Locomotive Breath

Album: Aqualung (1971)
Charted: 62

Songfacts®:

  • Written by Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson, the locomotive in this song is running out of control, and is a metaphor for societal problems. Anderson gave a detailed explanation of the song in our 2013 interview, where he said: "When I wrote it, I wasn't deliberately setting out to write a piece of music on a particular subject. But it evolved during the writing process into being not terribly specific, but about the issues of overcrowding - the rather claustrophobic feel of a lot of people in a limited space. And the idea of the incessant unstoppable locomotive being metaphor for seemingly the unstoppable population expansion on planet Earth.

    When I look at it today, it does, for me, become very crystallized in being a song about unmanageable population expansion. It's something that concerns me even more today than it did back when I wrote it, when the population of planet Earth was only about two thirds of what it is today. So in my lifetime alone, we've seen an enormous increase in population, and an enormous increase in the degree to which we devour our limited resources. So the idea of population planning and management is something that I think we ought to be thinking about a lot more than we do. Does that mean I think we should sterilize everybody after the age of 30? No, of course not. The size of the family you want to have is going to be your choice. But, you should make that choice knowingly, wisely, and responsibly."
  • "Old Charlie," who appears in the chorus to this song, represents God. Anderson says that when he "stole the handle," he left the train running out of control. This symbolized everyone facing injustice in life and feeling powerless to do anything about it - you just have to make the best of it.
  • It took a few attempts to record this song, as Anderson had to impress on the band that musically, it was supposed to feel like a train on the tracks, not one that goes off and explodes. He uses the analogy of a boiler building up pressure to describe the song musically. Restraining the drummer is always a challenge when performing this song.
  • This is a Classic Rock staple, but disc jockeys have to be patient with this one, as it starts with a quiet piano intro that lasts about 1:22, at which point the other instruments kick in, giving the feeling of a calm that is suddenly disturbed. Anderson's vocals come in around 1:32.
  • This was one of the songs Ian Anderson and his arranger John O'Hara reworked for the 2017 album Jethro Tull: The String Quartets. This version, known as "Loco," opens with a cello cadenza inspired by Bach, a composer who is a huge influence on Anderson.
  • This is a popular song among metal bands; W.A.S.P. covered it on their 1989 album The Headless Children, and Helloween released their version on their 1999 set Metal Jukebox. Styx also recorded it for their 2005 album Big Bang Theory.

