Here’s a song that can be traced to the earliest days of rock and roll, and can serve as a mini history lesson in how the sound of the music evolved from the early 50s through the 70s. There are lots of cool versions of Train Kept a Rollin’ and I’m going to show you two of them. But I’ve made a Spotify playlist that shows some of the step changes the song made over the years.
The song was written, and first performed, by Tiny Bradshaw in 1951. It’s jazzy and bluesy; sounds like something Louis Prima (he did Sing, Sing, Sing and Just a Gigolo) would have played. About five years later, Johnny Burnette recorded a popular rockabilly version of the song, and I do love me some rockabilly. I hear similarities to Tutti Frutti in this version, and also to Chuck Berry’s Too Much Monkey Business. I tried to find a good performance by Burnette on YouTube, but couldn’t. There was one video that had footage of him playing a different song, intercut with black-and-white videos of people dancing. My twin nine-year-old daughters found this video hysterically funny and it inspired them to create a new game called “50s dancing,” in which they put on huge, phony smiles; do funny, exaggerated dance steps, kicks, and sideways shimmies (I don’t really know much dancing terminology); and try to roll each other across their backs like they’re at a sock hop. They put on a little show for my wife and me, and it was touch-and-go as to whether there would be some serious neck injuries, but it was a good time and the girls made it through unscathed.
In 1965, about nine years after Johnny Burnette, two cool versions were released: one by Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages (more on that version below) and the other by the Yardbirds. The Yardbirds’ version inspired many others to do the song, including Aerosmith, who took it to a heavier place. Aerosmith played it on a show called The Midnight Special (a show that used to follow Johnny Carson on Friday nights and was hosted by Wolfman Jack) in 1974, and I think this performance displays all the elements that made the band popular and keeps them interesting to this day, from Steven Tyler’s vocal phrasing to the hard-rocking and almost funky combination of drums and bass to Joe Perry’s lead guitar style (which I have to say improved quite a bit after this video). Oh, and as my daughters—who know Steven Tyler only from American Idol—said, “He dressed like a woman even back then.”
Parts of the song make abundantly clear how much Guns N’ Roses ripped off from these guys. A little tip for my guitar-playing friends, check out the solo from 0:58 to about 1:15. To the parenthetical point I made a few lines back, watch Joe Perry’s fingers. He plays much better than I can, for sure, but he doesn’t seem 100 percent fluent, if you know what I mean. By the way, there’s another, inferior-quality video of this song on YouTube that’s worth watching just to see Little Richard introduce “an exciting, high-flying group who call themself [sic] Aero-smith.”
Now the second video I’m going to show you is one that I stumbled upon a few days ago. This version of the song is my new obsession. Screaming Lord Sutch apparently was a bit of a lunatic. His stage name was in no way based on any connection to British royalty, and his act was kind of a precursor to Alice Cooper—he did makeup and weird costumes and put on horror-rock shows (for an example, check out this bizarre performance of his hit song Jack the Ripper). This video’s a little different, but no less strange, and that’s why I love it.
The musical treatment of the song is campy and fun—it would make a great opening number for the next Austin Powers movie. The video is in the same spirit. Filmed on a Paris rooftop with a fantastic view of the Eiffel Tower, the video shows us the good Lord dressed in a wrestler’s unitard and a cape. His lip synching is so off that you get the sense that he had someone run a Super 8 camera with no background music while he danced to a vague recollection of what the song sounded like when he’d listened to it years before. Maybe he hadn’t even recorded his version of the song yet. The performance doesn’t really go anywhere, but that’s beside the point. It’s so odd that I find it compellingly entertaining. Keep on rollin’!