S3E5 Century City

               
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Length: 13:27 - Release Date: March 16, 2022 -

Hey folks! Today's episode covers the all out rocker, Century City, which is the last track on side one of Damn the Torpedoes.

I tell you in the episode to go and watch the Rock Band video game note chart for this song as it really gives you a sense of how much Ron is playing! You can find that here (Ron's bass is on the left): https://youtu.be/yhwP4V4OCh4

I also talked about a similarity with David Bowie's Sufragette City, which you can listen to here (I skipped forward to the part that you'll recognize): https://youtu.be/zLnPd7lzT4g?t=159 

Also worth checking out is the brilliant live version included on the Live Anthology boxset, which you can listen to here: https://youtu.be/Dzu69dBROE0

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.)

Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening, my fine friends. Welcome episode five of season three of the Tom Petty Project Podcast! I am your host, Kevin Brown.Today’s episode, which covers the last track from side one of Damn the Torpedoes, Century. If you wanna listen to the song before we get started, I don’t embed the songs in the episode itself due to licensing issues, so there’s a link in the episode notes, for you to check the song out ahead of listening to me ramble on about it!  I wanted to give you a quick heads up too, that I have a surprise bonus episode coming out this Saturday for you, which marks a birthday for a musician I’m a huge admirer of. I also wanted to give a quick shout out, at the top, to musician, podcaster, season one podcast guest, and all-round top notch guy, Dallas Heliker on the news of his engagement to Heather Ann Barnes. I couldn’t be happier for you both!

Century City was another one of the songs that was developed in the studio, with a title derived from the place that Tom and the band were dealing with lawyers and lawsuits surrounding his bankruptcy filing. 

Unhappy with the terms of his contract with Shelter Records, Tom seized on the sale of Shelter by ABC to industry giant MCA as justification to declare himself, in effect, a free agent. In his own words, he would not be “bought and sold like a piece of meat.” Tom refused to allow the Heartbreakers next album to be released, even going so far as to bear the cost of recording it personally, leaving him somewhere close to half a million dollars in in debt. This was when he filed for bankruptcy, hoping to gain leverage in the brewing legal dispute by having the bankruptcy court declare null and void an extremely unfavorable contract that he felt he’d been duped into signing.

Ultimately, MCA blinked, agreeing to release Tom from his existing contract but immediately re-signing him to a $3 million contract with a brand-new subsidiary label created especially for this purpose. The album that Petty had held back was Damn The Torpedoes. 

In Conversations With Tom Petty, Tom tells Paul Zollo, “During my lawsuit phase, when I was being sued, I had to go to CEntury City often. And if you’ve never seen it, it’s kinda of an acre of skyscrapers, a really modern-looking place.” He also mentions that the initial idea for the song was written on a piano that came with the house he was renting at the time, on which he’d also written You’re Gonna Get It and a few other tracks.

So Century City definitely has a very personal link to the things that Tom and the band were going through at the time and has a hard edge to it that becomes more relatable given the context of what the band was plotting. 

Century city starts with some synth sounds and drum hits that sound deliberately like an old atari video game, like the original space invaders or asteroids, which would have been really new back then! A neat tie in to the concept of modernity that you get in the chorus.

The guitars are again panned into the left and right channels, with the lead sitting a little more centrally. The really cool bends are a feature of that lead line that repeats through the verses and the rhythm is really putting down a beautifully distorted, 20 bar blues pattern around A, D and E. Literally a three chord major key rock n roller. There’s plenty of lead in this one too, with that great lick between verses. The guitar solo is Mike Campbell channeling Chuck Berry in his absolute purest form before throwing in some great little 1st 5th two note licks around the 2:11 mark which split the solo into two halves of Berry bends. That little bit also reminds me a little mid-era Angus Young from ACDC in its harmonic feel. At almost forty seconds, it’s one of Mike’s longest guitar solos on a studio album. I’ll have to revisit this once I’m further through the podcast but I can’t really think of any solos that are longer than this one. It’s a really full, thick wall of guitar sound on this song and I think the piano is dropped lower in the mix to allow that sound to really push the song along at a breakneck 150 beats per minute pace. 

Stan is pounding his way through this one. Stan Lynch is often thought of as a power drummer, but it’s easy to forget that he was capable of very subtle nuanced playing. There’s no place for that on this record however. It’s four to the floor on the kick all the way through other than the offbeat lead into “Honey Century City got everything covered).It sounds like he’s playing very precise 16s on the hat almost throughout. It’s fast man. And playing those notes that fast, that consistently requires a deft hand. The crash cymbal is mixed fairly quietly on the track too other than the lead out where they crash much harder to build to the ending. Again, I think this is done deliberately to keep the guitar and vocal as the focal point of the entire track. The fills that Stan does put in tend to be short and sweet and when the song was played live, he would often put in extra kicks on the 1 and 2 or 3 and 4 in the bar. So it’s a really energetic drum part that’s played straight as an arrow, with only a few offbeat bars here and there to give more space and a little spotlight on the vocal in certain spots.

As with Shadow of a doubt, Ron Blair is flying around the fretboard and putting in big slides and runs up the scale, as well as playing those trademark rock n roll octave-apart root notes. He’s playing 8s most of the way through and keeping that bottom end flying. If you watch the Rock Band video game version, taken from a live cut of the song, you get a real visual sense of what Ron is doing. I’ll throw that into the episode notes as it’s quite striking. My favourite part of the bass line is during the guitar solo at the 2:20 mark where he walks up the scale in straight time before putting a great little bubbly lifts up to G to give the D chord that great suspended feel.