Comments: 9

  • Gavin from Uitenhage-south AfricaHere's something few will know. We had a local band called Rabbitt,who was known more for their song 'Charlie', that covered Locomotive Breath and it did better on our local charts than the original. Lead guitarist Trevor Rabin went on to join Yes and had success with 'Owner of a lonely heart'.
  • Dave from Tujunga, Calif.Interesting comments here. Over the years many a songwriter that also originally performed the song as well have given a story of pure drivel as to what they meant by a word, or phrase, or an entire song during an interview for the purpose of, "political correctness", or as to avoid marginalizing a number of the fans that buy their records and pay to seem them in concert. Every so often it's just the result of their cowardice to stand up and admit what they wrote and as to why.
    Bob Dylan once told a reporter, that as to what his lyrics meant when He sang "everybody must get stoned", is that He "..meant that in the Biblical sense". The band "Chicago" would never admit that their song 25 or 6 to 4 was actually about taking LSD, and made up some drivel about trying to read the time on an antique clock, John Lennon made up a story that his son had drawn him a picture of Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds, to deny that it was about LSD. While I have always enjoyed Jethro Tull's music, although I am most partial to their early years, I have found Ian Anderson to be a rude, priggish, snob or he at least became that after He had made enough money off of the very people, his fans, that he acquired most of his wealth from, and especially for the comments He made about Hippies being a bunch of dirty, filthy, drug addled scourge of the earth, that he wanted nothing to do with them, and couldn't give a **** if they liked his music or not.
    Thus, whatever He claims the lyrics are about, He's never going to admit to anything nor will He even give you a clue. As to what I think the songs' lyrics mean, I couldn't give a ****. .... but I do like it.
  • Yancy from San FranciscoThis is a song about a persons Life running out of control because of his immoral lifestyle. Ol Charley represents the Devil.
  • Frank from CanadaWow... I understand the song totally different. His best friend and his woman in bed and having fun? He's struggling whether or not to kill them. His world is closing in and crashing. He turns to the bible opens at page one... Nothing but contradictions.
  • Drake from Huntington Beach, CaThe lyrics surprisingly enough seem to match up to Seth's story in Red Dead Redemption (You wouldn't know who he is unless you've played the game). Anyways not all but some of the lines match up to his backstory before he meets John Marston. In the shuffling madness of his life, Seth appears to be running insane and towards his death by spending all his time looking for treasure maps and digging up dead peoples graves, which could categorize him as an "All Time Loser" and a freak. Steam breaking on his brow and pistons scrapping could resemble him digging up the buried and searching their corpses for anything of use. Charlie stealing the handle could mean the devil took everything from him and is driving his mental locomotive off the rails and into the deep end. He mentioned his children and wife leaving him in the game which could refer to the next set of lines, plus his best friend, Moses, steals a piece of something that means good use to himself. He then searches in forgotten churches and cemeteries on his hands and knees for any clues for where the secret piece of map when't but only thinks of his mind going off the deep end. Now as you continue though the game with Seth as John, you both find a chest, where he claims the secret has been hiding all along. But opening it, he only finds a glass eye, leaving him hanging by the balls with nothing left to look for. Though this doesn't happen in Red Dead Redemption, but in some other later time, Seth opens up to the Gideon's Bible and finds that God has known about this all along and that he watched Seth's life fall apart as he searches for false hope and earthly possessions like riches and such like that.
  • Michael from San Diego, CaA different concept of 'locomotive breath' was a 1974 jaguar e-type 5.3l/326ci v-12 clocking 132 mph on a 3.5 mile slight uphill freeway leg with only a single phase alternator railroad spec.With flickering headlights temporary Christmas shopping patch job (the streamlined bullet nose was removed at the time)!!!
  • Bill from Germantown, TnI find it very unbelievable that neither Jethro Tull nor Ian Anderson is in the American ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME. Not even a mention. If one goes to that web site, you will shake your head in dismay of who is in before this man and his groups. Utterly disgraceful.
  • Ken from La, CaThe song begins with the writer referring to a “shuffling madness” which is easy enough to comprehend - but who’s madness is the bigger question. Once the song becomes more apparent, we learn it belongs to God. The “locomotive breath” (mentioned only once in the entire song) is in fact the Crucifixion of Christ. God’s shuffling madness - an oxymoron.

    Ian Anderson, with his effortless, blaspheming ways describes Christ being betrayed, abused and tortured to death by everyone, including His father, God. Christ, who introduced the world to grace, spirituality, and eternal life, was crucified for his kindness and goodness. The writer refers to this most unfortunate man as the “All Time Loser”.
    As Christ carries His cross, he is “headlong to his death”. Being nailed to the cross, “He feels the pistons [or spikes] scraping” against His bone. Now on the cross, He feels His own hot blood (steam breaking on His brow) from the Crown of Thorns.
    The writer makes it very clear that Ol’ Charlie is calling the shots here. Later, he is referred to as the “All Time Winner”, and in the end - God. As Christ dies on the cross, the writer begins to imply that Christ has been forced to die for our sins by reporting God “stole” the only way to postpone (slow down), or stop His torture.

    Christ recalls His experience as He begins to die. “He see His children jumping off” refers to His disciple’s, who bailed on Him; through their interrogation processes, fear and humanness (stations), they denied Him “one-by-one”. He is devastated by His disciple’s lack of faith - It’s like His “woman and His best friend” stabbing you in the back! He sees Himself carrying His cross; “crawling down the corridors, on His hands and knees”.
    But God has big plans for his greatest creation (us), and knows what must take place tonight - that Christ must die, and ascend so we may have eternal life! So God does nothing. On the Cross, Christ is at the point of His human death as He “hears the silence howling”. His angels are fainting over grief and disbelief. As Christ begins to ascend, He can see them, and in true Christ style, spiritually “catches angels as they fall”. Now the writer innocently, implies that God has Christ right where He wants Him – but it’s not “by the balls” as written, Ian, but in Paradise.

    God’s plan worked out perfectly! In His pride God picks up a Gideon’s (Holy) Bible, and only has to open to page one to validate His greatness! He reads: God holds (stole) the handle! God calls the shots! And there’s nothing you, or any one thing, can do about it! Thanks Ian.
  • Thomas from Somerville, AlJethro Tull is one of the few bands that I can say I actually believe to purposfuly interject religious overtones in their songs. Ian Anderson is a genious and the band kicked A**!!!
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