Hey friends, we're now fully up and running and getting into the songs! First up is the lead track from the Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Rockin' Around (With You).
Go listen to the song, then come back and listen to the episode.
"The first few times I heard this song, it was never really one of my favourites, but sitting down and really digging into it has definitely given me a better appreciation for it! There’s some neat stuff in there when you pay attention."
(* Note - the transcript is as-written before recording. I usually change a few sentences or words here and there on the hoof as I'm speaking.)
Hi everyone, welcome to the first episode proper of the Tom Petty Project podcast. I am your host Kevin Brown and today we are talking about the very first song from the very first Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers record, Rockin around with you (and with you is in brackets!)
As this IS the first episode, let’s cover something important. I won’t be playing the actual songs in the body of the episodes as negotiating usage rights is both very expensive and ball-shrivellingly complicated! So, here’s how this will work. For each episode, before you load it up, go listen to the song I’m going to talk about first, unless you know it like the back of your hand. Then, come and listen to the episode and once you’ve listened to the episode, if you like, go back and listen to the song again and see if you agree or disagree with my observations or my interpretation. If you like, you can also go and comment on my social media channels as I would love this to be a conversation rather than simply me talking to my computer screen for 250 plus weeks. You can tell me if you think I’m crazy or if you think I’m the new Rick Beato! Trust me, I am not the new Rick Beato. At all. I’m not a trained musician or an expert in any way. I’m just a music lover and a hobbyist songwriter who loves Tom Petty and I’d love to hear your observations and opinions!
Ok, that’s the intro taken care of. Go listen to the song. You’ve done that? You’re ready? OK. Let’s dig into the song.
The first thing that jars you a little with this song is that it comes in completely off-beat and not where you’d expect it. You get the sense early that the Heartbreakers don’t want you to get too comfortable just yet. Up front it’s all about Stan Lnych’s thundering drum sound, which is kept pretty high in the mix throughout. It’s a pretty straightforward kick -snare pattern with the kick on the 1s and 3s and the snare on the 2s and 4s. The intro then has a nice chiming bell hit, I assume on the ride, to give it a musicality even in a purely acoustic rhythm section. When the bass and muted guitars do arrive, you’re almost reminded of Lay down Sally by Clapton, only this is much more urgent and raw and most definitely in your face.
There are distinct, complimentary guitar parts playing throughout the song in the left and right channels and once the rhythm guitar is established, it takes a back seat to lots of intricate little accents that Mike Campbell provides.
It’s quite a long intro to the song at almost 30 seconds when you consider that the entire song lasts only two and a half minutes. So that would suggest right away that this was always intended to be only an album track and would never have been seriously considered as a single. You probably wouldn’t get radio listeners to wait that long for a vocal or something instrumentally significant to happen. It would be one of those songs where the DJ would talk over the intro as they played it in, just to fill in the space! I’m sure we all remember the frustration of trying to record songs from the radio on our cassette recorders, only for the DJ to ruin the intro or outro!
Once we get into the verses, the first comparison that springs to my mind is the Beach Boys. And that’s not because the harmonies are really densely layered, but because of how well-balanced and sort of ethereal they sound. Again if you think about more standard rock n roll conventions, vocals in the verses tend to be predominantly solo and harmonies much more commonly feature during the choruses. It makes me wonder if this song was chosen as the lead track to jolt the listener out of their comfort zone right out of the gate. Because it’s really not as straightforward a rock n roll song as the apparent simplicity makes it sound. While I don’t think the lead vocal is double tracked, you have those two main harmony parts really giving those long, sustained notes much more depth. They’re not going for the big, Phil Spector wall of sound, but rather just really leaning into having multiple voices rather than that simple solo lead. What that does is take emphasis away from the lyric and make the vocal more a part of the instrumentation, right up until the point that we arrive at the pre-chorus/chorus.
Again, thumbing a nose at convention, this song doesn’t really have what you would call a chorus. The first time you listen to the song, “I yeah can’t stop thinking about” feels like a pre-chorus and you expect it to lead into something that will release the tension the verses have built up. I think this a really clever bit of songwriting as the song never really resolves and just keeps that energy level up high without ever blowing off any steam. What the chorus does do though is drop those harmonies and let Tom really rip into a clipped, attack-style delivery to drive home the rockin 'around with you line. That eff-you delivery has a ton of swagger and I think it really captures Tom’s rebellious spirit that is evident on those early songs.
The second verse sees the guitar accents crunch up a little bit and add a little more beef. We have some distortion coming in now and again filling out the sound. All those interstitial guitar licks are beautifully placed in between the vocal phrases and when you really listen to the music closely, there’s a hell of a lot going on, it just never gets in its own way or overwhelms the melody.
There are also lots of different guitar tones going on in the background and I assume this was a case of five young men being given license to play in a studio setting where live constraints weren’t really an issue. Mike Campbell must have been like a kid in a candy store layering up those guitar licks. Denny Cordell was already an established Producer at this point and had worked with bands like The Moody Blues and artists like Joe Cocker and of course Leon Russell, with whom he founded Shelter Records, so he would have been adept at balancing out lots of different tracks and making sure they were all contributing to the song rather than confusing it or detracting from it. I imagine that he taught the Heartbreakers a lot about studio-craft in those early days and was the first in a string of excellent producers that the band worked with through the years. Tom really knew how to pick people to work with who would bring specific things to specific records.
