In October-November 1965, there were two albums that everyone I knew was flipping out over: the debut by The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Having a Rave Up with The Yardbirds. The reason we bought the Butterfield album was this: a little box in the lower left of the back cover that contained these words: “We suggest that you play this record at the highest possible volume in order to fully appreciate the sound of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band.” Sold! And the quote from the New York Times’ Robert Shelton promised “surging heavily amplified rhythm.” If you don’t count the early Stones, it was probably the bluesiest album most of us had purchased, and we didn’t even know that this was the band who’d backed up Dylan at his infamous Newport set earlier that year. Without hearing one note, we dropped dollar bills on the record counter at Alexander’s. As for The Yardbirds album that came out a month later, that was less of an impulse: “Heart Full of Soul” had already been a top 10 summer hit, and “I’m A Man” was the new single, and what more incentive did any young man need?
Having a Rave Up had no U.K. equivalent. Epic Records slapped together one side of new studio records with Jeff Beck on lead guitar, and four tracks from the English album Five Live Yardbirds on the other side, gave the LP a cheesy cover and uninformative liner notes, and we had no indication that the album was split between Beck cuts and our introduction to the live guitar stylings of Eric Clapton. Within a few weeks, on our record players were Mike Bloomfield in the Butterfield Band, and Beck and Clapton in the Yardbirds, and if the words “guitar hero” hadn’t yet entered our sphere, it was obvious we were entering another phase here. They were gateway records.
Shamed though I am to confess it, when I heard “Mystery Train” on the Butterfield album, I didn’t know it had come through Elvis through Junior Parker: I’d always thought “Heartbreak Hotel” was his first record, and knew naught about the sessions at Sun. Likewise, the song that ended side one of Rave Up, “The Train Kept A-Rollin’,” was brand new to me, not having heard versions by The Johnny Burnette Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio or the song’s originator, Tiny Bradshaw. So I jumped into the stories of these songs after their intial chapters. But of course both of these songs are insanely important, the journeys they’ve taken for over a half-century are inseparable from the history of rock. (Greil Marcus has always known as much; his Mystery Train is the first essential book about rock.)
Start with Junior Parker and Tiny Bradshaw, and from there the tracks spread and wind through rockabilly and blues and country and jam bands and hard rock and metal and Americana, through the movies of Antonioni and Jarmusch. “Mystery Train” was one of the first songs recorded by Elvis Presley and one of the last recorded by John Lennon (he played around with it during the Double Fantasy sessions). Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash tinkered with it in Nashville. The Doors were doing it quite a bit in 1970, and Jerry Garcia explored it at some length in a mid‘70s spin-off band. Two Yardbirds guitarists — Jimmy Page in Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck with Chrissie Hynde on vocals — did it. Other notables: The Band, Paul Simon, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, Link Wray, Rick Nelson, Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs, Junior Wells & Buddy Guy. You might ask, who hasn’t been tempted? Is it possible that John Fogerty never had a go, with Creedence or solo? Could that be?
A long (16-coach coaches, count ‘em) black train off and left with someone’s baby (not an infant), and is on its way back. That’s more or less it. The mystery is what the singers bring to it, whether there’s a suggestion of menace or darkness, a whoop of joy (Elvis P. makes a happy train-whistle sound at the end). Some singers embellish the story a little, some keep it bare, like it’s some campfire tale told forever and not a blues song from the early ‘50s, some use the premise as a springboard. “This is a song about a train,” Jim Morrison says at a Seattle show, sings a snippet of “People Get Ready,” and almost a half-hour later the only trace of “Mystery Train” is Densmore’s chugachugging. Reed slides more seamlessly out of the song and into another Elvis number.
And what did The Yardbirds unleash with their express “Train”? Pretty much all of mainstream hard rock, is all. After their recording on Rave Up, and the lyric-refurbishing as “Stroll On” in Blow-Up, it was the monster riff that every local band had to master, a cornerstone. It was an album track that got played and played, no matter that I had not that solid a grasp on what the double-tracked Keith Relf was singing about (a train trip, obviously, but there was a “gone dame” involved, from New York City, but the train rolls to El Paso; is he a train robber holding the woman hostage?).
When he left the ‘Birds, Jimmy Page (who was in the Blow-Up clip, but not on Rave Up) held on to the song for the band that became Led Zeppelin, and Jeff Beck has revisited it frequently (notably for a couple of sets with the White Stripes), and Aerosmith snatched it, and now it’s the requisite jam: Guns ‘n’ Roses shared the song with Aerosmith on stage; at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony in 2009, Metallica, Page, Beck, Joe Perry, Ronnie Wood and Flea rocked it, fourteen years after the ceremony brought together Led Zep and ‘Smith to rip through it. There’s a textbook story here: a swinging little hipster joint on King Records from 1951 passes on to a founding rockabilly group later in the decade and then to a British rock-blues band, bounces back to America’s garages and arenas, winds up in the hands of bands like Motorhead and Twisted Sister. The power of the riff, and the power of a perfect title for a rock song.