Mystery Train by Elvis Presley: Great B-Sides

Of all the b-sides that I’ve covered in this series, Elvis Presley’s cover of ‘Mystery Train’ is the most iconic. It was voted on a 2003 Rolling Stone as the 77th greatest song of all time, an astounding feat for a song originally buried on the b-side of the single.

Presley started his career with Sam Phillips’ Sun Records, but didn’t make any albums for the label – just a series of singles in the twelve months between July 1954 and July 1955. Born after Elvis’ death, it’s sometimes difficult for me to appreciate his legacy – the tacky movies and the Vegas period often overshadow his days as a pioneering young rock and roller. But his work with Sun Records is Elvis at his most potent.

‘Mystery Train’ was first recorded by blues musician Junior Parker in 1953 – Sam Phillips was given a co-writing credit. The lyrics of ‘Mystery Train’ were very similar to ‘Worried Man Blues’, recorded in 1930 by The Carter Family; both reference a train “sixteen coaches long”.

Presley’s version transformed the song to rockabilly. He’s accompanied by Scotty Moore on lead guitar and Bill Black on bass, but the song’s most prominent feature is Sam Phillips’ use of slapback echo delay. This effect, achieved by using two tape recorders slightly out of sync, gives ‘Mystery Train’ a haunting aura. It suits an ambiguous song; the title ‘Mystery Train’ isn’t used in the lyrics, and it’s never clear if the unfolding events are joyful or tragic.

Train, train, comin’ ’round, ’round the bend
‘Round, ’round the bend
Well, it took my baby, but it never will again
Never will again

‘Mystery Train’ helped to establish Presley as a country star, and has continued to reverberate. The Band covered the song on 1973’s Moondog Matinee, Robbie Robertson adding extra verses. Greil Marcus’ celebrated book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘N’ Roll Music took its title from the song. It’s also referenced in the lyrics to U2’s attempt at Americana on their 1988 b-side ‘A Room at the Heartbreak Hotel’.

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  1. Thanks for the mention. Boy, I love this tune. Not too long ago I heard a brief interview with Bruce Springsteen and he started idly strumming it. I liked the way he was casually tieing it in to his music. I’ve been playing around with it on the guitar. To simulate it is easy; to get it right, tricky.

  2. Scotty Moore was great as always on this song. One of my favorite Elvis songs. I do like it better than the A-side “I Forgot to Remember to Forget.”
    That echo influenced everyone after… You can hear it in Springsteen’s Glory Days…it makes everything so full sounding.

  3. My mother was a big Elvis fan so I got to experience lots of the king growing up. He does rock this song though my favourite version of “Mystery Train” is by Paul Butterfield and The Band on “The Last Waltz.”

  4. A great Artist too! Nobody under 50 knows much about Elvis and a few other great guys such us Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. They could discover how big these pioneers have influenced other rock acts from later generations starting with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys.

  5. CB has no problem with Elvis. It’s about the music and this stuff is some of the best. I’ve heard this tune countless times and never tire of it. Lots of other good versions and they all have the ghost of Elvis in them.

  6. A lot the initial releases of his early singles had unbelievable b-sides. Hound Dog was originally the B-side of Don’t Be Cruel. I Was the One was the B-side of Heartbreak Hotel. Little Sister was the B-side of His Latest Flame. And Blue Moon of Kentucky was the B-side of That’s all Right.

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