The Clash

Train in Vain

Song Review by

Evidence of their grasp of the roots of rock & roll, on "Train in Vain" the Clash reference Robert Johnson in the title and Ben E. King in the chorus, though in the Clash song the jilted-lover protagonist bemoans "Did you stand by me/No not at all." With a funky popping guitar riff and a rootsy train whistle-like harmonica hook, the song stands as one of the most infectious and buoyant pop songs of the era. Despite being hidden -- it was originally not listed on the sleeve, for the band felt it was too commercial (imagine any late-'90s "alternative" bands taking a similar stance) -- "Train in Vain" cracked the Top 40 in the U.S. This was remarkable in 1980 for a so-called punk rock band. The song was literally the hidden gem of the master-stroke London Calling, which spans much of the history of rock & roll -- from blues and jazz, to early rock & roll and rockabilly, to funk, ska, and reggae -- all injected with a raw enthusiasm and played with an aggression that was still called punk. While Joe Strummer was often perceived as the loose cannon, politically charged raw edge of the Clash, Mick Jones was seen as its pop conscience. Of course, as with the Beatles' John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the argument is never that simple, but "Train in Vain"'s almost pure pop essence certainly throws wood on the fire. Sung with unwavering conviction by Jones, the song's irresistible melody is a memorable kiss-off anthem that now sounds at home on classic rock stations. Masters of pale pop Third Eye Blind recorded a weak sugar-coated, suburban hip-hop version in an ill-advised "tribute" on Burning London: The Clash Tribute (1999), which is almost a disaster from start to finish. On the other hand, on her 1995 album Medusa, Annie Lennox manages to pull off what Third Eye Blind seemed to be attempting: a soulful, dance-beat cover of the song. The differences are that Lennox can actually sing and the production and arrangement are thought-out and well-crafted. In addition, Dwight Yoakam turns in a fine, countrified rendition on Under the Covers (1997).

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
London Calling 1979 Legacy / Epic 3:10
Story of the Clash, Vol. 1 1988 Epic / Legacy 3:10
No Image 1990 Relativity 0:00
Clash on Broadway 1991 Epic / Legacy 3:11
The Singles 1991 Legacy / Epic 3:11
The Clash/London Calling/Combat Rock [2000] 2000 Epic / Sony Music Distribution 0:00
No Image 2001
Various Artists
Sony Music Distribution 3:09
The Essential Clash 2003 Legacy / Sony Music Distribution 0:00
Great British Albums 2012
Various Artists
Sony Music 3:10
Hits Back 2013 Sony Music 3:09
Sound System 2013 Sony Legacy / Sony Music 3:14