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’.