I hope you enjoyed the last couple of episodes talking to Jon Scott. It was a real highlight of the year for me! We're back to the song reviews though and just in time to wrap up the debut album by talking about the iconic track, American Girl.
One of my very favourite live versions of this song is from the 30th Anniversary tour concert in Tom's hometown of Gainesville, Florida that was included as part of Peter Bogdanovich's fantastic Runnin' Down a Dream documentary. If you haven't seen that yet, you can find it on Amazon Prime. The band closed their set with this song, as they did on the 40th Anniversary tour, making it the last song Tom played live before an audience. Check out the Gatorville performance here: https://youtu.be/-lAz7SPRLKk. As they closed that show with American Girl, they opened the halftime show of Superbowl 42 in Glendale, Arizona with it. Listen to the crowd go crazy when they hear that opening lick: https://youtu.be/Vul_EYQEJJU
I also talked about Roger McGuinn's connection to the song and you check out his 1977 cover here: https://youtu.be/DGunZd732qQ
(* 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.)
Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening, my fine friends. Welcome to the twelfth episode of the Tom Petty Project podcast. As always, I am your host, Kevin Brown! Before we dig into today’s track, I wanted to just give a quick shout out to the folks who’ve been interacting with me on Social Media. Twitter has really started to pick up and there are some wonderful people on there that I’m enjoying chatting with. Thanks to all of you who’ve been tweeting at me or DMing me and to everyone else for your continued support and the memories and thoughts you’re sharing about Tom and his music! I’ve also had a couple of confirmations from people about coming onto the podcast at some point to talk about their experience with Tom’s music as well as the album I’ve been reviewing. I’m hoping to be able to announce my first guest this week so stay tuned for that.
OK, Today we’re talking about the iconic, the huge, the legendary final track on the debut album, American Girl. I don’t really need to tell you to go listen to this one do I? As if it isn’t seared into your memory like the experience of your first beer, or the smell of your first lover! If you do need to listen to the song though, as always, you can head to the episode notes. Once you’ve done that, I’ll be here waiting very patiently for you! You’re back already? I knew you wouldn’t have to re-listen to this one! Let’s talk about American Girl.
Released in February of 1977, American Girl, like Breakdown and Anything That’s Rock n Roll before it, failed to chart. It’s astonishing and surreal to contemplate that given how huge a song it has become; an ever-present staple of rock radio for over four decades and counting. Regardless of it’s lack of initial success, it has gone on to become one of the touchstone songs of the classic American rock n roll songbook, along with tracks like Born to Run, Ramblin’ Man, American Pie, or Born to be Wild. It’s a song that still feels as fresh and toe-tappingly listenable today as it did way back then. It’s also been a live staple during the entire career of the heartbreakers, is the most-played song in the band’s repertoire, and was basically very rarely omitted from the set list.
In an interview in the July 1989 edition of Q Magazine, Tom said "I had to go see Roger McGuinn. It was like being summoned to the headmaster's office. I was thinking I was in a a real tongue-lashing about stealing his sound and stuff. I was so nervous then he said, 'You know, I heard this song called American Girl and when I heard it I thought it was me. And then I thought, but I don't remember recording this...' And I said, 'Yeah, well, I'm sorry about that ...sir' So I think, to have one of his first songs recorded by one of his heroes, what a rush! The two of course became firm friends in the years that followed and would of course go on to collaborate on 1991’s King of the Hill.
Roger McGuinn then recorded a much straighter version the song on his 1977 solo album, Thunderbyrd. It really loses some of the energy of the original in the arrangement but when you hear him sing it, you really are reminded of the similarities the two share as singers at times. I’d argue that Tom had a far broader palate of vocal colours to pick from, especially as he grow older, but as I say, you can kinda understand why McGuinn might have mistook it for one of his songs if he was hearing it in the background or only partially listening to it. For his part, in Conversations with Tom Petty, Tom says “I don’t think it sounds anything like the Byrds to me. We would never have dreamed that we could sound like the Byrds!”
