Soul Asylum – Runaway Train

Heard this in the nineties when I still listened to the radio on a daily basis. I remember the song being used to find missing children. The music video for “Runaway Train” featured photographs and names of missing children in the style of a public service announcement.

At the end of the video, lead singer Dave Pirner appeared and said, “If you’ve seen one of these kids, or you are one of them, please call this number” before a missing children telephone helpline number appeared. The video was edited for use outside the US to include photos and names of missing children from wherever the video was to be shown. The video drew awareness to the problem and was instrumental in reuniting several children with their families.

Runaway Train peaked at #13 in the Billboard 100 in 1993.


From Songfacts.

Soul Asylum lead singer Dave Pirner wrote this song, which is about depression. It took him a few years to complete the song; at first it had different lyrics with a refrain of “laughing at the rain,” which he knew was too similar to the Neil Sedaka song “Laughter In The Rain.”

Pirner had the tune in his head, but it wasn’t until he went through some dark times that the runaway train/depression metaphor hit him, and he wrote the lyrics in a single sitting.


The message of the video became bigger than that of the song, and the Soul Asylum singer embraced that message. In our interview with Dave Pirner, he explained: “I really got closer to an issue that I was concerned about and open to being concerned about, and thrust into a position where I was dealing with the Polly Klaas situation. There’s so much raw emotion and so much reality to a situation like that that you can’t exploit it.”

Polly Klaas was a 12-year-old girl who went missing in October 1993, a few months after the song had peaked on the charts. The case made national news, drawing more attention to the issue of missing and exploited children. It was later learned the Klaas was abducted and murdered.

Soul Asylum had released five albums prior to Grave Dancers Union. They developed a small following and did well on college radio, but “Runaway Train” was their first Pop hit and changed their fortunes. The song’s hit potential became obvious when they played it live at the University of Minnesota before recording it – the crowd responded to it and some commented that they thought it was a cover, as the tune sounded somehow familiar. This convinced the band to put some resources into developing the song, so they hired a producer named Michael Beinhorn to work on it with them.

The band had signed with Columbia Records after splitting with A&M, and Columbia was ready to invest in the album, and especially this song. They booked a high-end recording studio in New York City – The Power Station – and the band recorded it there. Recording the track went well, but Pirner had trouble getting comfortable with his vocals, so Beinhorn left him alone to record his part with just the band’s guitarist Dan Murphy present. The result was a very emotive vocal that served the song.

The video was directed by Tony Kaye, who would later direct the movie American History X. Kaye came up with the idea of using images of real missing children in the clip, and the band loved the idea, as it was truly original and could also do some good. And while Kaye’s literal interpretation – runaway children – wasn’t the real meaning behind the song, Dave Pirner didn’t mind going in that direction for the video, since he didn’t think visuals attached to a song were that important. “I had been searching for meaningfulness in the MTV world,” he said. “The tool of the video seemed like either just a raw promotion piece or just an opportunity to send a visual that isn’t really relevant. I don’t need to see a visual representation of ‘Free Bird‘ to understand what a free bird is.”

Acoustic guitars are the lead instruments on this song, but listen carefully and you’ll hear an organ in the mix. This was a Hammond B3 organ played by Booker T. Jones, who was a member of the group Booker T. & the M.G.’s (“Green Onions“). Jones played on many Soul classics of the ’60s and ’70s, mostly the Stax Records recordings, as his group served as their house band.

Getting Jones was a coup for Soul Asylum, and an opportunity to let a master do his work – producer Michael Beinhorn flew to Los Angeles to record Jones, but gave him very little direction, as the organist had been around the block a few times and knew just what to play for the seven songs he contributed to on the album.

The music video for this song changed its perception, as many viewers assumed the song was about runaway children. According to Dave Pirner, the song deals with a feeling of something missing, but associating it specifically with missing children is a stretch. “The video initiated the runaway children aspect of the song,” he told us. “It is fascinating to me that MTV was such a vehicle that it practically reinterpreted the song. I don’t think that anybody that really loves that song thinks about the video that much.”

At the 1994 ceremony, this won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Song, which went to its writer, Dave Pirner. Dave didn’t attend the ceremony, as he didn’t like the idea of proclaiming one song superior to another. When he won, Meat Loaf accepted the award on his behalf.

When this song started climbing the charts, Soul Asylum embarked on MTV’s Alternative Nation tour, a 56-date trek with Screaming Trees and Spin Doctors that had them playing shows nearly every night. They made several TV appearances as well, including at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards where Peter Buck and Victoria Williams joined them to perform the song.

The group, and especially Pirner, were getting burned out at this point from touring and promotion, and for a while Pirner refused to perform the song in an effort to prove that there was more to Soul Asylum than “Runaway Train.”

The band’s drummer, Grant Young, didn’t play on this track, as producer Michael Beinhorn wasn’t happy with his takes. Sterling Campbell, who was a top session player, was brought in for the job, which caused a great deal of tension in the band. Young ended up quitting Soul Asylum before they recorded their next record. Campbell is credited on the album as a “percussionist.”

Runaway Train

Call you up in the middle of the night
Like a firefly without a light
You were there like a slow torch burning
I was a key that could use a little turning

So tired that I couldn’t even sleep
So many secrets I couldn’t keep
Promised myself I wouldn’t weep
One more promise I couldn’t keep

It seems no one can help me now
I’m in too deep
There’s no way out
This time I have really led myself astray

Runaway train never going back
Wrong way on a one way track
Seems like I should be getting somewhere
Somehow I’m neither here nor there

Can you help me remember how to smile
Make it somehow all seem worthwhile
How on earth did I get so jaded
Life’s mystery seems so faded

I can go where no one else can go
I know what no one else knows
Here I am just drownin’ in the rain
With a ticket for a runaway train

Everything is cut and dry
Day and night, earth and sky
Somehow I just don’t believe it

Runaway train never going back
Wrong way on a one way track
Seems like I should be getting somewhere
Somehow I’m neither here nor there

Bought a ticket for a runaway train
Like a madman laughin’ at the rain
Little out of touch, little insane
Just easier than dealing with the pain

Runaway train never comin’ back
Wrong way on a one way track
Seems like I should be getting somewhere
Somehow I’m neither here nor there

Runaway train never comin’ back
Runaway train tearin’ up the track
Runaway train burnin’ in my veins
Runaway but it always seems the same

Author: Badfinger (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

10 thoughts on “Soul Asylum – Runaway Train”

  1. Always think of them as being part of that Seattle scene, but I think I remember , like the info says, they were actually Minneapolis. Not a bad tune from the era, I have recently heard it on radio a fair bit … I guess ’90s are now “oldies” or “retro” by everyone’s standards!

    Liked by 1 person

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