Doobie Brothers’ ‘Long Train Runnin’: Won’t You Boogie Down?

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You know that classic Doobie Brothers song… the one called “Without Love” that was released as a single in 1973? That became the band’s first Top 10 hit. The one that chugs along to the trademark guitar licks and great harmonica solo by its singer and author Tom Johnston. That makes repeated references to traveling by locomotive yet continually returns to the phrase “Without Love.” Yeah, that one. A lot of people who have heard the classic rock tune hundreds of times think it’s called “Without Love” since those two words are repeated numerous times. Of course, it’s actually “Long Train Runnin’.”

The Doobies had fooled around with it for years, jamming to it onstage. Johnston referred to it as “Rosie Pig Mosely” before their longtime producer Ted Templeman prodded Johnston to add lyrics. BCB reader Barry Mac tipped us to this early demo version when the song was also called “Osborn.”

“We’d been playing it for three years in bars,” Johnston told the Nashville Songwriters Association. “It had a form, but there was no real verse. We’d take off and play solos for like, a half-hour. That’s how I always looked at it. So when Ted became adamant and said ‘This really could be a good song,’ I said, ‘Are you sure?'”

1972’s “Listen to the Music” was their first hit, reaching #11. When their third album, The Captain and Me, was released in 1973, Johnston’s song, now called “Long Train Runnin’,” finally completed, was the album’s surprise first single, released in early April, and which ultimately reached #8.

The song begins with the familiar guitar riff. Then comes Johnston’s vocals, one of the most distinctive in all of rock. And at the end of the first, brief verse comes that “Without Love” refrain.

The band chugs along, like a freight train, until the instrumental break, led by Johnston’s wailing harmonica.

Another verse has very specific train references – When pistons keep on churnin’, And the wheels go ’round and ’round, And the steel rails lie cold and hard, For the miles that they go down.

As the song winds up, Johnston pleads Gotta get ya, baby, baby, Won’t you boogie down?

The follow-up single, “China Grove,” again written and sung by Johnston and long considered one of the group’s signature songs, inexplicably stalled at just #15.

Related: Our Album Rewind of 1973’s The Captain and Me

The Doobie Brothers earned ten Top 20 pop hits in their widely successful career, including a pair of #1s: 1974’s “Black Water, written and sung by Patrick Simmons, and 1979’s “What a Fool Believes,” sung by Michael McDonald, who co-wrote the song with… Kenny Loggins.

They were finally selected for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020. (Though they’ve been eligible for decades, it was the first time they even got on the ballot.)

The following members were inducted: Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, John Hartman, Michael Hossack, Tom Johnston, Keith Knudsen, Michael McDonald, John McFee, Tiran Porter and Patrick Simmons.

Related: Our interview with Johnston, Simmons and McFee

Current members Johnston, Simmons and McFee reunited with McDonald for a 50th anniversary tour, that began in 2021. Tickets are available here and here.

Related: Links to 100s of classic rock tours

Johnston’s song, naturally, has been a highlight of their live performances for decades.

Johnston was born August 15, 1948. He and Simmons (and author Chris Epting) have written an official biography of the band, Long Train Runnin’: Our Story of The Doobie Brothers, published in 2022, via St. Martin’s Press.

Best Classic Bands Staff

5 Comments so far

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  1. Conselah
    #1 Conselah 6 January, 2020, 16:36

    I was living in Berlin in the early 1990s, the Wall was down by then, but the party was still on. I was roaming the city’s bars late one night with a group of friends and we ended up at this disco in a huge tent in Tiergarten. It was like 3:00 am and the place was packed with beer swilling, dancing fools with hair dyed all the colors of a Hawaiian sunset. I was on the floor sweating like a pig, and dancing like a maniac to the latest, hippest, avant garde, techno and house music of the time, in a sea of Germans half my age. Suddenly, the music changed and the dance floor was absolutely packed. I’m tall enough to look out over the crowd and all the tables were empty. Bartenders were up on the bars dancing. Everyone in the place was up and moving their meat to the beat; the entire dance floor was pumping as one – like so many pistons churning. Yeah, the hip, the cool, the cutting edge youth of Berlin were up and jamming to a song older than they were – the timeless, the classic, Long Train Running.

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    • JCB
      JCB 8 April, 2020, 09:39

      Classic song that truly cooks. Great story Conselah. I first saw them at my University with another 20,000 students in 1974. Most probably the biggest band in America at that time. They were selling out stadiums / arenas from coast to coast. God they were great. Tom Johnston just killed it on guitar, breathtaking. Since then I’ve seen them over 4 decades 8 more times, one amazing band that still brings it every night. God bless the Doobies. Way past time for the R+R Hall, they deserved induction 20 years ago.

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  2. Wayne
    #2 Wayne 4 June, 2020, 11:30

    One of my favs. I always thought it might have been a bigger hit if it had been called Without Love but, given the locomotive references, it’s understandable why they went with that title I guess.

    Funny story-At my daughter’s graduation, we were seated next to a couple who were there for their son’s graduation. We were chatting and I thought I recognized the guy who’s son was a friend of my daughter’s. I finally said, “you look so familiar’ he said ‘yeah my name’s Tom. I’m a musician” then it dawned on me it was Tom Johnston. Anyhow, nice man. We talked kids and avoided Music small talk.

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  3. Kris
    #3 Kris 4 March, 2022, 22:56

    Lived in short north, close to OSU CAMPUS and I adored this song !

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  4. Barry Mac
    #4 Barry Mac 21 April, 2023, 21:57

    I have the original studio recording of this when it was referred to as “Osborne”. A bit less than two years later, after Templeman kept after Johnston to complete the song, well, he did. And much to Johnston’s surprise, it hit the top 10.

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