Mystery ’Train Song’ Has Beatles Experts Divided
Posted on July 1, 2014
Bill King takes a look at a mystery track that has surfaced recently …
The buzz in Beatles circles the past week or so has been a rare recording that appears in the film “A Hard Day’s Night” and may or may not have been done by The Beatles.
The music is heard briefly during a scene aboard a train in “A Hard Day’s Night.”
Here’s the story. Legendary collector Dave Morrell, who has a new book out, guested on Chris Carter’s “Breakfast With The Beatles” radio show on KLOS-FM in Los Angeles and played a 30-second stereo version of the “Train Music” that blared from a transistor radio Ringo turns on in a famous scene of the movie where The Beatles are in a train compartment. An older passenger objects to the music and turns it off.
Although the music is only heard in the film for a few seconds, it is part of the longer clip played by Morrell, who said the recording was found in a box labeled “The Beatles.” According to a Beatles Examiner report, it was auctioned in the past on eBay with this description: “The cardboard EMITAPE box is 5 inches in size, & has a piece of green colored Twickenham Film Studios paperwork partially attached to the back of the box, with several other torn off pieces of the old paperwork housed inside the box, this green paper is quite brittle from age, one can make out the words ‘Hard Days Night’ handwritten on the faded document.”
The clip can be heard here.
But is it The Beatles? Those who think it is cite an entry in John C. Winn’s book “Way Beyond Compare” that says: “…the film producer, Walter Shenson, eventually verified the music was actually performed by the Beatles, presumably during the sessions for the soundtrack the week prior to the start of the filming.”
However, Winn subsequently has backed off from thinking it’s The Beatles after hearing the full 30-second track.
“It sounds to me like some band trying to imitate the Beatles’ sound,” Winn told Beatlefan. “Once I heard the full recording in good quality, it was pretty clearly not them.”
It’s notable that so far no one has been able to produce the interview where Shenson supposedly made the statement. Asked where he got that information for his book, Winn told Beatlefan: “I don’t have a citation for that — my source was Doug Sulpy’s ‘Beatles Audio Guide.’ He wrote: ‘According to Producer Walter Shenson, it’s them. Accept that or not, as you will.’ Perhaps he would know the origin of the Shenson claim.”
Beatlefan tried to get an answer out of Sulpy, but so far hasn’t heard back from him. If we do, we’ll provide an update.
Opinion on the track is greatly divided. Is it really The Beatles? Or some generic beat group stuff put down by someone else for the film that allegedly wound up in an EMI box labeled “Beatles” because it was used in a Beatles film? If it was the Fabs, it’s odd there’s no EMI documentation on that session.
Radio host Carter told Beatles Examiner he believes it’s The Beatles. “I think it’s ‘them’ for the following reasons: It sounds like them. The tape box said ‘The Beatles.’ If it was another group, that other group would have claimed it was them sometime in the last 50 years! It was found along with other music not used in the film by George Martin. And lastly I trust the sources [Morrell and fellow collector Ron Furmanek]. The big question is why it’s not noted in the Beatles recording history data. My guess is it might have been recorded during a George Martin Orchestra session. It was just recorded ‘live’ and did not have a track sheet.”
However, besides Winn, a number of other Beatles scholars who have listened to the recording either don’t believe it’s the Fab Four or are unconvinced by the current evidence.
I asked longtime Beatlefan contributing editor Allan Kozinn of the New York Times what his gut told him about the “Train Song” recording. “My gut tells me it’s not The Beatles, but I’m open to the possibility that it is,” he said. “Listening to it, my feeling is that while it doesn’t sound like any of their recordings, it’s easily within the parameters of what they could play — and if they were trying to sound generic, or perhaps, Shadows-like, rather than Beatly, that could easily be the result. The lack of documentation is a persuasive point, but it’s not necessarily dispositive. They could have recorded the track on the film set (where they had their equipment). Unfortunately, the only person who could probably tell us definitively, is Paul. But Paul’s policy these days seems to be to refuse to answer researchers’ questions, and then to tell them where they were wrong (or write a song about it) after they’ve published.”
Richard Buskin, author of a number of Beatles books (including the new “Beatles 101″), believes it definitely is not The Beatles. “It doesn’t sound like them whatsoever,” he said. “George/John playing surf guitar? I really don’t think so!”
