S1E6 Strangered In The Night

               
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Length: 12:36 - Release Date: September 22, 2021

Today's episode covers Strangered in the Night, which is a seminal moment in the history of the Heartbreakers as a band. Go listen to the track on the official Tom Petty YouTube Channel here https://youtu.be/gC9FDx3HISw and then come back and listen to the episode!

Here's a link to the Dwight Twilley song that Tom plays bass on and appears in the video for (Looking for the Magic): https://youtu.be/l24DFbedbJ0

And here's a live version of the song from way back in June 1977, in Köln, Germany! https://youtu.be/sb5Zwm2JAzw

 

Transcript

(* 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.)

Hey folks, great to back making noises that fly over the digital superhighway, down some wires, or over Bluetooth and into your ears! I hope you’re having a great day! When you’re listening to this episode, we will just have had an election up here in Canada and should know what the next 2 or 3 years will look like in terms of how we manage this ongoing global situation! It’s been a fairly divisive campaign as seems to be the norm these days, but I always thank my stars that we have music to fall back on. It truly is the most neutral ground we meet on as human beings and Tom Petty’s music especially  is for absolutely everyone!

In today’s episode, I am talking about the first song on Side B of the self-titled debut album; Strangered in the Night. I’ve included a link in the episode description so that you can go and listen to the song on the official Tom Petty YouTube channel. So go away. Go away, listen to the song, then come back and we can begin. Back already? OK, let’s do it.

Strangered in the Night, like Hometown Blues is a hold-over from the short-lived Tom Petty solo project. Tom was becoming disillusioned with the lack of movement on the single, Depot Street, which Mudcrutch needed to get an album release commitment. So Tom decided to quit Mudcrutch and asked Mike Campbell to go with him, which he agreed to. The original idea, at the prompting of Denny Cordell, was that Tom would essentially be a solo artist, with Mike as his lieutenant of sorts. 

Those two pre-Heartbreakers songs that ended up on the first album were recorded with non-Heartbreakers musicians, other than Mike. Strangered in the Night features Jeff Jourard on guitar, Emory Gordy on bass, and Jim Gordon on drums. Gordon was a renowned session musician who had been the drummer in legendary blues rock band Derek and the Dominoes alongside Eric Clapton. Gordon’s life took a hard left turn in 1983 when, during a psychotic break relating to undiagnosed schizophrenia, he murdered his mother and was sentenced to 16 years to life in the California Medical Facility, where he remains to this day. Emory Gordy’s experience was also extensive, having toured with Elvis as part of the TCB band in 1973, 79, and 81. Gainesville native Jeff Jourard famously went on to reform new band The Motels, playing lead guitar on their 1979 self-titled debut album. The last famous name to appear on the song is Dwight Twilley, who provided backing vocals in the reverb-soaked chorus. As we talked about in the Breakdown episode, it was Twilley who had recognized that the signature riff in Breakdown was the one to build the song around, despite hearing it as part of the outro during a chance visit to the studio during recording. Twilley went on to have an extensive career with both The Dwight Twilley Band and as a solo artist. Tom would return the favour in later years, providing vocals for the solo hit, Girls, and playing bass and appearing in the video of the 1977 release; Looking for the Magic. I’ll put a link in the episode notes so you can see a really young looking Tom rocking out in that video. https://youtu.be/l24DFbedbJ0

The experience of having hired guns sitting in to record with, even top-calibre ones such as Gordon and Gordy, didn’t sit well with Tom however, as he always saw himself as part of a band that stuck together. So after recording Strangered in the Night, Tom started sneaking the rest of the Heartbreakers in. The Heartbreakers had originally been assembled by Benmont, who invited Tom to record some harmonica in a recording session he’d scored at the Village recorder, and once Tom heard them play, he knew that they were the right guys to play with. In Conversations with Tom Petty, he tells Paul Zollo, “It instantly hit me that , man, you know this is home. This is where I should be!”.Having already secured a record contract with Shelter, persuaded Benmont, Stan, Ron, and of course Mike, to throw in with him. The rest is rock n roll history! 

