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 Pettyheads, members of the Tom Petty Nation, or casual fans and hello mum if you’re listening! In today’s episode, I already get to talk about one of my favourite Tom Petty songs and one of the classics in his huge body of work; Breakdown. If you haven’t listened to it yet, pause the podcast, go fire it up, then come back once you’re done. That’s the best way to enjoy these episodes so go do that and I’ll wait here. Dramatic pause….. You’re back? Excellent, then we may begin!
Breakdown has a fairly cool origins story. During a recording session at Shelter studios in 1976, the band had recorded a version of the song and were playing it for Dwight Twilley, who loved a guitar lick Mike was playing towards the end of the song. He suggested that that lick really should be the main guitar phrase throughout the song and thankfully, Tom agreed. Imagine if that lick had been buried somewhere deep in an 8 minute blues jam song solo. Phil Seymour, from Twilley’s band, who was also in attendance, provided the groundwork for the background vocals and the song started to take on a new shape. The story goes that at 2am, Tom called the band back into the studio to re-record the song based on a new arrangement stemming from these conversations. This is a good, early example of Tom’s willingness and sense to take ideas from anyone, anywhere, if he felt they would serve the song. The new take came in at between 7 and 8 minutes, and I suspect that this would the basis for the way the song was played live from there on out. Remarkably, Denny Cordell managed to find a way to edit that down to a mere 2 minutes, 39 seconds. I had to read that a couple of times when I was doing my research for the song as it’s so iconic, and so dramatic in its feel that you can easily forget how short it is. It feels so much grander.
Breakdown was also the song that early champion Jon Scott would push hard to DJ Charlie Kendall at KWST in Los Angeles, convincing him to go see the Heartbreakers live at the Whiskey and getting an agreement from Kendall to play Breakdown on the station. A quote from the Warren Zanes book really captures what most fans feel about the band. Talking about Jon Scott’s relentless promotion of the record, he says; “There was no label president urging him on, no budget to sponsor his passions - Scott was working from instinct alone. He’d fallen for a rock and roll record.” How true is that for most of us? We’ve all fallen for rock n roll records. I’ve been doing it since I was old enough to put Paranoid, or Night At The Opera, ont a turntables. Due to the new exposure that Scott’s promotion and the radio airplay that resulted from it, Breakdown was re-released and finally the band hit the billboard top forty. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to get Jon on to the podcast at some point to discuss the album and what it still means to him. I’d be willing to bet that he’s just as in love with it now as he was back then.
Re-released in October of 1977 after an initial January release, the rest, as the old saying goes, is history. It really is incredible in hindsight that neither American girl, nor Anything That’s Rock n Roll charted, or that the entire album was basically ignored by everyone on its initial release.
OK, let’s get into the actual song. Breakdown is another track that doesn’t come in on the one, Stan Lynch’s subdued drum part takes the lead as the song opens (on the four), accompanied by Benmont’s chilled out organ bass line. That drum intro was usually extended live and Stan often added quite a bit of extra sauce into it in the early days. Go to Youtube and watch the evolution of that from 1978 to 1985, then contrast that with the way that Steve Ferrone plays it on the 40th anniversary tour - far cleaner and leaning on that backbeat snare.
It flows like a slowed down blues shuffle, stripped back to the absolute bare bones. If you close your eyes, you’re instantly transported to a small smokey bar room with a low stage tucked into a corner. There would be pool tables and arguments and a few people watching impatiently for the band to start. The song leaves you hanging for a couple of bars before the guitar comes in and the bass sits unobtrusively matching the kick pattern. Guaranteed in that dive bar though, as soon as Mike Campbell cuts into that iconic riff, heads would turn, chatter would stop, and everyone would now be watching the band.
The lyrics are pretty self-assured, bordering on cocky, when you think about them. It’s alright if you love me, it’s alright if you don’t, I’m not afraid of you running away, I get the feeling you won’t. The not so subtle implication here is that the protagonist is irresistible and that sooner or later the object of their affection is gonna to realize that and succumb to their own feelings. It really is a seduction song and a powerful one at that.
I think it’s safe to say that anyone with any sort of musical sense about them would have known that this track was special the very first time they heard. Couple a vocal performance that has no little amount of swagger, which matches the confidence of those lyrics, with an incredibly mature, restrained instrumental arrangement and you would have recognized instantly that these guys weren’t just a flash in pan.
In Warren Zanes biography, Petty, he remarks that “Breakdown had as much space as Green Onions. The Heartbreakers often revealed who they were in what they didn’t play. It set them apart.” I think that that’s an idea that I’ll definitely return to over and over throughout the catalogue as it’s one thing I’ve always loved about the Heartbreakers. They’re not afraid to rock it out and to layer songs in complex ways, but they’re always at their best, I think, when they keep things simple. I can’t think of a single classic Tom Petty song that couldn’t be played perfectly by a five piece band in front of a live audience. It goes back to that popular Jazz saying, “It’s the notes you don’t play that matter!” That understanding of where to let the guitar lead, or let the drums lead, or let the vocal lead are one of the real signatures of Tom’s work throughout his entire career. Alan Bugs Weidel remarked that Tom and Mike had a different mindset to a lot of up and coming rockers and weren’t just focused on scoring as many chicks as possible. They were mainly focused on the music and Breakdown is a serious statement of intent from a new band; ignore us at your peril.
