(Credits: Far Out / Warner Brothers)
Whilst they might have one of the most comedic names in rock music history, The Doobie Brothers are not the hapless stoners that their brand suggests. A celebrated musical act that crafted some of the finest soft rock of the 1970s, the Steely Dan-adjacent outfit continues to earn new fans with their sound’s sunny and soothing essence.
The band’s most famous hit is undoubtedly ‘What a Fool Believes’, a pop classic that fuses the stoned Californian nature of The Doobie Brothers’ sound with an infectious hook. It was such a potent formula that they took home the 1980 Grammy Awards for ‘Song of the Year’ and ‘Record of the Year’, showing how far the group came from their distinctly countercultural origins. Other classics The Doobies brought into the world include the likes of ‘Listen to the Music’ and their first number-one hit, ‘Black Water’, which launched them as a cultural powerhouse in 1974.
A group known for their well-thought-out numbers that lyrically touch on subjects ranging from utopian world peace to childhood imaginings of the south inspired by novels such as Tom Sawyer, the words of The Doobie Brothers are about as all-encompassing as they come. However, what is interesting is that, every so often, a song would not be as meticulously concocted as listeners would think.
This is particularly true for their 1973 hit ‘Long Train Runnin”, a track taken from their third album, The Captain and Me. Written by guitarist and vocalist Tom Johnston, the song emerged from an untitled, ad-libbed jam that the band developed for a number of years before it became the full-fledged staple of their setlist it is today.
When speaking to Songfacts in 2009, Johnston remembered writing the classic. He initially considered it a “throwaway” before producer Ted Templeman changed his mind and told the band to record it as a serious number. The producer could sense that the song was a classic in the making, and it wouldn’t be long before Johnston realised he was correct.
Johnston told the publication: “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.”
He recalled: “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.’”
The guitarist concluded: “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.”
Listen to the track below.