When The Clash debuted on the BILLBOARD Hot 100 in late March 1980 with their first U.S. hit, “Train In Vain,” it was like it didn’t quite fit in with other debut songs that week: “The Rose” by Bette Midler, “Wondering Where The Lions Are” by Bruce Cockburn, and “Heart Hotels” by Dan Fogelberg. But, that didn’t stop the London Punk Rock quartet (Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Nicky “Topper” Headon) from taking on America and beyond.
Everyone and their mother knows about the history of The Clash, oft-labeled as “The Only Band That Matters,” but for those who don’t, this post will fill in (at least) some of the gaps. The Clash formed in London in 1976, and were, like The Sex Pistols and The Damned, among the first batch of British Punk bands. But The Clash truly had some depth to their music that went beyond Punk, throwing in elements of Reggae, Funk and Ska, among other genres.
The Clash released their self-titled debut album in the U.K. this week in April 1977. It gave them their first Gold record in Britain. Their second album, 1978’s GIVE ‘EM ENOUGH ROPE, was their first album released in the U.S., earning them another Gold record in the U.K., reaching No. 2 there and No. 128 on the BILLBOARD album chart.
The American recognition of GIVE ‘EM ENOUGH ROPE warranted a U.S. edition of The Clash’s debut album, which was released in the Summer of 1979, and gave them their first Gold record in America. Fast forward to the end of that year. The Clash’s third album was released, and the dynamic of The Clash (and that of Rock and Roll and music altogether) would change forever.
LONDON CALLING is The Clash’s third album, a 2-album, late-1979 Post-Punk masterpiece that not only goes all over the music map, it also tackles subject matter in their songs such as unemployment, drug use, challenging the status quo, commercialization and consumerism, and…a brand new Cadillac.
In 2003, ROLLING STONE magazine ranked LONDON CALLING at No. 8 on its list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, a ranking that would echo publications around the globe. The double album was certified Platinum in both the U.K. and the U.S., and it has sold over 5 million copies worldwide. I’m sure I’ll devote a deserved entire post to LONDON CALLING one day, but for now, I’ll concentrate on the band’s third single from the album, “Train In Vain.”
Hard to believe I almost didn’t purchase LONDON CALLING at first, because “Train In Vain” wasn’t listed. But, when I learned “Train In Vain” was on the album as a hidden track, I was amused. I mean, what band doesn’t put the album’s hit on the record sleeve? Honestly?! In the end, I thought it was kinda cool and later found out that “Train In Vain” wasn’t on the album sleeve initially because it was added to LONDON CALLING at the last minute.
Away from the U.S., the emphasis on the title was “Stand By Me,” but with the 1961 Ben E. King classic of the same name, “Train In Vain” was listed as “Train In Vain (Stand By Me)” here in America to avoid any confusion. (Country singer Mickey Gilley had a hit crossover cover of “Stand By Me” later in 1980, featured on the soundtrack to URBAN COWBOY.)
On the BILLBOARD Hot 100, “Train In Vain (Stand By Me)” found its way to a No. 23 peak for a couple of weeks in May 1980. It was also a No. 30 hit on BILLBOARD’s Dance chart and a No. 9 hit in Canada, but oddly enough, it never was a U.K. hit, though then again, it didn’t have to be a hit to be beloved.
Over the years, “Train In Vain” has been covered by the likes of Country music superstar (and part-time actor) Dwight Yoakam, and a wonderful, soulful version by Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox from her second solo album, 1995’s MEDUSA. It was also sampled on “Stupid Girl,” a worldwide hit in 1996 for the American-Scottish Alt-Rock band, Garbage.
The song’s meaning has sparked conversations for more than 35 years, especially since the words “Train In Vain” aren’t even mentioned in the song. A 1995 GUITAR WORLD interview with “Train In Vain” singer and songwriter Mick Jones revealed that “Train” was actually a love song. According to a 2007 BLENDER magazine article on “The Greatest Songs Ever,” Mick Jones commented further on “Train In Vain”: “The track was like a train rhythm, and there was, once again, that feeling of being lost.”
In more than 36 years, I confess I never learned the actual meaning of “Train In Vain (Stand By Me).” All I can say is that I love dancing to this song any chance I get (though as of late, it’s mostly in the car than on a dance floor), and it is one of prolly 20 songs I would want to be marooned with for all-time. Hmmm, maybe it is a love song after all…