There's a long history of famous songs that have sketchy working titles. The Beatles' Yesterday began life as Scrambled Eggs. Pink Floyd's Echoes was once The Son of Nothing. Blondie's Heart of Glass was Once I Had A Love, then The Disco Song. But the early titles for The Doobie Brothers' 1973 hit Long Train Runnin' win the prize for the most colourful – Rosie Pig Mosley, Parliament and Osborne.
“We'd been playing it for three years in bars all over the place, and it was a jam,” guitarist Tom Johnston told The Tennessean. “It had a form, but there was no real verse. We'd take off and play solos for like a half-hour. That's how I always looked at it - I didn't really think of it as a song.”
But the band's producer Ted Templeman heard hit potential in that jam. He told Johnston, “Dude, write some words. We need to cut this.”
So Johnston took the advice from one of the band's earlier hits and “listened to the music.” Tiran Porter's R&B-style bass chugging underneath Pat Simmons' bluegrass-style picking pattern and Johnston's own punchy rhythm strum (to this day, a much-imitated intro by beginner guitarists showing off in music shops) all suggested one thing: a train.
Johnston had grown up in California's Central Valley, an area lined with railroad tracks. “I'd been around trains on and off throughout my life,” he told Songfacts.
In Amigo Studio in Hollywood, Johnston started free-associating words, bringing in some remembered names of train lines – Illinois Central, South Central Freight. He then took his notebook and acoustic guitar into the studio bathroom. “It's the best place for natural reverb,” Johnston said. “I went in there and came up with the lyrics. It became what it is now, and the rest of it is hysterical, as they say.”
The track is deceptive in its simplicity. Several overlapping guitars mesh perfectly with a lush three-part vocal harmony arrangement that Johnston said was a nod to both Moby Grape and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Templeman suggested adding the bluesy interlude where it breaks tempo.
Like a lot of the early Doobies' hits, Long Train Runnin' is one of those songs that still sounds startlingly modern when it comes on the radio. Johnston credits that present, pristine sound to mix engineer Don Landee (who went on to work with everyone from Neil Young to Van Halen).
“Don really had a lot to do with the sound of the band,” Johnston said. “As far as how he mixed the instruments together, the voices and the harmonies.”
As the lead single off the band's 1973 album The Captain And Me, it peaked at #8 on the US charts. In 1982, it was covered by Italian pop group Traks, and then in 1991, by British trio Bananarama (their version was produced by Youth and featured the Gipsy Kings on guitars). In 1993, a dance mix of the Doobies version by Dutch DJ Ben Liebrand became the band's only UK top 10 hit, hitting #7 on the chart.
The song's unfailing ability to get fans bobbing their heads and singing along was on full display when it was a highlight of the band's 50th Anniversary tour in 2022.
Given the song's prolonged three-year genesis and silly working titles, Johnston says he's glad that Templeman pushed him to finish it. “It ended up being a pretty cool track, and I was very pleasantly surprised by it.”
The anniversary edition of The Doobie Brothers' The Captain And Me is released on February 10.