The song starts out with those two guitars playing off one another as they have been all album. The drums come in after a couple of bars, then we hear some hand claps until Ron comes in with that absolutely epic little three-note bass line, which still gives me chills every time I hear it. It’s strange but there’s a sense of optimism and positivity that radiates from that simple little progression and the song would really miss it if it weren’t there.
As with most of the rest of the album, Tom and Mike’s guitars are separated by an octave and panned left and right, so you can really hear their parts very clearly. For fun, if you’re listening to it under headphones, take the right side off your head and just listen to the left channel, and then switch. They’re panned so hard left and right, you can really hear the difference :) The verses are played pretty straight, with a sparse single strum chord progression for the most part with some simple arpeggios between, and those wonderful bends on “take it easy baby”. Although many people assumed it was played on a twelve string guitar because of how full the sound is, it’s actually Mike and Tom both going back and forth on six-strings.
Sticking with guitars, Ron’s bassline on this one is way funkier and busier than almost anything else on the album and after that killer intro, which is fairly high, he drops down into that deeper bottom end and riffs off the kick pattern beautifully. If you listen to an isolated version of the bass track, he’s throwing in some little double notes and a couple of great bends in there too, which just adds to the dynamic of the song.
The drums were recorded on one single track. Noah Shark suggested that as an experiment. It would certainly make remixing that track basically impossible as there’s no separation between the kick, snare, hats, and toms as it’s on one channel in mono! Bo Diddley beat. Modified heavily by Stan and sped up a ton, but you can still hear those clave accents in the way it bounces around over the persistent 2 and 4 snare hits. It’s a fairly frenetic tempo to the song and Stan just keeps everything moving along and adds in some nice hi-hat lifts to accent everything. There really aren’t any other cymbals throughout though which really puts the focus on that kick, snare pattern. We get some more hand claps at the end of the verses building back into the chorus.
The middle eight in this song is one of my favourites of all time. So incredibly simple and subdued, but provides that little respite from the drive and energy of the rest of the song. This is when we hear Benmont finally take a little spotlight for the keys and he tinkles around those seventh chords like an old honky tonk blues player. Now we just have one guitar playing, a staccato, muted rhythm that sits down in the mix and just adds a base colour to the canvas, with those wonderful three note flourishes at the end of each phrase. Coming back out of the bridge, we build with some high harmonized vocals and then Tom’s “Oh ho haw..”. And we’re off to the races with Mike’s shimmering, blazing solo which starts out simple but builds into those hammer-on, pull off triplets that just make the hairs on your neck stand on end!
Tom’s vocal delivery on this song is just perfect. He never has to reach for a note or strain his attack. He uses those unusual phrasings too that he often throws into his delivery, pronounce alone, more ay-lone and balconay, to really fit the rhythm of the track. I’ll talk about the lyrics a little later as they still have a hard-to-shake urban legend attached to them that seems hard to shake off, as many urban legends are!
Right, it’s been a couple of weeks now since we had some Petty Trivia, as we took a break from the album tracks to talk to the wonderful Jon Scott. I hope you enjoyed those two episodes. I’m keen to bring in other people connected closely to the Tom Petty story so that we have more conversations to share with you! During the Luna episode, I asked you what the three cover versions are that appear on the 16 studio albums that Tom recorded solo and with the Heartbreakers. If you’ve been following my social media (and if not, why not!) you’ll already know that the answer is:
1. I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better, from Full Moon Fever. This Gene Clark-penned Byrds hit kicked off side two of the album and was a mainstay of the Last DJ tour.
2. Change the Locks, from the She's The One soundtrack. Originally from Lucinda Williams' self-titled 1988 album, this searing anti-ballad was never played live by the Heartbreakers but remains a mainstay of William's live set.
