S4E4 - Something Big

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Length: 15:47 - Release Date: June 1, 2022

Hello my fine friends! I hope you're ready for Something Big. I love this song and it's one I've really been looking forward to digging into. I wanted again to wish a very happy birthday to the founder and guiding hand of the Tom Petty Nation, which basically replaced the Tom Petty fanclub. Keith does a superb job steering the group and sharing his love of Tom and Tom's music.

If you want to listen to the track before we dig in, check out the official video: https://youtu.be/iUZDwWOExcs

I was talking about the run of dates in 2012 in which Something Big was an ever-present. You can check out the band's bluesy performance of the song at the New Orleans Jazz and Herritage Festival here: https://youtu.be/2k7v80QaGMU?t=499

I referenced an interview with Melody Maker in the episode and thought I'd drop a link to that piece if you'd like to read it. https://www.thepettyarchives.com/archives/magazines/1980s/1981-06-13-melodymaker



(* 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 third episode of season four of the Tom Petty Project Podcast! I am your host, Kevin Brown. This is the podcast that digs into the entire Tom Petty catalog song by song, album by album and includes conversations with musicians, fans, and people connected with Tom along the way.

Today’s song for discussion is one I would say is in my top twenty Tom Petty compositions, possibly top ten. It’s definitely one that’s stayed in the first ten songs in my playlist so that I definitely get to listen to it if I’m out running and don’t know what distance I’m doing. Go check out the episode notes for a link to the song, give it a listen, then come back and rejoin me to listen to the mean, the moody, the magnificent, Something Big.

In a 1981 interview with Melody Maker, Tom is asked whether there is any autobiographical element to songs like Nightwatchman and Something Big. He says “Well there has to be some of me in ot or I couldn’t write it - I couldn’t sing it anyway. To me, it’s just like people I’ve seen around over the years.” He goes on to relate this idea to the music industry, saying “This business, it’s like Something Big, it’s like one of those seedy businesses where there’s always some person where you can see no visible credentials.”

According to Tom, the song was written on piano and so, as with many of the songs written that way, Tom actually plays the piano part on the recording, with Benmont taking on organ duties. In conversations with Tom Petty, Tom tells Paul Zollo, “I played it that way because the only way I knew it was on piano. I played it on a Wurlitzer electric.”

Like so many deep cuts, the song was played only sparingly and somewhat surprisingly was not included in the set list of any of the Hard Promises tour shows. It was played sparingly in 1989 and 1992 before being ever present in the 27 shows that the band performed in 2012. For that run of dates, the song was slung into a really bluesy arrangement which sounds a lot like it would have been jammed in the Mojo era as it was a similar swampy type of feel. I’ll add a link to the episode notes to a great performance from the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on April 28 of 2012 so you can hear how different the approach to the song is.

Anyway, let’s dig into the music.

Something Big opens with that beautiful, shimmering broken chord played followed by a little lick and back into that same suspended chord. From digging around online, it looks like this part is being played in a non-standard tuning and it has almost George Harrison esque quality to it which sets up the moody atmosphere delightfully. Once the song kicks into gear, Stan leads in the rhythm section with a big floor tom hit and we’re off. Immediately, that sleazy electric piano groove comes in to steer the song along very slick, seedy rails. We hear Mike Campbell’s recurring guitar lick that also pervades the entire track before the guitar drops into the background for the first verse. The main musical texture in the verses is coming from Benmont’s organ, with the tremolo swelling at times and the chord pattern stepping up on octave as the song moves into the chorus. Guitar and piano in that verse are simple adding in a few notes, but the focus throughout this song is the vocal. On Wikipedia and Discogs, Tom is listed as playing bass on this one, but I couldn’t find anything in the official books that backs this up. It would make some sense though as Ron was obviously on his way out of the band at this point, so perhaps it was a case of Tom just recording the part to make sure it was finished before Ron left, or Ron already being gone. As Mike is playing that little recurring lick, the bass matches the movement of the lick, playing a broken chord. But it’s a very subdued bass line and it definitely feels more like the type of part that Tom would later play on the later Mudcrutch records than Ron was playing during those first four albums.

Yet again, Stan’s drums sound huge and epic on this song. He’s not beating the snot out of them but they’re given so much bass that they really add an ominous rumble to the whole thing. One thing I’m not sure I’d noticed on this one until tonight is that on the second beat of each bar, there’s additional percussion, I suspect it’s a conga, which is played throughout. The album indicates that Phil Jones plays percussion on the entire album, so I assume it would have been him overdubbing this part. This is a fabulously simple drum part that Stan his playing with some gentle hat lifts and a simple kick snare pattern. The fills are generally straight time on the floor tom until he breaks that pattern on the words “Something Big”, where he slows to half time on toms and crash cymbal to emphasize that title phrase. The congas pick up a little pace in the second verse and are adding more swing to that rhythm section .