With that sentiment in mind, listening to that vocal delivery, again it should have been obvious that this was a singer who could find the emotion or feeling in any song and inhabit the character of it. That sultry drawl in the verses sets up perfectly the power and the assertive directness that the choruses employ, so they crescendo at exactly the right time. At the same time you now have a crunchy guitar lick kicking in, driving things home to that last affirmative line; “ It’s alright…” Jeff Jourard plays guitar on this track too and I’m guessing that maybe it’s him that’s playing that distorted compliment to Mike’s cleaner tone throughout, allowing Mike to then add in a few phrases here and there.
That really spare and minimal rhythm section again underpins the entire thing, with Ron Blair’s bass just sitting on the kick pattern giving it more depth. When you talk about pocket players, you can’t look too far past Ron. With Tom himself being a bass player in Mudcrutch, I imagine that they had a really easy chemistry when it came to figuring out those bass parts and they’re always absolutely perfect.
So after a short instrumental break we get the buildup to one more chorus giving way to the outro, which feature the same guitar refrain and some beautiful harmonies. There are some fun stops and starts in the tracks, with Benmont’s organ dropping out for a couple of measures here and there and some very easy-to-miss accents on the guitars. Again, such impressive attention to detail from such an inexperienced studio band. The song fades out and you’re left wanting more. When the song was played live, this is where Tom would go into an extended improvisational lyrical section and with the band sitting a little more quietly in the background. The energy and passion he brought to these performances was electric and you can feel the crowd feeding off it forty years later on a low-res YouTube clip. Go check out the performance on New Year’s Eve in 1978 from Santa Monica. It’s absolutely brilliant.
Time for some Petty Trivia.
OK, first of all, the answer to last week’s question. Everyone should have got this one I reckon! The question was; Which song, which was the most frequently played live song in the Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers catalogue, was the last song he played live, on September 25th, 2017. The answer, of course, is American Girl. Easy peasy! Onto the question for this episode. The Heartbreakers four song set at Live Aid, in Philadelphia in 1985, followed the performance of which 27 year old who would go on to become one the biggest female performers in the world?
After the Whiskey gig, when Jon Scott went backstage with Charlie Kendall, to introduce himself to the band, he excitedly proclaimed that he was going to break the Heartbreakers record nationwide. Tom’s response can be forgiven I think, especially in light of how he came to be very wary of anything to do with the business side of music. Having just come off stage, he was likely still wired and not in the mood to be bothered by promoters. He simply said “Bugs, escort these children out of here.” As they were being escorted out, Scott told Tom that every time the Heartbreakers heard Breakdown on the radio, they’d have to think of him. A pretty bold statement but one that was absolutely true and one that ended up with an apology from Tom. During the Heartbreakers final show, at the Hollywood Bowl, Tom dedicated I Won’t Back Down to Jon in a wonderful acknowledgement of the commitment he’d shown to the band. A commitment that Tom embraced and appreciated once his initial reaction was shown to be a little unkind.
Breakdown went on to become a live staple for decades and sits in that classic seventies rock canon alongside any of the great songs of that decade. It’s most definitely a favourite of mine. I can’t rate this song below a straight 10. It has everything. A killer, all time classic hook, a sensational vocal performance, and the most important trait in a classic song; longevity. You’ll still hear it on rock stations the world over 45 years after it was recorded.
Weird fact: Jamaican singer Grace Jones recorded a reggae version of the song and Tom actually wrote a third verse of the song specifically for that version. It was released as a US-only single in July 1980 but did not chart. It’s hard to listen to given the brilliance of the original!
Next week’s episode will cover Hometown Blues and Donald Duck will make an appearance! If you don’t know why that would be, well, you’ll have to tune in to find out!
QUESTION: The Heartbreakers four song set at Live Aid, in Philadelphia in 1985, followed the performance of which 27 year old who would go on to become one the biggest female performers in the world?
ANSWER: It was of course the queen of pop herself, Madonna. That four -song set was arguably the strongest that any artist performed in Philadelphia that day. American Girl, The Waiting, Rebels, and Refugee.
It's alright if you love me,
It's alright if you don't
I'm not afraid of you runnin' away honey,
I've got the feeling you won't
Say there is no sense in pretending,
Your eyes give you away
Something inside you is feeling like I do,
We said all there is to say
Breakdown, go ahead and give it to me
Breakdown, take me through the night
Breakdown, I'm standing here can you see,
Breakdown, it's alright,
It's alright, it's alright
Breakdown, go ahead and give it to me
Breakdown, take me through the night
Breakdown, I'm standing here can you see
Breakown it's alright
It's alright, it's alright