Train Songs No.1: ‘Back Up Train’ by Al Green

Back Up Train is introduced by instrumental stabs from a vibraphone, its metallic shimmer perfectly evoking the sound of a heavy train grinding the rails as it moves out of the station. The song pitches us straight into the singer’s mind; he has left his girl crying on the platform but realises too late he has made a terrible mistake. He asks the train to back up so that he can beg her forgiveness and take her along, ‘wherever he is bound’, into the future. Unsurprisingly the locomotive pays no heed and keeps rolling inexorably forward, so Al entreats the conductor, telling him ‘all you’ve got to do is turn this train around’.

But Al, that’s the one thing a train cannot do. You made a wrong decision.  You’ll never forget the girl standing there with tears rolling down her face, but life’s like a train carrying you along, there’s no going back. No wonder, just before the fade, Mr. Green lets out a beautiful, falsetto howl of anguish, as lonely as a train-whistle on a midnight bridge.

Listen to Back Up Train here:


Writer on the Train would like to thank Jon Savage for his help in finding material for this series 

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2 thoughts on “Train Songs No.1: ‘Back Up Train’ by Al Green

  1. Chris Sawle

    Loving your project, James; for Train Songs No.2 I would implore you to have a shufty at The Kinks’ “The Last of the Steam Powered Trains”, from Village Green Preservation Society (1968) which is of course, freighted with all of Ray Davies’ allusive strength..and very British in what it documents.

    • James Attlee Post author

      Chris, thanks for your response. Last of the Steam Powered Trains is, of course, a brilliant song on so many levels. It’s on my list and on its way though it hasn’t left the station just yet. As you say, Ray is our national poet.