3. Asshole, again from She's The One. The Heartbreakers add more texture to this song than the original lo-fi acoustic on Beck's 1994 album Somewhere in the grave, which was sandwiched between the monster LPs Mellow Gold and Odelay.
Now, your trivia question this week is this: Which Tom Petty solo or Heartbreakers album is the only one that does not feature a single songwriting credit other than Tom, with all songs written by Tom and Tom alone?
Back to the song!
The legend that surrounded the lyrics to this song concern the tragic suicide of a girl attending the University of Florida, who jumped to her death from Beaty Towers dormitory. Supposedly, the reference to Route 441, which runs right past the university is held up as supporting proof that this must be what Tom was writing about. Further evidence is conjectured in the line “Yeah and if she had to die”. Because of the pause that Tom puts in the middle of that sentence, many people ignored that the lyrics went on “tryin’, she had one little promise she was gonna keep”. Tom himself dispelled this notion of a biographical angle to the lyrics and explained “I was living in an apartment where I was right by the freeway. And the cars would go by. And I remember thinking that that sounded like the ocean to me. That was my ocean. My Malibu.” So a much more broad narrative lyric rather than a true story.
This is one of those Petty lyrics that just grips you from the very first time you hear it. Some of the lines are just so evocative and memorable. “God it’s so painful, something that’s so close and still so far out of reach”. Such an intuitive observation of the human condition wrapped up in one brilliant line.
In an interview Stan Lynch, when talking about the recording of the debut album says of American Girl, “I think everyone knew there was a little lightning in the bottle on that one”. Given the song was recorded on the fourth of July in the US bicentenniTom anhigway companiond Tom aloneal year, it’s hard to figure out how this song never hit the radio hard. Though as Jon Scott told me, the record execs just didn’t listen to it. They thought that the Heartbreakers were a punk band and just didn’t give it a chance. A decision I’m sure they spent many, many years kicking themselves over!
I talked a little about where this song sits in the American rock n roll canon earlier, but I will say that I think it stands out for a very specific reason. Where as a song like Sweet Home Alabama is a rallying cry for the south (and of course Tom would go on to write one of those himself) and Bruce Springsteen really leaned into his New Jersey heritage for inspiration and scenery, American Girl has a much broader universal appeal. It’s a song that is still going to be played on the radio 20, 30, 40 years from now.
OK folks, that’s almost all for this week. All that remains is for me to rate American Girl. Not just because it’s one of the all-time great rock n roll songs. Not just because it’s one of my favourites. But objectively as well as subjectively, I don’t think there’s a single thing wrong, missing, or poorly done on this record. The stars aligned and Tom’s lighting jumped out of the bottle and lit up the whole world. So it’s a very clear and very confident 10 out of 10 for me. Hard to believe that I’ve finished the first album already! It’s b ndered if a single soul would listen!
QUESTION: Which Tom Petty solo or Heartbreakers album is the only one that does not feature a single songwriting credit other than Tom, with all songs written by Tom and Tom alone?
ANSWER: The answer is 2006’s Highway Companion, which would be the final solo album that Tom released. As well as having this unusual songwriting distinction, Highway Companion also has the leanest personnel listing of any Petty album, with all instruments played by Tom, Mike, and Jeff Lynne.
Well, she was an American girl
Raised on promises
She couldn't help thinkin' that there
Was a little more to life somewhere else
After all, it was a great big world
With lots of places to run to
And if she had to die tryin'
She had one little promise she was gonna keep
Oh yeah, all right
Take it easy, baby
Make it last all night (Make it last all night)
She was an American girl
Well, it was kind of cold that night
She stood alone on her balcony (Ooh)
Yeah, she could hear the cars roll by
Out on 441 like waves crashin' on the beach
And for one desperate moment there
He crept back in her memory
God, it's so painful when something that is so close
Is still so far out of reach
Oh yeah, all right
Take it easy, baby
Make it last all night (Make it last all night)
She was an American girl (Ooh)