There were several versions attempted before settling on the studio one we all know and love. On The Cutting Edge, an early MTV program, R.E.M. performed a version of this with acoustic guitars and a banjo. On tour, before this album was recorded, they played a much heavier version of the song.
The song is about a train engineer who is over-worked and urged by the conductor to take a break. That message could be applied to many facets of life. Trains were chosen according to Buck because the band grew up near the train tracks. According to lead singer Michael Stipe it's because they represent part of "mythological America."
A harmonica is used to mimic the sound of a train whistle.
The video for the song, directed by Michael Stipe and James Herbert, was made before Stipe was comfortable lip-synching, so it is comprised almost entirely of footage of trains.
A live version recorded in Seattle, Washington, on June 27, 1984, appears on the edition of Fables with bonus tracks that were released in 1992.
In the UK, this was never released as a single. It didn't chart in the US.
Stipe told Rolling Stone November 12, 2009: "It's like breathing - I don't think about it when I sing it. I was listening to these live tapes and thought it was a beautiful song with incredible imagery. I listen to our old albums and think, 'OK, this is where that went wrong, this is a way to improve that.' And 'Wow, that's really good. You're not the hoax you think you are.'"
Despite already releasing two albums, the guys were hardly living like rock stars. Peter Buck remembers writing this song with Bill Berry in their humble digs: "I remember Bill and I had a little apartment. God it was a dump. Everything was falling apart, and the only people who lived in the apartment complex besides me and Bill were some people who were living in group homes trying to transition out into the real world. A lot of them hadn't had apartments before, so it was kind of chaotic.
"I remember Bill came up with the verse to 'Driver 8,' and after he showed it to me he said, 'I need to run to the market, I'll be right back.' I think he went to get some beans or rice or something. In the meantime, I came up with the chorus and the intro riff. Bill came back in about five minutes, and it was done. So I played it for him and he went, 'Alright, that's great!' Bill was totally excited. That was a song we played almost every day on the tour before we did Fables. I think we had written it immediately after we did Reckoning," he said in the liner notes for Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011.
"I don't know where I pulled the 'go tell crusade' from," Michael Stipe said, "but it was so southern, and so of a time. And so real."
This would unintentionally inspire the band's 2001 song "Imitation Of Life
," which borrows the verse chords from "Driver 8."