One thing that’s noticeable by its absence up to the bridge really is Benmont Tench’s keyboard parts. There aren’t any so far! It would be easy to have an organ track playing throughout the first couple of verses, but I think the song really benefits from having that room to breathe and lettin that relentless rhythm section just sit underneath those layered vocals. If you added in a piano or organ part, I think you’d lose some of that punk rock swagger that the song tumbles into life with.
When we come out of the second pre-chorus/chorus (I still don’t really know what to call it!), we see a shift from E to A and now Benmont comes in. He hasn’t been involved at all up until this point and he just plays a few simple chords that just add a bit of colour to the bridge. Almost like a really heavily phased organ sound or maybe a synth pad or something. I’m not really sure what he would have been playing that part on, so if anyone does know that, let me know in the comments!
Ron Blair sits in the pocket on bass and really compliments the frenetic kick snare pattern that Stan is playing. What’s quite cool is that he plays a 1-2-3-miss, 1-2-3-4 pattern which again just gives a little more space in the bottom end and adds a fun dynamic to the song. The steadiness of that rhythm section and the precise interplay between the kick drum and bass guitar line is really important. That’s the thing that moves your shoulders and your hips.This is a dance song after all. You can’t help but tap your foot or move your body when you’re listening to it.
Initially I found it to be a bit of an odd choice as a lead off track, but thinking about the off-kilter aspects of it, and the more I listen to it, the more it makes sense. Along with Luna, it’s probably the least orthadox song on the album and so I think it most likely dovetailed well with the band’s enthusiasm to make an impression. And it certainly does that. If this was your first exposure to the Heartbreakers, I’m not sure what you’d think. Maybe this was the point. It almost has a rope-a-dope feel to it, you know, in context of the whole album. Plenty of bands can play straight up rock n roll, so lead with something that sounds superficially easy before switching to southpaw and really knocking everyone out with track two (which we’ll be talking about next week!)
Lyrically, the song does exactly what it says on the tin. There’s the obvious rock n roll trope of using the phrase “rockin” as an allegory to the old horizontal gymnastics, but taken literally, it’s also just about rockin out and having a really good time. Why be lonely? Why be blue? You got me, babe. I got you. They’re not the most complex lyrics Tom ever wrote but as I said, I think the lyrics are somewhat secondary in this song. It’s more about how they fit melodically with the music and how they flow.
Time for some Petty Trivia. Each episode, we’ll have a trivia question because one thing I love almost as much as music is writing pub quizzes, so I thought, “Hey Kev, that could be your USP!”. Some questions will be really easy, some will be a little tougher, or maybe more oblique! No Googling! It’s like cheating at Solitaire! It’s your own time you’re wasting! So we’re going to start off with a really easy one. Here goes: Which song, which was the most frequently played live song in the Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers catalogue, was the last song he played live, on September 25th, 2017. I’ll give you the answer in episode two’s Petty Trivia segment! Play along all season and post your score in the comments on our social media channel and I’ll highlight the most knowledgeable of you!
OK back to the song.
I didn’t find much specific info about this one in researching it for the episode, but I did read in Paul Zollo’s excellent Conversations with Tom Petty book, that Mike Campbell came up with the basic riff/structure and brought to Tom to put words to, which obviously wasn’t an unusual occurrence. It is in the key of E - which as everyone knows, is a great key for rock n roll. I remember listening to some Eagles studio outtakes years ago and during a pause in recording, the band were teasing Joe Walsh about writing in almost everything in E. Joe’s quick-witted response was “Hey… I made a lot of money in E!”
The song comes in at a breathless 2 minutes 29 seconds and somewhat surprisingly, to me at least, it was very rarely played live. I realize that setlist.fm isn’t an absolutely definitive source, but it’s fairly accurate and according to it, the song was only played once in 1977 and twice in 1983 and then never otherwise until it was chosen as the opener on the 40th anniversary tour. Now, if anyone ever saw them play it live other than that final tour, I’d love to hear if it was played differently or what you thought of it.
I won’t lie, the first few times I heard this song, it was never really one of my favourites, but sitting down and really digging into it has definitely given me a better appreciation for it! There’s some neat stuff in there when you pay attention.
To finish the episode, I was trying to figure out how to rate each song. Or whether I should even bother to do that! I generally dislike the online “ranking lists” (Tom Petty’s albums rated, from best to worst!) as they’re almost always click bait and rarely a considered piece of music journalism which takes into account an artist’s body of work. But, in the end, I decided that I would give each song a simple score out of ten. I’ll probably look back as we go on and think “Man, did I ever get that one wrong!)”. And before the Tom Petty Nation comes after me, this is entirely subjective and I’m more than happy to be convinced that I’m wrong if I’m harsh on your favourite song! With all those caveats in place, for me, Rockin Around With You comes in at a solid 5/10. Again, I’ve really enjoyed listening to the song with a more critical ear and it’s definitely improved my perception of it, but I think that lyrically it’s just one of Tom’s less interesting songs and it’s not one that’s gonna become a staple for me.
QUESTION: Which song, which was the most frequently played live song in the Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers catalogue, was the last song he played live, on September 25th, 2017?
ANSWER: Everyone should have got this one I reckon! The answer, of course, is American Girl. Easy peasy!
Why be lonely
Why be blue
You got me babe, I got you
And I can't stop thinkin' 'bout you
How I dig rockin' around with you
I was waiting
You came through
You knew no one else will do
And I can't stop thinkin' 'bout you
How I dig rockin' around with you
You know I dig rockin' around
You know I dig rockin' around
You know I dig rockin' around