In 1972, the expectation of most rock groups was that they would produce upbeat, hit-oriented records which record labels could introduce to teenyboppers through radio play. Savoy Brown had succeeded at exactly this formula with their 1971 album Street Corner Talking, with its irresistible radio hit “Tell Mama.” They had transcended their reputation as a serious English, blues-boogie band in the vein of Ten Years After or early Fleetwood Mac, and reached the charts with a killer slide guitar driven floor-filler that never fails to quicken the pulse - even today. So, one would be forgiven for expecting their next (7th) album to follow this lead with more hits. You would be wrong, because leader/guitarist/songwriter Kim Simmonds instead offers up one of the darkest, moodiest blues rock albums of the entire era. Clearly disturbed by the Vietnam War and the direction of the culture, Simmonds gives us seven visions of a world on the edge of apocalypse.
Musically, Hellbound Train takes a bold step back from the band’s previously guitar-heavy approach. It leans much more heavily on Paul Raymond’s Hammond organ playing, Andy Silvester’s melodic bass lines and Dave Walker’s Fogerty-esque vocals. In fact, more than anything else, Hellbound Train reminds me of a sludgy Bayou Country, with its longish songs that take you to a dark, yet familiar place. Standout tracks “Troubled By These Days and Times,” “It’ll Make You Happy” and “If I Could See An End” advance the themes of societal dread, relationships breaking apart and end times approaching. Simmonds’ guitar playing remains restrained and tasteful, avoiding the heroics he had become famous for earlier in his career. He doesn’t really fully bust out until the 9-minute title track which immediately takes its place among a small group of songs that define a specific genre of rock music. What is that genre called? Fuckin’ Awesome!
The song “Hellbound Train” shares the dais with other songs like “Stairway To Heaven,” “Layla,” “Loan Me A Dime” or “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” in that it is immediately “epic” in theme, structure and length, lending an air of expectation and gravitas. Savoy Brown does not disappoint as the song slowly rises from a swamp of organ and a plodding drum beat into a frightening tale of a train on an out of control ride to the netherworld (U.S. involvement in South East Asia). Amazingly Simmonds, who was not really known for his restraint as an arranger, builds this song masterfully; first establishing the slow theme before ceding the spotlight to an ominous organ solo, during which there is a sly boost in the overall volume of the track. Throughout the first five minutes the tempo slowly rises until it bursts forth into a frightening gallop as Simmonds finally steps up with an amazing, wiry, echoey, guitar solo that drives the song into an explosive jam. He seems to be getting further and further out to the point of mania when the song falls off the cliff into a black hole of silence - just like the end of side one of Abbey Road. It is a profoundly jarring moment, and an amazingly apt metaphor for the end of the 60’s dream.
Unlike Abbey Road, Hellbound Train is not a brightly polished gem with million dollar engineers and the best possible production. No, Hellbound Train is a unique view of the end of an era through a dark and muddy prism. Savoy Brown was a hard charging blues outfit (still touring with Kim Simmonds in the lead) with a decidedly working class view of the world. It is precisely this non-exalted viewpoint that makes their take on things such a singular one. They were looking at heavy stuff from an average guy’s point of view and somehow they came up with an album that is both heavy and completely understandable.
- Paul Epstein