What: The Shangri-Las’ song “The Train from Kansas City,” written by Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry. The song was first released on the B-side of the 1965 single “Right Now and Not Later.” No video of the Shangs’ singing the song has emerged, but here is the studio version. Or you can watch lead singer Mary Weiss singing the song last year.
Why: As I said here, three subjects are in-the-bank guarantees for a songwriter. Here is the second. While writing about a car can get you “Red Barchetta” on a good day or “Chevy Van” on a bad one, there are no such risks when you write about a train. Musically, trains provide a thunderous driving power, and never jump the tracks. They’re also emotionally evocative, as evidenced on this obscure but brilliant song by the girl group the Shangri-Las. The inversion of the Monkees’ Vietnam War composition “Last Train to Clarksville”, “The Train from Kansas City” is sung from the heart by a girl who pledges to marry a boy as soon as she meets the titular train. But her intended is not on the train; instead, a former love is. The train-bound boy believes his girl is true, but the ring on her finger says otherwise. And yet… The song seems intended to soothe the feelings of the new beau, who can’t be feeling too good about statements like “Nothin’ in this world could tear us apart” right now. It’s a lyric that balances on a knife edge, propelled by the sounds of a train rumbling into the station. At the final whistle, someone’s heart will break.
Impact: Surely the only band named for a mythical Himalayan utopia, the Shangri-Las were built to conquer. With two top-five hits from 1964’s Leader of the Pack, the bad-girl Shangs dominated the white-girl-group corner of the pop charts, touring with the Beatles, James Brown, the Drifters, and Dusty Springfield. The success came not only from singer Mary Weiss’s powerful voice and the excellent harmonies from her sister Betty and the Ganser twins Marge and Mary Ann. Behind the scenes was the most melodramatic record producer of the Sixties, George “Shadow” Morton. For his Shangs songs, Morton never met a sound effect he didn’t like; there were motorcycle revs on “Leader of the Pack”, seagulls on “Remember (Walking in the Sand)”, frickin’ Beethoven on “Past, Present, and Future”. With Morton producing, the Shangs looked to be poised for continued success—and then, like the heroes of their songs, they were gone. All the girls vanished from the public eye, and when Mary Ann died in 1970, all hopes of a reunion were dashed. Mary Weiss has recently started touring and recording again, but there will never be another Shangri-Las. You don’t get to paradise twice.
Personal Connection: The Shangs’ Teen Anguish, Volume 2 ranks as my favorite greatest hits album, acquired when I was 15 or so. There was one thing I tried the hardest to teach myself to play: the left-handed piano part from “The Train from Kansas City.” The notes I could figure out, but I could never get the sound. That signature sounded like it was recorded in a storm drain, and it was impossible to replicate. That’s when I realized Shadow Morton was a genius.
Other Contenders: Guy Clark’s train is a phantom primed for one last robbery in “Desperados Waiting for a Train”; Aerosmith’s train is a love machine that impresses even Little Richard on their cover version of “Train Kept a-Rollin'”; Guns ‘N Roses’ train is a hell-bent fireball in “Locomotive”; Paul Simon’s train is a lost echo in “Train in the Distance”; Curtis Mayfield’s train is a last run to paradise in “People Get Ready”; Tom Waits’ train is a mysterious conveyor of urbanity in “Downtown Train”; Bruce Springsteen’s train is the darkest kind of love rollercoaster in “Tunnel of Love”.
Off-topic note: The Most Beautiful Things is featured among the 100 essays in the new print-on-demand collection LiveJournal: The First Decade. The essay in question is the one on giving blood. I’m happy it’s alongside an essay from