Bob Lefsetz: Welcome To My World - "Night Train"
After a failed 1977 solo album, Steve Winwood licked his wounds for over three years and then released "Arc Of A Diver," which surprised everyone by containing a radio smash, "While You See A Chance."
Traffic petered out with 1974's "When The Eagle Flies," an unjustly forgotten record with the great opener "Something New" and the exquisite "Walking In The Wind," and then Winwood segued to Stomu Yamashta's group "Go," recorded one phenomenal track, "Winner/Loser," and that brings us up to the aforementioned '77 solo debut, which contained such winners as "Hold On," "Time Is Running Out," "Vacant Chair" and the album's highlight, "Luck's In," but without a hit single, Steve was on his way to obscurity, who knew a huge comeback was in the offing, never mind superstar status in 1986, with "Back In The High Life"...
"While You See A Chance" was all over the airwaves, which caused old and new fans to rush to the record store to purchase "Arc Of A Diver," and what they ended up with was the record of a one man band akin to McCartney's debut and Todd Rundgren's early work that was playable throughout.
But the gem was on the second side.
Yes, by this time, you needed a hit to get recognition. The early seventies album paradigm had already died, to be undermined even further in the MTV eighties. But even at this late date, all the way up to the Napster era, if you had a hit single people were interested in buying the album to see what you were all about, what you were up to. And at this point in 1980, the concept of being ripped off by the artist and the label with one good single per disc was anathema, almost unheard of.
So you started with side one, the hit was right up front.
And then you flipped "Arc Of A Diver" over and were confronted with the slow, exotic "Spanish Dancer," with its raindrop sounds, and six minutes later, when that spacious number ended you were jolted alive by the synth sounds of NIGHT TRAIN!
That's the amazing thing about "Night Train," it's got the chugging feeling of a train on the tracks. Ever been on a long distance nighttime train trip, the Trans-Europe Express? This is not America, with its substandard track and slowdowns, no, overseas the railroad is a viable alternative, oftentimes the transportation mode of choice. You sit in your compartment and watch the landscape go by, lulled into a contemplative mood wherein you mentally run through your past and posit your future.
"Night Train" is pure album track, it's eons before Winwood starts to sing. But what comes before the vocal is so enticing that you're positively hooked.
"Out of the night, burning with light"
Yes, a streaming line of illumination piercing the landscape, with the power of many horses, pulling the inhabitants into a new future.
And that's what the track sounds like, new, with all the synths percolating throughout, accents popping in the background, catching our attention and then disappearing, to be later replaced by another. It's a veritable Coney Island in the listener's mind.
And it keeps chugging along. It's a sweeter variation on the Kraftwerk theme, a homey English feeling as opposed to German industrialization. And as its almost eight minutes transpire you're brought along for the ride. At first you're just listening, but when you don't realize it, Steve hangs off the side of the car, grabs your arm and pulls you inside. You're sitting by the window, bobbing your head to his guitar work as the countryside goes by, there's nowhere you'd rather be.
"Paris to Spain, countries in pain"
You're an observer, you're safe in the cocoon of the music, of the train. Meanwhile, Steve's positively wailing on his six string, there's a left field synth and underneath it all the synths keep chugging along, just like the train. And then at seven minutes in, the synth starts to solo, the guitar comes out to jam, and suddenly the entire train starts to fade in the distance, while you weren't looking, while you were just enjoying yourself, you were deposited in another land and the train is pulling away without you and there's nothing you'd rather do than get back on board, which is why you get up from the couch and lift the needle to play the track again...and again...and again. It's your secret sauce, a hypnotic number only members of a large cult are aware of. Like the best music "Night Train" has the feeling it was made just for you, which is its magic, it's PERSONAL!
P.S. Despite predating MTV by eighteen months, a promotional film was made for "Night Train" that got airplay in the early days of the music television service, before the American record labels realized that MTV airplay was a rocket ship to riches and started cranking out clips. It's horribly cheesy in that early video style, but because of its amateur simplicity, it's endearing.
P.P.S. I've included three versions of "Night Train." The original, from "Arc Of A Diver," the 2010 version from "Revolutions: The Very Best Of Steve Winwood" and the instrumental take from 2012's expanded version of "Arc Of A Diver." They all have their charms...LUXURIATE!