Despite the title, the words "train in vain" don't appear in this song. The predominant lyric is "stand by me," but that's the title of a famous song by Ben E. King
The title of The Clash song comes from the train rhythm in the song combined with the theme of being lost. It's also a reference to Tammy Wynette's 1975 hit single "Stand By Your Man
" ("you say you stand, by your man, tell me something, I don't understand").
On the original vinyl copy of the album, "Train Is Vain" isn't listed on the tracklisting on the sleeve. The story is that the song was recorded for an NME promotional flexi-disc once the London Calling sessions were done, and the flexi-disc idea then fell through, leaving the song with no home. The band hastily tacked the song onto the end of the album just before vinyl pressing, but the sleeve had already been designed and there was no time to add it to the tracklisting. The only clue of it's existence is in the run-out groove on Side 4, where the name is carved into the vinyl. On all subsequent releases (including the CD copy) "Train In Vain" is included on the tracklisting on the sleeve.
According to NME magazine (3/16/91), this isn't listed on the sleeve credits for London Calling because it was originally going to be a flexi giveaway with NME magazine. Unfortunately, the idea proved too expensive and the track went on the album instead.
Clash guitarist Mick Jones sang lead vocals on this song. The lyrics appear to reference the end of his on-off relationship with Viv Albertine, which he also explored on the London Calling
track "I'm Not Down
." "Train In Vain" also contains a pointed reference to his flat being burgled in early 1979 and to his feelings of depression ("I need new clothes, I need somewhere to stay").
This was the first US Top 40 hit for The Clash. They had only one more - "Rock The Casbah
" in 1982.
The album cover was designed as a tribute to Elvis Presley's first album. The words "London" and "Calling" are displayed the same way "Elvis" and "Presley" were on his 1956 debut. Instead of a photo of Elvis, however, the text frames a shot of Clash bass player Paul Simonon smashing his bass
during a show at The Palladium in New York. That bass was later displayed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The song became a firm live favorite for the band, introduced to their live set in December 1979 and played consistently until Mick Jones was fired in 1983. The music video is taken from one of these many live performances, a February 1980 show in Lewisham filmed by Don Letts and featuring an amusing introduction from Joe Strummer: "We'd like to take the soul train from platform one... and if you don't want to come, there's always the toilet!"
You'd think a big hit like "Rock the Casbah" or "Should I Stay or Should I Go" would be the most covered Clash song, but it's actually "Train in Vain." Cover versions exist by Third Eye Blind, Ill Rapture, Dr. Haze/DJ X-Cel, The Sabrejets, Dwight Yoakam, Annie Lennox, The Manic Street Preachers, Jones Crusher and Kirsty MacColl.
The Pretenders lead singer Chrissie Hynde
was on the scene when the band recorded this at Wessex Studios. Mick Jones explained to Daniel Rachel (The Art of Noise: Conversations with Great Songwriters
): "It wasn't about Chrissie Hynde but she was upstairs and there was a window from the pool room where she could look in. I was singing it to Chrissie."
This R&B-flavored tune introduced The Clash to a new audience. "We couldn't believe how popular it became, especially in America," Jones said. "That broke us in there. They thought it was a regular R&B song, then they found out it was The Clash."