Doobie Brothers guitarist and lead singer Tom Johnston wrote this song, which they played live for three years before recording. Johnston told us: "Generally I write the music first, and sometimes I have a devil of a time getting the words. Sometimes they come right away, and sometimes it's like pulling teeth. We played 'Long Train Runnin'' for three years before it got recorded, and it got called several different names, and most of the time I would make up the words as we were playing the song.
I think we started playing that in the Chateau, so that would have been around 1970-71. And it got called 'Osborne,' it got called 'Parliament,' it got called a lot of things. It was just anything to put down on the set list so we'd know what song it was, but it didn't have any words - I would just make up the words as we played the song. So they might be nonsense – might be? They're definitely nonsensical. And it continued that way until Teddy (producer Ted Templeman) heard it and said, 'You should cut that.' And I said, 'Oh, man, this is just a throwaway song.' I didn't think it was any big deal. I didn't think it had any great merit as far as the chords and everything went, because it seemed too simplistic to me. But I was wrong, and wrote the words in the bathroom, which happened a lot down there. I wrote the words sitting in the bathroom at Amigo Studios in Burbank, which doesn't exist anymore. But that's where we did all those records, and it was owned by Warner Brothers. So it was like a last-minute deal, and then I came in and sang, and boing, the record was done."
Regarding the lyrics, Johnston said: "None of that stuff really had any basis in anything. It was just out the top of my head, which, quite frankly, is where all lyrics come from. Songwriting's a weird thing, and everybody does it differently. For me, I always write the music first, the words come later. But I've had songs that just seem to write themselves, and those are blessings for me, because you don't have to sit there and strain your brain for hours trying to come up with the lyrics, it seems like they just flow out on the paper, and you don't even have to think. Other songs, like 'Long Train Runnin'' - not that the words are that difficult or anything - it's just finding the words that I thought fit the track. Took me a long time. I got into the whole train mode, and it's just stuff that comes into your head. It's not like I had a point of reference with anybody named Lucy, I had been around trains on and off throughout my life. Coming from the Central Valley in California, there's a lot of trains running up and down that valley. And I assume that's where some of that stuff probably came from."
Always a crowd-pleaser when The Doobies play this live, it starts with a very recognizable guitar riff that Johnston came up with. When he came up with the riff, Johnston didn't think it was anything out of the ordinary. In our 2009 interview, he said: "It surprises me, because we just finished doing that song in Japan for a TV show, and they wanted to know all about the guitar lick, and I really can't tell anybody anything in depth. It's just a lick to me." (Check out the full interview with Tom Johnston
Arlo Guthrie released a popular train song the previous year: "City Of New Orleans
." Both songs mention the Illinois Central train in the lyrics.
This did not originally chart in the UK. However in 1993 it became the Doobie Brothers only British Top 10 hit when a remixed version climbed to #7 on the singles chart.
Girl group Bananarama scored a #30 hit in the UK with their cover version, in which they were backed by The Gypsy Kings.
has implied that The Doobie Brothers lifted the guitar riff of this song from the Bachman-Turner Overdrive song "Let It Ride
." According to Bachman, in 1972 The Doobie Brothers were sharing a dressing room with BTO for a show at The Warehouse in New Orleans, which is when they wrote "Let It Ride."
In Stephen King's 1980 novel, Firestarter, this plays on Andy McGee's car radio during a frantic drive.