Runaway Train

Album: Grave Dancers Union (1992)
Charted: 7 5
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Songfacts®:

  • Soul Asylum lead singer Dave Pirner wrote this song, which is about depression. It took him a few years to complete the song; at first it had different lyrics with a refrain of "laughing at the rain," which he knew was too similar to the Neil Sedaka song "Laughter In The Rain."

    Pirner had the tune in his head, but it wasn't until he went through some dark times that the runaway train/depression metaphor hit him, and he wrote the lyrics in a single sitting.
  • The music video for "Runaway Train" featured photographs and names of missing children in the style of a public service announcement. At the end of the video, lead singer Dave Pirner appeared and said, "If you've seen one of these kids, or you are one of them, please call this number" before a missing children telephone helpline number appeared. The video was edited for use outside the US to include photos and names of missing children from wherever the video was to be shown. The video drew awareness to the problem and was instrumental in reuniting several children with their families.

    The message of the video became bigger than that of the song, and the Soul Asylum singer embraced that message. In our interview with Dave Pirner, he explained: "I really got closer to an issue that I was concerned about and open to being concerned about, and thrust into a position where I was dealing with the Polly Klaas situation. There's so much raw emotion and so much reality to a situation like that that you can't exploit it."

    Polly Klaas was a 12-year-old girl who went missing in October 1993, a few months after the song had peaked on the charts. The case made national news, drawing more attention to the issue of missing and exploited children. It was later learned the Klaas was abducted and murdered.
  • Soul Asylum had released five albums prior to Grave Dancers Union. They developed a small following and did well on college radio, but "Runaway Train" was their first pop hit and changed their fortunes. The song's hit potential became obvious when they played it live at the University of Minnesota before recording it - the crowd responded to it and some commented that they thought it was a cover, as the tune sounded somehow familiar. This convinced the band to put some resources into developing the song, so they hired a producer named Michael Beinhorn to work on it with them.

    The band had signed with Columbia Records after splitting with A&M, and Columbia was ready to invest in the album, and especially this song. They booked a high-end recording studio in New York City - The Power Station - and the band recorded it there. Recording the track went well, but Pirner had trouble getting comfortable with his vocals, so Beinhorn left him alone to record his part with just the band's guitarist Dan Murphy present. The result was a very emotive vocal that served the song.
  • The video was directed by Tony Kaye, who would later direct the movie American History X. Kaye came up with the idea of using images of real missing children in the clip, and the band loved the idea, as it was truly original and could also do some good. And while Kaye's literal interpretation - runaway children - wasn't the real meaning behind the song, Dave Pirner didn't mind going in that direction for the video, since he didn't think visuals attached to a song were that important. "I had been searching for meaningfulness in the MTV world," he said. "The tool of the video seemed like either just a raw promotion piece or just an opportunity to send a visual that isn't really relevant. I don't need to see a visual representation of 'Free Bird' to understand what a free bird is."
  • Acoustic guitars are the lead instruments on this song, but listen carefully and you'll hear an organ in the mix. This was a Hammond B3 organ played by Booker T. Jones, who was a member of the group Booker T. & the M.G.'s ("Green Onions"). Jones played on many Soul classics of the '60s and '70s, mostly the Stax Records recordings, as his group served as their house band.

    Getting Jones was a coup for Soul Asylum, and an opportunity to let a master do his work - producer Michael Beinhorn flew to Los Angeles to record Jones, but gave him very little direction, as the organist had been around the block a few times and knew just what to play for the seven songs he contributed to on the album.
  • The music video for this song changed its perception, as many viewers assumed the song was about runaway children. According to Dave Pirner, the song deals with a feeling of something missing, but associating it specifically with missing children is a stretch. "The video initiated the runaway children aspect of the song," he told us. "It is fascinating to me that MTV was such a vehicle that it practically reinterpreted the song. I don't think that anybody that really loves that song thinks about the video that much."
  • At the 1994 ceremony, this won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Song, which went to its writer, Dave Pirner. Dave didn't attend the ceremony, as he didn't like the idea of proclaiming one song superior to another. When he won, Meat Loaf accepted the award on his behalf.
  • When this song started climbing the charts, Soul Asylum embarked on MTV's Alternative Nation tour, a 56-date trek with Screaming Trees and Spin Doctors that had them playing shows nearly every night. They made several TV appearances as well, including at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards where Peter Buck and Victoria Williams joined them to perform the song.

    The group, and especially Pirner, were getting burned out at this point from touring and promotion, and for a while Pirner refused to perform the song in an effort to prove that there was more to Soul Asylum than "Runaway Train."
  • The band's drummer, Grant Young, didn't play on this track, as producer Michael Beinhorn wasn't happy with his takes. Sterling Campbell, who was a top session player, was brought in for the job, which caused a great deal of tension in the band. Young ended up quitting Soul Asylum before they recorded their next record. Campbell is credited on the album as a "percussionist."
  • In The Office episode "Money" (2007), a depressed Michael sings this while sitting on a train. It was also used on Family Guy in the 2017 episode "The D In Apartment 23."
  • In the 2009 It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia episode "The Gang Hits The Road," Dee Reynolds drunkenly serenades a hitchhiker with "Runaway Train." She thinks he's a doomed runaway when in fact he's just going to see his uncle in Hollywood. The kid ends up stealing their car after Dee and the rest of the gang pass out in the trailer attached to it.

Comments: 12

  • Nickster from Minneapolis, MnI really thought it was Tom Petty for a long time.
  • Danleichty from Rochester, MnMy dad and I saw them in concert. They are a great band.
  • Heather from White Bear Lake, Mni love this song! great tune
  • Rachael from Melbourne, AustraliaI loved this song when it first came out. It did take on new meaning for me though, when I watched the film clip years later and recognised the name and image of one of the victims of the backpacker killer in Australia. I believe the picture has since been removed from the clip, but it brought home to me that people may not just run away.
  • Kevin from Reading , PaThese guys actually did a decent cover of the Fleetwood Mac classic "Dreams," which sounded like a strange cover song for a 90s alternative band. Don't know too much else by this band, which I presume are long gone from the scene.
  • Sherrad from South Bend, InLove Love love this song. In times of my life, I have felt like that runaway train....just screwing up everything put in front of me.....
  • Bertrand from Paris, FranceSoul Asylum shot to the top of the ranks of alt-rock bands with this folkish classic. The video for "Runaway Train" was accompanied by advertisements about missing children serving a powerful public service. Many alt-rock fans abandoned Soul Asylum as having sold out to the mainstream, but pop fans pushed "Runaway Train" to #5 on the chart, and it became a well-deserved classic.
  • Allison from Dearborn, MiI love this song,as odd as it may seem it helps me when I feel upset. These lyrics are amazing, they can relate to everyone in someway.
  • Tom from Hershey, PaGreat song and GREAT BAND, please add more of their stuff to songfacts
  • Bryan from Spring, TxThis song was the jam back in eighth grade.
  • Eric from Vancouver, CanadaThis song actually first appeared on "Grave Dancers Union" in 1992
  • Patrick from Humboldt, Iavery good song
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