If Side A of the album starts out with a somewhat offbeat song, side B is pure, straight-up blues-rock. Strangered in the Night has a heavy Sticky Fingers-era Stones swagger to it. It has that same basic drum pattern as Brown Sugar through the verses but with a walking bass line sitting over top and giving the song a more movement. Interestingly, Jim Gordon double-tracked the drums on this song, something Tom had never seen done before. According to Tom, “He did the track and said, ‘Let me have another track’ and played exactly a carbon copy and doubled the drum sound. 

The opening has more studio chatter and instrument warm up notes - that really relaxed, sort of garage feel to the recording that the whole album has is there again. We get a screeching guitar pick slide over the top of the main riff, which is another fairly straight cut rock n roll lick. There are two guitar parts panned left and right again with a third, slide part, mixed more centrally, which will really come to the fore later on. I assume Jeff Jourard is playing the main rhythm lick, or doubling it, because that slide guitar has to be Mike Campbell. I was second guessing that originally because it sounds slightly different to the way Mike usually plays slide licks, but listening to some early live performances of the track made me think it would have definitely been him playing that part.

The melody is pretty straight forward and we only get two chords through the verses and then a push into the short chorus, which just provides a coda to those verses rather than being a big release. This is another common feature of Tom’s earlier writing; maintaining that tension. It’s definitely appropriate in this song though, especially given the lyrics’ subject matter, which I’ll talk about later. The bridge is, again, very Rolling Stones blues-y and you could definitely imagine a horn section filling that out if it had been recorded a couple of albums down the line. We get more of that buzzsaw slide playing through that middle eight along with some vocal stabs and harmonies mixed down fairly low. The last verse really builds the energy and the ethereal harmonies fade in to build the anxiety that matches those dark lyrics. 

Benmont is absent on the track, which isn’t too surprising given that the song predates the formalization of the Heartbreakers as a band. In early live versions of the track, Benmont does play a little honky tonk style piano in the intro and then again providing more depth in the rest of that song.

So, let’s get into the lyrics! Tom Petty wrote songs of all kinds. Fun, silly, stuff with no deeper meaning, personal songs about people or situations in his life, abstract songs that can be interpreted in multiple ways, and he did them all effortlessly. Another string to his bow however was the ability to tell a story. To create a narrative or characters out of thin air. Strangered in the Night tells the story of a fight between two men. There’s definitely a racial tension to the song and given Tom’s southern roots, he would have probably witnessed those types of tensions first hand. Given his affection for black musicians and artists however, this is a story told with sympathy for the anti-hero protagonist. You could interpret the song as being the tale of a slave confronting his master, or maybe a young African American fighting back against a white supremacist. However you read it, the anger and malice in the tone of the story is unlike anything Tom wrote again, at least that I know of. The first verse sets up a portentous moment in time; “But something didn’t seem right, no things seemed kinda queer’. The second stanza then introduces the two armed belligerents with the revelation that the “crazy black guy” knows the white man all too well, but that this recognition is not reciprocated. Act three sees the white man’s head blown off with a shotgun and “I heard some woman scream” presumably about the loss of her lover. Again, the line spoken by the woman “God damn you old black bastard, well you’ve blown away my dreams” is quite a jarring one coming from Tom’s mouth, but again recognizes the reality of racism in the south. 

The chorus is another one of those enigmatic Petty lyrics that just frames the whole scene; “Well the sound just split the night like it hiding from the light Like strangers in the night”. Why Strangers in the night was changed to Strangered in the Night for the title of the song, who knows. Likely just a mischievous little rock n roll twist, like adding brackets around the With You after Rockin’ Around. Heck, I even used that trick in my last song!

Time once again for some Petty Trivia!