Through that intro, verse, and chorus, the mood of the song is most definitely set and this song leans heavily into that mood. It’s a very film noir, gothic type of feel and it makes me think of the video game LA Noire, which is set in LA in the late 40s. It’s a gritty cop drama set in various locations around the city and is undercut with a very sinister feeling of impending dread. You get that same type of feeling early on in this song. And the song doesn’t need any minor chords to provide that type of suspense and unease, relying on open fifths and those suspended notes that fill in the background but resolve fully into the major keys.

As we head into the second verse, Benmont’s organ is brought forward in the mix a little more and he moves up the octaves earlier and again leans into that tremolo. The second chorus then sees that organ sent into a really treble-heavy space that ratchets up that tension another notch. Stan also adds more of a fill into the chorus to again build that anxiety to higher levels.

All that delicious tension that the song has built to this point, with the sultry piano, menacing organ and Tom’s vocal delivery is released majestically during the bridge. In the live version I’ll be adding to the episode notes, the band completely replaces this section with an extended guitar solo shared between Tom and Mike over the verse chord pattern. It works really well for that version, but on the recording, that break to the full major chords is like a ray of sun slicing a clean line through the clouds. Stan goes gently to the ride cymbal before thundering down another booming tom fill back into the main chord progression. The tension is then released again with that same descending chord progression before heading back into the main riff once more. Rather than a guitar solo, we instead get accents coming in from the electric piano and again, this gives the song a really grimy, kinda grubbiness to it. That’s not to say that a grungy blues guitar solo wouldn’t have worked, but it wouldn’t have worked as well as that piano. Stan’s filling coming out the bridge is one of my all time favourite bits of textural drummer as it gives the impression of a car rolling into the ditch or a body rolling down a flight of stairs. Going into that last verse, it’s a great little creative device to put you into the right headspace for the grisly conclusion to the song. Heading into that last verse, you also get that Hitchcockian wail of Benmont’s organ in the right channel.

The last verse gets you holding your breath as the drums drop out to just the kick and hats. The piano is also taken out and the organ is just pairs of notes low down providing that incredible suspense underneath the lyrics. I’ll talk about the story once I get to the voals and lyrics, but the way the song frames the start of that last verse is just masterful. “It was Monday when the day maids found the still made bed. All except the pillows that lay stacked up at the head”.   That’s an incredibly powerful image and the music really let’s the words punch home the conclusion to the song.

Alrighty, it’s time for some Petty Trivia!

Last week’s trivia question was this; At which Los Angeles venue was 1985’s Pack up the Plantation primarily recorded?  The answer, as many of you guessed, is The Wiltern Theatre. The beautiful twelve story art deco building is an iconic landmark in LA, situated at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue at the Western edge of the city’s Koreatown. Ten of the sixteen tracks for the Heartbreakers’ first full live album were recorded at the venue on August 7, 1985. Some notable songs that didn’t make the cut from that performance were Don’t Come Around Here No More, Don’t Do Me Like That, and Spike.

Your question for this week is this: Tom’s paternal grandfather Willam Kyler Petty was better known by which nickname, which would eventually make it’s way into the lyrics for a song from 2010’s bluesy jam album, Mojo? (Pulpwood)
OK, back to the song.

Tom really, really leans into the drawl in this song and bends those syllables to breaking point at times. He never comes out of that low register and as with everything else, that decision just gives the song more menace. The vocal is kept nice and low and harmonies are added for emphasis during the choruses, but this is Tom inhabiting a place and time in his mind and drawing the characters in the story out of himself vocally. Yet another impeccable, unique performance from a master vocalist.
Last week I said that this is definitely one of my favourite Heartbreakers songs from that early period. The lyrics to this one are in my top ten. I just instantly connected with the seedy vibe of them and I think that it could partially be coming from the fact that I would have heard Tweeter and the Monkey Man before I heard Something Big and they have a very loose connected feeling in my mind. In Conversations with Tom Petty, Paul Zollo tells Tom that “Something Big is a great use of a title” and asks if it was fun to write. Tom says “Yeh. It was tremendous fun. ‘Cause it was kind of a little movie and it was one of my first attempts at making characters. So I got into it and it was fun.” I could quite basically every line in this song as an example of Tom’s lyrics at their best. Of course, we’re introduced to Speedball and the Night clerk. We have the exchange between the two where Speedball is looking to find some booze, which is ultimately thwarted, so he instead asks for an outside line. But the song opens on one my all time favourite lyrics. “It didn’t feel like Sunday. It didn’t feel like June.” You can imagine Kerouac, Steinbeck, or even Stephen King writing something like that open up a sinister tale. Didn’t feel like Sunday, maybe it’s busier than usual, maybe it’s commenting that there was no spirituality in the air. Didn’t feel like June. Maybe it’s raining and chilly outside rather than hot and dry. “When he met his silent partner, in that lonely corner room”. We’re not privy to who the partner is or what the pair are up to. Then the sequencing of the words in the next line “That overlooked the marquee of the plaza all-adult”. It’s such a vivid visual image, you can almost see out of that motel window across to the red neon of a dilapidated old sex shop. We know for sure that we’re in a seedy part of town and that likely, this corner room is not part of a five star set up! “And he was not lookin’ for romance, just someone he could trust”. So clearly, Speedball needs help with whatever scheme he’s cooking up.