However, European Beatles expert Roger Stormo noted that, “Even though it doesn’t quite sound like them, it could still be them. The drums don’t sound like Ringo, but it could be Paul. It could be them trying not to sound like them. If it was anybody else, then someone would have stepped forward to claim the credit for it.”
The latter point seems to be the strongest argument in favor of it, but is that enough to make the leap that those who believe it is The Beatles are making?
Robert Rodriguez, author of the “Beatles FAQ” series, initially thought it was The Beatles. “To me, it was reminiscent of ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ — a driving Chuck Berry-esque rocker, in ‘E.’”
And, he said, “the lack of documentation isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker either. I would like to believe that Paul or Ringo would remember one way or another, but I kinda doubt it. So at this point, until something more substantive surfaces, I wouldn’t take the assertion that it is them as gospel, though I wouldn’t dismiss it either.”
(Beatlefan has sent inquiries to Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr through their press offices but so far hasn’t heard back.)
Longtime Beatles discographer Wally Podrazik said that, on listening to the track online, his gut reaction was: “Why are they saying this is The Beatles?”
Podrazik said he “was trying to fit the piece into the picture of the group from [Mark] Lewisohn’s ‘Tune In.’ It is established that they could fill long hours covering any kind of song, and could probably churn out just such an instrumental riff … BUT in the controlled atmosphere of filming/the tight schedule of putting together the songs for the film (and more) in the studio, why on earth would they bother? The only argument for it is might be the group members wanting to have their music permeate the soundtrack. But since they already had George Martin creating instrumentals throughout, even that doesn’t hold up.
“If somebody came up with documentation I’d say: OK, fine. It’s them, if you say so. But absent that, it does feel generic.”
Speaking from the fan perspective, Beatlefan contributing editor Tom Frangione said: “Having heard the track, I must say it doesn’t ‘sound’ to be them. Even for an off-the-cuff bit, just comparing it to the sound of their playing (say, BBC sessions) at the time, and even the instrumentation (to say nothing of stylistic things — I’m not a drumming expert, but those don’t sound like Ringo rolls and fills). My own vote is nay.”
And what does a longtime musician intimately familiar with The Beatles’ music think? “It doesn’t sound like The Beatles to me,” Beatlefan contributing editor Jeff Slate said. “The recording doesn’t have that Abbey Road/George Martin sound … at least, in this rough sounding version. … They were better musicians, frankly. The drumming is the giveaway, right from the start. … The drums feel rushed, pushing the beat, not at all like Ringo. The intro isn’t like anything else Ringo ever played in my memory, and those fills! They’re more like Pete Best than Ringo (and I don’t mean that in a good way).
“I may be stretching here, but they also sound like a righty. The bass doesn’t lock in with the kick drum or even play around it like Paul did, even in this era, and it’s quite rudimentary. The rhythm guitar has some of John’s trademark style, but John tended to use lots of 7ths in songs in ’64 and this is more punky and straightforward. Finally, George wouldn’t be caught dead playing those solos.”
Sums up Slate: “Basically, this is too rushed and pinky feeling to my ears. But it’s conceivable that they just rolled the tape and cranked it out in one really brief pass, though I’m not convinced. Abbey Road were (and are to this day!) too anal about documentation. Maybe it was done somewhere else like the BBC, but their schedule wouldn’t really seem to allow anything else that wouldn’t be documented unless it was from a very early test session and was a scrap that had survived.”
And, going to the man many consider the ultimate source on all things Beatles, what does Mark Lewisohn say? When contacted by Beatlefan, Lewisohn said he didn’t think it was The Beatles on the tape, but, as with everything else, he awaits further information with interest.
Others think that, barring direct evidence that it’s not The Beatles, there’s no harm in assuming it is.
Furmanek told Beatles Examiner, “Why not? Until someone comes up with the 100 percent positive proof of who it actually is, why not believe?”
But to Buskin that’s “a ridiculous line of ‘reasoning.’ On that basis, why research anything? The bottom line is, aside from the instruments being played, that short recording bears as much resemblance to The Beatles as the George Martin Orchestra’s Muzak. So, until/unless we know otherwise …”
Feel free to share your thoughts on “Train Song” and whether it sounds like The Beatles.