Last week’s trivia question was this: On 1993’s Greatest Hits album, the last track, Something in the Air, is a cover of which band’s #1 single from their 1969 album Hollywood Dream? The answer is Thunderclap Newman. Thunderclap Newman was a project put together by Pete Townshend of The Who, along with their manager Kit Lambert, to showcase the talents of Speedy Keen Jimmy McCulloch, and Andy Thunderclap Newman. John Speedy Keen had been a driver for the Who and shared a flat with Pete Townshend. He wrote the lead track from The Who Sell Out, titled Armenia City in the Sky and went on to write the track the Heartbreakers covered; Something In The Air. Despite the success of that record, the 1970 album was only followed up 40 years later with a second effort and Keen spent most of the rest of his career as a session musician and producer.

Today’s question is this; which two Tom Petty bandmates share a birthday which was celebrated last week? Remember, no cheating! But if you’ve been following my social media posts, you would have seen their names on my timeline last Thursday!

Back to the song… Strangered in the Night is an important song in Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers history as it was the first time the rest of the band sat in one a recording session for one of Tom’s songs, even though it was initially intended as solo effort. In Conversations with Tom Petty, Tom says “That was the first session I brought The Heartbreakers down to. They were watching that go down, and they did the next song, and I overdubbed them onto Strangered in the Night. And that’s when I stopped being solo artist.” When Paul Zollo inquires, “Was that the right move to make?” Tom laughed and said “Definitely.” 

It’s pointless to speculate as to how much different Tom’s career would have been without the creative input, friendship, and support of the Heartbreakers and his solo records don’t offer huge clues, as they heavily feature the band most of the time. Suffice to say, thank the rock gods that Tom clued into the chemistry the band was capable of right from the get go. Had he not, we may not have the same incredible catalogue that we now enjoy.

Alright folks, that’s a wrap for episode six! Four more to go on the Heartbreakers debut and then an album wrap up episode where I’ll be talking to a special guest about the album and their relationship to Tom’s music!

Even though this isn’t a true blue Heartbreakers record, given the session musicians who played most of the instrumentation, it’s still one of the stronger cuts on the debut album and again, that chilling lyric and the sinister slide guitar fills really do give it a very different feel to anything else on the record. I’m going to score this one an 8 out of 10.

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Petty Trivia

QUESTION: Which two Tom Petty bandmates share a birthday which was celebrated last week (September 16)? Remember, no cheating! But if you’ve been following my social media posts, you would have seen their names on my timeline last Thursday !

ANSWER:  The answer is Ron Blair, who was born in 1948 in San Diego Calfornia, and Tom Leadon, the rhythm guitarist from Mudcrutch, who was born in Rosemount, Minnesota in 1952. Ron left the heartbreakers in 1981 after the release of Hard Promises, returning after the untimely death of Howie Epstein in 2003. Tom Leadon’s brother Bernie was one of the founding members of the Eagles and Tom toured with Linda Ronstadt as her bassist. He was also credited by Tom Petty as one of the main reasons he moved to LA to try to make it in the music industry.

Lyrics

Well, it was dark at midnight
There was hardly any moon
And no one really saw much
No one was really sure

But something didn't seem right
Something seemed kinda queer
The roar turned into whispers
Everyone stood there

When the sounds fit the night
Like it hiding from the light
Like strangers in the night
Strangers in the night

Well, I didn't see those shotguns
And I didn't see no knife
But I saw this crazy black guy
With a demon in his eyes

And I heard him say, "White man"
I've seen that silver cue
You don't remember me well
But I remember you

When the sounds fit the night
Like it hiding from the light
Like strangers in the night
Strangers in the night

Well, the knife just left his fingers
As the black guy took his aim
White guy's head exploded
My God, how he pained

And then everybody scattered
I heard some woman scream
"God damn you old black bastard
Well, you've blown away my dreams"

When the sound just fits the night
Like it hiding from the light
Like strangers in the night
Strangers in the night
Strangers in the night
Strangers in the night

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