The second verse sees the exchange between Speedball and the night clerk which leaves the former disappointed and as contact is made on the outside line we’re led into that last verse. Again, the conclusion of the song doesn’t make for good reading for our old friend. As the day maids find the still-made bed. Again, what a brilliant lyrical detail. There could have been any number of adjectives to describe the bed, but still-made gives the scene such a clear image and a body on a made bed rather than one that’s been slept in suggests that old Speedball may have been laying there all night until the day maids happened across him. I assume that he’s laying dead on that bed as one of the maids simply comments “I know I’ve seen his face, I wonder who he is”. Her colleague replies with the world-weary line “Probably just another clown, working on something big”. As if it’s a scene they’ve seen a thousand times.

With the implied resolution of the song, we can reasonably assume that whoever Speedball called was the agent of his eventual and probably permanent demise and that maybe our hero, or maybe anti-hero, got himself involved in something far too big for him. Maybe a drug deal, or a gang-related hit. At least, and this is the beauty of the song, this is the image it conjures up in my mind. Other people may see it from an entirely different angle and that’s why I love this song, and music generally, so much.

OK folks, that’s all for this week. If Nightwatchman was Tom settling into character-building mode, Something Big is the equivalent of him hiring a full movie studio and directing his first short film. Wouldn’t it be great if someone wrote a treatment of Something Big, using the character names and the general plot. I know there’s not much to go on, but there’s enough for some creative brain I’d say! You could even bring in the Nightwatchman and the love interest from Insider. Maybe I’ll take this on one day! As if I need another Tom Petty-related project! As you can probably guess, I adore this song. It’s all about mood and the story. It’s tense, it’s a complete short story, with a beginning, middle, and end, and yet it’s still vague enough that you can colour in a lot of the picture and add details yourself. Of course, Something Big is a 10/10 for me. I’ve often said that I rate Hard Promises ever so slightly higher than Damn the Torpedoes, but in doing the episodes for that album, I was curious whether I would still feel that way. In terms of one side of an album, I think that so far, that assertion is holding up.


Petty Trivia

QUESTION: Tom’s paternal grandfather Willam Kyler Petty was better known by which nickname, which would eventually make it’s way into the lyrics for a song from 2010’s bluesy jam album, Mojo?

ANSWER: The answer is, the fantastically lyrical Pulpwood Petty. The story behind Tom’s grandpa really is the stuff of Hollywood movies. Because he worked in a Georgia logging camp making pulpwood, the term became his nickname and old Pulpwood married the native American camp cook, Tom’s grandma. This was the early 1900s and mixed-race marriages, especially with natives, was not condoned and in some cases not tolerated by a majority of people, Pulpwood and his wife decided to get out of dodge. On their way out of Georgia, bound for Florida, they were accosted on the road and in the ensuing altercation, Pulpwood killed one of his assailants and managed to make it to The Sunshine State. As Tom tells Paul Zolle in Conversations with Tom Petty “This is the story as told to me by father. So I take it to be true, I guess.”


It didn't feel like Sunday
It didn't feel like June
When he met his silent partner
In that lonely corner room
That overlooked the marquee
Of the plaza all-adult
And he was not lookin' for romance
Just someone he could trust

And it wasn't no way to carry on
It wasn't no way to live
But he could up with it for a little while
He was worki n' on something big

Speedball rang the night desk
Said "send me up a drink"
The night clerk said "It's Sunday man...
Wait a minute, let me think
There' a little place outside of town
Might still have some wine "
Speedball said "forget it man
Can I have an outside line? "

And it wasn't no way to carry on
It wasn't no way to live
But he could up with it for a little while
He was workin' on something big

It was Monday when the day maids
Found the still made bed
All except the pillows
That lay stacked up at the head
And one said "I know I've seen his face
I wonder who he is"
The other said "probably just another clown
Working on something big"

And it wasn't no way to carry on
It wasn't no way to live
But he could up with it for a little while

He was workin' on something big