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The Music of Railways: The Top Five

18 June 2018

The call of the train whistle, the pounding of the pistons, the puff of the steam - the sound of the railway is a symphony unto itself and has inspired artists and musicians across the world to compose music about and on the theme of rail travel. In honour of World Music Day on the 21st of June, here our favourite songs about trains and the joy of the railway:

Love Train - The O'Jays

Powering the pistons and engines of the O'Jays infinitely catchy 'Love Train' is pure, untapped disco. A clean guitar over bongos introduces the song which launches into its iconic refrain: 'People all over the world, join in, start a love train', and from then on out, it's a funky odyssey across the world powered by the sublime vocals of Eddie Levert, William Powell and Walter Winters. The eponymous train makes stops over the globe, all backed by a classic R&B backing of shimmering rainbow strings and that disgustingly catchy hi-hat driven drum line.

Contending with 'Back Stabbers' as the O'Jays most iconic song, Love Train is undeniably a product of its time, graduating from the same school as the Temptations' 'My Girl' and the Four Tops' 'I Can't Help Myself'. Arriving at the height of R&B's popularity in 1973, Love Train came at just the right time, striking gold as number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and the US pop chart and landing on the same day as the Paris Peace Accords. Its message of international love, encouraging listener to get on board the love train, sounds like a hangover from the sixties, but great productions and some slick harmonies from the O'Jays makes this a worthy entry on our list.

Crazy Train - Ozzy Osbourne

Screaming into the station, Ozzy Osbourne's filthy, degraded and downright fantastic single from his debut album is superb in its execution and one of the most well-known heavy metal anthems in existent. From the 'All Aboard' cry at the beginning to the industrial grade fade out, this train is off its rails with a thumping all minor opening guitar riff from Randy Rhodes which relentlessly drives the song forward. A galloping drum and bass line, Crazy Train dips in and out of minor and major keys, perfectly mirroring its lyrics about mental illness in the face of Cold War paranoia.

Released in 1980, this is Ozzy Osbourne's first work after being fired from heavy metal giants Black Sabbath for alcohol and drug abuse. After a lengthy drug binge, Osbourne formed a band comprised of musicians from other groups and recorded 'Blizzard of Ozz', another iconic metal album which rubbed shoulders with Sabbath's Heaven and Hell. Sharing single honours on Blizzard of Ozz were Crazy Train and the equally impressive 'Mister Crowley' which both certified the album as heavy metal gold and Ozzy Osbourne's status as a force in the music world.

Take the A-Train - Duke Ellington

If you've read any other blogs on here then you may have noticed that I have a big sweet spot for Duke Ellington, and more specifically, his rip-roaring jazz standard 'Take The A-Train'. Written by his criminally lesser-known protégé Billy Strayhorn, this classic tune is a gem, barrelling through big band swing in carriages made of pure harmonic genius. Covered and sang by the Delta Rhythm Boys and Ella Fitzgerald, this ode to New York life and the metro system is glamorous and features a classic and instantly recognisable motif. No version is as impressive as Ellington's own recordings however, see the 1943 film Reveille with Beverly for evidence.

I won't dedicate much to this entry since I've already covered it in our Jazz of the Railway World blogpost, but rest assured, this is one of the jazziest and most uproarious tracks on this list.

Stop That Train - Peter Tosh

Occasionally misattributed to his more famous ex-bandmate Bob Marley, Peter Tosh's reggae number 'Stop That Train' offers a reggae reimagining of classic American Gospel tunes, providing a metaphor for God and man alike. There's not much to speak of with the music here, it's a jaunty if unremarkable number but like many other Reggae songs, it's a delight to listen to and even more a joy to foot tap to. Not as lyrically sharp as his other work, Stop That Train is still catchy and memorable.

Originally performed by the Wailers, Tosh and Marley's band, the song was re-released by Tosh for his 1983 album Mama Africa.

Long Train Running - Doobie Brothers

In 1973, the Doobie Brothers released a song which really could have been put out around 30 years later, even before the dubious 1993 remix. 'Long Train Running' is a pulsing tune which sounds like the clatter of a trains wheels on the track, and which surprisingly sounds like an electro-house hit from the late nineties. The resolving guitar lick at the start, bolstered by a curiously funky tambourine sound and a punchy kick lend this track an infinitely danceable feeling, inspiring the head bobbing of EDM. Astonishingly much of the music is based around three chords, and it really is a fantastically bouncy number for its period and style. Everything combines to make this fascinating song a tune which long endures after its release.

Long Train Running was released for the 1973 album The 'Captain and Me', and was originally just a random jam which the Doobie Brothers played occasionally on stage. It is a dedication to southern trains, the lyrics recall the industrial steel and power of the USA railways and namedrop both the Southern Central and Illinois Central.