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Monday, June 29, 2009


Dave remembers 'Train Running Low...'

Song of the Week

Musician extraordinaire and all-around nice guy Dave Gregory comes to the rescue this week, supplying us with his memories about "Train Running Low on Soul Coal," which Andy discussed here two weeks ago. Both the demo and studio version are on the player -- the demo was released on Fuzzy Warbles, Vol. 3, while the original was on 1984's The Big Express.

Tune in next week for an interview about a song from the XTCatalog. Which one? It all depends how schedules line up (or don't line up) throughout the week. Feel free to speculate! You just might get it right...

DG: Those familiar with the Guitargonauts Web site might remember a tale I told -- in the "Pick Of The Month" section -- about how I came to acquire a lovely Epiphone Riviera guitar in London during January 1983. XTC were ensconced in a sound suite at AIR Studios on Oxford Circus, mixing tracks with Steve Nye for our forthcoming album, Mummer. Returning to the studio, having collected the guitar, I found Andy hunched in a tiny vocal hut in a corner of the room strumming a funky chord riff on his guitar. He immediately insisted on checking out my new purchase, expressed his admiration, then had me tune it to an open chord of E, saying "try these chords!" I dutifully complied, and we spent a good half-hour jamming on the riff that would form the basis for another fantastic song, "Train Running Low On Soul Coal."

I don't remember whether he had a title or any lyrics at this point, but the riff alone made it a more-than-worthy contender for a future project. I had assumed it would be an acoustic song with a sort of futuristic skiffle motif, and the following summer we performed a version of it in that style in a band shell in a Swindon park, for the television programme "Play At Home." I confess I was initially put off by the Linn Drum treatment we ended up recording for The Big Express in the spring of 1984; Andy had decided that it was to be as relentlessly steely as "Roads Girdle the Globe" had been, so inevitably the gentle funk of the acoustic strummage was replaced with what sounded more like a musical scrap-metal plant.

In the interim Andy had written a brilliant middle section, complete with a lyric that could not have been more apposite for a struggling pop band entering their thirties. It remains among my favourite of all the things he wrote, and I gladly put my Rickenbacker 12-string to work for the huge, plangent sequence of double-tracked chords that set up the vocal lines. I also pulled off a reasonably convincing banjo riff to bring the section back into the chorus, played with a flat pick on a mic'd-up Gibson ES-335 semi, blended with signal from an amp (probably my Roland JC-120); I seriously doubt I could play that today. The ES was also recorded that way for the main riff that runs throughout the song.

Another contribution I made to the track came in the form of an American train whistle. Not a real one, you understand; using the centre pickup of a 1966 Stratocaster plugged through the demonically loud Marshall bass amp (qv "No Thugs In Our House"), and playing a four-note diminished chord (or it may have been a 7-flat-5, Jazz fans!), by "bowing" the attack using the guitar's volume control, I was able to get a reasonable simulation by simultaneously leaning on the tremolo bar. I remember doing a few extremely loud try-outs in the upstairs room at Crescent when engineer Glenn Tommey rushed in. "David [Lord] says, would you mind holding it a minute? He's got Kate Bush on the phone!"

I've said it before, but The Big Express could certainly do with re-mastering properly, if not a complete re-mix. "Train Running Low" I think met Andy's expectations, though for me it's the essence of un-easy listening -- bad mood music, and not for the curious or faint-hearted. Thank goodness the Dukes arrived in time to cheer us all up.

12:18 AM

©2009 by Todd Bernhardt and Dave Gregory. All Rights Reserved.