Marxism. [Side note: Human Highway, featuring future David Lynch cast favorites Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell, and Russ Tamblyn also anticipates Lynch's small town surrealist style that would come to define his work onward.]
The annihilation implied by The Mystery Train is made explicit in this "Clip Completo" performance of James Brown's "Night Train" -- just a list of cities, screaming brakes, showering sparks, flames and twisting metal ... The End Of The Line.
Death and economic distress frame The Everly Brothers' "Lightning Express," a classic country tear-jerker from the pair, telling the tale of a ticketless poor boy's plea for conductor forgiveness in light of the imminent passing of his best friend in the world, his mother. Whatever urgency in the boy's message is calmed by the Brothers' syrup-slow delivery. Hard to believe speed-addiction would curse the Everlys, as in song, they seem to be in no hurry at all.
The Train as site of ticketless redemption would become explictly religious in Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions' gospel soul classic "People Get Ready." Just thank The Lord and get on board ... Bob Dylan would cover the tune even after his "born again" period, during which his concerts would be preceded by a spoken sermon combining the tales of "People Get Ready" and "Lightning Express."
For his own train song, Dylan notes poetic impressions felt after staying "up all night leaning on the windowsill," a face-position familiar to the red-eye traveller. Babies and mamas pass in and out of connection like the setting sun and moon. Dylan is just a witness, and he "can't help it none if your train gets lost." Trains as a popular concept in American song would also get lost to time as car travel came to dominate collective imagination.
Enter 1977 and enter the German Kraftwerk's electro train anthem "Trans Europe Express" here played on Japanese quartz-tuned Techincs 1200s, The Wheels of Steel free-spinning on an infinite track of magnets. The saturnine austerity of The Night Train is maintained however gleaming with not only nostalgia for Weimar glamour but also visions of a Europe united through a cosmopolitan railway circuit where one might meet "Iggy Pop and David Bowie." The suggestively homophonic chanting of "trance" sets the next station as dreamtime.
Telex 1979 twelve-inch "Moskow Diskow" was likey designed to link to "Trans Europe Express" in continuous DJ mix (as would 1981's 12" A Number of Names "Sharevari" (despite swapping out The Train for a Porsche 928)) Train sounds dominate the rhyhtm track, but lyrics (in French) largely concern descriptions of dancefloor utopia. The Russian station location betrays the Communist plot behind disco and exposes the Train's new political identity as the Socialist People Mover.
As electronics largely take over all rhthym section duties in dance music, with multiple music boxes synched in a chain, we pause to wonder if the Mystery Train's sixteen-choaches-long length refers to the constant sixteenth note hits on the hi hat propelling every train song. A sixteen-note sequencer line dominates Giorgio Moroder's theme song for the 1979 Brad Davis vehicle Midnight Express. The song itself a spiritual remake of Moroder's "Get On The Funk Train" whose cover image features anthropomorphic robot trains dancing, anticipating 80s/00s Transformer craze and again continuing the trance chants. The film itself does not really focus on trains, but rather the stress and difficulty of plane travel, especially when a large amount of hashish is strapped to your mid-section. The protagonist's resulting imprisonment is the flipside of the revolutionary travel dream, that of Totalitarianism and the Gulag. The Midnight Express of the title is Leadbelly's Midnight Special, a metphoric train of liberty and deliverance from The Prison World.
The sound of Creedence Clearwater Revival's version of "Midnight Special" opens 1980's Twilight Zone: The Movie, with Hollywood director Albert Einstein and master occultist Dan Ackroyd trapped in that modern prison of the all night car ride, testing each other's capacity for memorizing mass media propaganda songs. Twilight Zone: The Movie would become a psychic prison for director John Landis, who, though acquitted of responsibility in the production's fatal helicopter crash, would say in 1991, "I live with The Twilight Zone every day of my life."
In 1991, The KLF released "The Last Train To Transcentral" single, final chapter in their Stadium House Trilogy, or middle link as shown in the video version above, whose budget was blown so the Drummond brothers could build their boyhood fantasy ultimate model train set. KLF man Bill Drummond would later attempt to take a train to The North Pole to deliver a statue of Elvis Presley to the globe's highest point in an effort to realize "World Peace." Back to The King and childhood imagination, we've come full circuit, completing the psychic railway of The Mystery Train.
All Aboard ...