Matching the pace and frenzy of Ron’s bassline is the Little Richard-esque piano part that Benmont lays down, which is pushed a little lower in the mix but is brought up at times to take the place of the vocal, which is a case of Jimmy Iovine again really creating the right amount of space for the vocal and the blaze of guitars.We hear more of it in the solo, complimenting Mike’s ripping lines and then again in the build out to the ending. 

Alrighty, it’s time for some Petty Trivia! 

Last week, I asked you: Which composer, who provided the scores for Die Hard, Highlander, Lethal Weapon, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, provided the orchestral arrangements on 1994’s Wildflowers? The answer is Michael Kamen. A big shout out to Pete Nestor for actually predicting the question I was going to ask, which was, how is This week’s answer connected to last week’s answer. The answer to that would have been that Michael Kamen also provided the orchestral arrangements for The Wall. His work was varied and prodigious and he worked with other bands such as Metallica, David Bowie, Sting, Jim Croce, and The Eurythmics as well as providing the scores for some of the best known movies of the 80s and 90s.Kamen was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1997 and very sadly passed away in London, England, from a heart attack on November 18, 2003, at the far too young age of 55.

Your question for this week is a real softball for you Pettyheads and is this: What was the original title of Mary Jane’s Last Dance (Indiana girl)

OK, back to the song. 

Tom really howls his way through this song, putting that rasp into his intonation to emphasize those staccato lines of the chorus. But he still has that velvety smooth quality on certain lines, like “mama held you near” before really leaning into that Dylan-esque vocal bend on “mama just ain’t here!”. During the second verse we get some quiet harmonies added in, to give the vocal a fuller quality. The chorus has those harmonies brought up a little and we get that fabulous call and response section before that big scream into the solo. We get more subtle harmony in the last verse and wonderful push on that last “got everything covered”. The outro is just the repeated call and response “we’re gonna live in century city”.

The ending of the song I think is a cheeky little nod to Suffragette City, by David Bowie, which has that same chugging lift into the E chord before ending abruptly. Bowie uses it toward the end of that song though to lead into to vocal break and then again to finish. So I think Tom may have been paying homage to the sibilant, syllabic similarity (excuse the deliberate alliteration) between “suffragette city” and “century city” in the way that rock n roll often does. It’s even in the same key!

The lyrics for Century City are abstract enough to have multiple meanings and the whole vibe is one of the hustle and bustle of life in a big city, with the basic message being that no matter what happens, Century City’s got everything covered. The real Century City, originally built out from the backlot of 20th Century Studios on the west side of LA, was a very modern, very fast-paced and urban environment, which matches both the pace of the song and the disposable view that the protagonist has of living there. The lawsuits and legal battles definitely raise their head in the third verse, with the lines “Sometimes I get discouraged, sometimes I feel so down, sometimes I get so worried, but I don’t know what about”, but we get those satirically hopeful lines “Don’t worry about the problem, honey Century City’s got everything covered”. There are also references to a partner in the song, not explicitly romantic, but they’re more of a framework to hang Tom’s observations around than a narrative component with other characters involved. So to me it’s definitely Tom writing about the superficial nature of that part of town and the exhausting pace of its industry and its core demographic. 

OK folks, that’s all for this week. 

Century City has been one of my favourite deep cuts from the early albums since the first time I heard it. It’s just pure, fun, rock n roll. It doesn’t try to be bigger than its boots and delivers exactly what it intends to. A breathless three and a half minutes to close side one of an album and make you race to the record player to flip the disc and listen to side two. It’s a really straightforward song musically, other than some of Ron’s killer bass work, so I can’t rank it as highly as the very best songs on the album, but I do have a huge soft spot for it so I’m going to give it an 8 out of 10.

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Petty Trivia

QUESTION: What was the original title of Mary Jane’s Last Dance?

ANSWER: Most Pettyheads would have remembered this one pretty quickly I think. The answer is, Indiana girl. The original line for the chorus was “Hey Indiana Girl, go out and find the world”. The story goes that after playing the song through during recording, Tom just couldn’t get behind and according to Mike Campbell, came back a week later and said “I’ve got a better idea”, which was “Last Dance with Mary Jane”. We’ll dig into the interpretation of those lyrics once we get to that song, in around fall of next year if my calculations are correct.

Lyrics

Sometimes I wanna leave you
Sometimes I wanna go
Right back where I came from
Back where I belong
But it never lasts for too long
Always goes away
Well I still don't look for reasons
That's much too hard these days

Why worry about the rain
Why worry about the problem
Honey, Century City's
Got everything covered

Well your mama gave you lovin'
Mama held you near
Baby mama can't do nothin'
Honey mama just ain't here
And you can pretend all you want to
But that won't work no more
No you can't run back to daddy
Yeah you tried that once before

Why worry about your father
Why worry about your mother
Honey Century City's
Got everything covered

We're gonna live in Century City
Go ahead and give in, Century City
Like modern men, modern girls
We're gonna live in the modern world

We're gonna live in Century City
Go ahead and give in, Century City
Like modern men, modern girls
We're gonna live in the modern world

Sometimes I get discouraged
Sometimes I feel so down
Sometimes I get so worried
But I don't know what about
But it works out in the long run
Always goes away
And I've come now to accept it
It's a re-occuring phase

Don't worry about the rain
Don't worry about the problem
Honey, Century City's
Got everything covered

We're gonna live in Century City
We're gonna live in Century City
We're gonna live in Century City
We're gonna live in Century City

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