Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
Just how good a song is the Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Runnin'”? No, I mean it–just how good is it? Yes, yes, I know the sun is shining and it feels like Spring At Last, but this song, y’know, isn’t it pure essence of get outside and dance? Unassailable on all fronts, it is the spirit of yeah, the unashamed shake yer head, shake yer hips of boogie, and from the casual shake of the wrist in the first few bars, it has defied its near-half-century age to infect me once again.
Tom Johnston should be revered for this song, rather than just being the bloke in the Doobies before Michael McDonald. Or, for that matter, the bloke in the Doobies after Michael McDonald. Or, indeed, with Michael McDonald, such has the revolving door of band membership been. But, however mighty was the McDonald-helmed version, and before his silver hair and tonsils became their calling card, the band had had a run of singles, all written and sung by Johnston, all instantly recognizable, if likewise all easily confused, being all cut from a similar cloth.
Now if you want to give this cloth a name, it is the chucka-chucka sound that permeates the tune, a percussive blend of obliquely strummed rhythm. Johnston says he developed it on acoustic guitars when the then-drummerless band was rehearsing in basements, the guitar providing both backbeat and structure. Transferred to acoustic guitars to electric ones, and from zero drummers to two, the onslaught provided was astonishing. First came “Listen to the Music” in 1972, followed by “Long Train Runnin'” and “China Grove” a year later. From the second and third albums respectively, the three singles propelled their name into the charts for the kids and the stadia for credibility. Even if they were, broadly, all the same song. A sound so fine it’s good enough to keep, as Chic’s Nile Rodgers might put it.
Wait a second, you say–why bring Rodgers into this? How can you possibly associate Chic with the Doobie Brothers? Well, wait just a minute and listen again to that loose-wristed hand action on guitar. Strip away the surrounding instrumentation, yes? See what I mean? Of, course, neither I nor my legal advice is saying it is one and the same style, but it ain’t a whole half mile away. Rodgers says it was Bernard Edwards, his now-deceased partner in crime, the bass to his guitar in all those famous songs, who suggested to him that style, the choppy chords that he has scattered across his own work and of others. Now, I love Nile and don’t begrudge him an iota, but I’ll bet Tom Johnston might. Or probably not; he seems too nice a guy.
Plus, Johnston still gets to play his songs too, back again in the arms of Mrs. Doobie’s boys, still playing this song, number 8 on Billboard, first time release, getting a remixed second wind twenty years later, number 7 in the UK on that second shot. Setlist.fm tells me the band, probably with and without Johnston to be fair, have played the song a total of 807 times, between the Fillmore West in June 1971, to the PPL Center in Allentown, in October last year. May he, they and the song, like the train, long keep runnin’.
Cuban Jazz Combo – Long Train Runnin’ (The Doobie Brothers cover)
It’s true, I’m a sucker for a bit of the old Latino, and this hits my parotids like a big burst of lime in my daiquiri. Th whole rhythmic palette is perfection, from the congas to the piano intro. Yes, the horns are as cheesy as a quesadilla, buy that’s all good in my book. Who the Cuban Jazz Combo? My knowledge around the intrinsic music scene of the island being what it is, and what it has had to be, given sanctions and the like, I am not much the wiser. Led by Fabrizzio Aiello, a percussionist of some renown, the band was an opportunity for the largely jazz based instrumental wizards to mark some bucks, on the back of covering popular songs in their own inimitable. Two LPs forthcoming, this song being from the 2nd, Cuban Disco Connection. It’s fun.
Paul Stone & the Modern Big Band – Long Train Runnin’ (The Doobie Brothers cover)
I fully accept that this may tax tolerances a bit. Taking, arguably, a similar template to the preceding version, this gets as close to pastiche as you can get and still have you wondering if for real. But I think this is probably meant for real, without some of the more gauche aspects that other similar fare often offers (Richard Cheese, Bruce Lash, Mike Flowers et al). But maybe more fool I, as it seems possibly another cynical exercise for old jazzers to get their hands on some loot. However fresh faced appears Mr. Stone, he is backed by a veritable who’s who from the back pages of the UK Jazz scene, including the vibe master, Roger Beaujolais, who graced the second iteration of Fairground Attraction.
Bananarama – Long Train Runnin’ (The Doobie Brothers cover)
No, I didn’t realize they had done this either. A glorious rendition, with a whole porcelain factory of kitchen sinks thrown at the bog standard disco beat, from their traditional atonal vocal rendition, scooting all around the notes, with intent or otherwise. Castanets and Spanish guitar contrive to give a flavor of Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita.” From their 1991 album Pop Life, this was their first with Jackie O’Sullivan joining Sara Dallin and Karen Woodward, what with Siobhan Fahey having left for Shakespears Sister. This “Long Train Runnin'” was produced by Youth, the polymath who, alongside playing bass with doom core goths Killing Joke, has had a successful career working with and producing acts From Paul McCartney to, well, Banananrama. Should the flamenco sound a little less ersatz than is often the case in the pop charts, it is actually provided by the Gipsy Kings!
The Dynamics – Long Train Runnin’ (The Doobie Brothers cover)
I do not think there is a more joyous set of background vocals anywhere than on this record, the choice of “words” to duplicate the musical sounds in any original version being both inspired and barmy. This is the Dynamics, or the Muhlenberg Dynamics, perhaps to differentiate from a number of other bands, of soul and of reggae persuasions, with the same name. Nor are they to be muddled with Mel Taylor and the Dynamics, who, just to be awkward, have a version of the self same song. Anyway, they are, it says here, Muhlenberg College’s oldest acapella singing group, founded at this august Penn state institution in 1989. Which explodes my hope it was one of the older bands, perhaps updated with a daughter or two. (Too fanciful? Well, Aretha Franklin started out, or was in the diaspora of the Detroit band of the same name.) Be that as it may, they make a delightful rendition, for all their young people toothsomeness.
Nicole McCloud – Long Train Runnin’ (The Doobie Brothers cover)
There’s nothing like a bit of old-fashioned house music. Except, of course, all the other bits of old-fashioned house music, this delight containing as many of the compulsory tropes in its opening minute as you can shake a drum machine at. I love it, the hi-hat and the accelerating drums, just ahead the start proper, not forgetting the backdrop of repeated drops of moaning to replicate the ecstasy of the moment. (Is it the same backing track, or part of, of the Rob Searle remix of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “The Power of Love”?) Once it does get going, it’s true, it becomes a bit too much of a by-numbers handbag dancing song, but I had to include it. Nicole McCloud later became an X Factor finalist, but had had a couple of careers before that, including a 1998 album, Love Town, from whence comes this song.