Hello my fine friends! I spent a lot of time in my formative early 20s on the Kings Road in Chelsea/Fulham so this was a fun episode to record. I hope you'll forgive a little overindulgance on my part in giving you some personal background. Don't worry, there's still plenty of deep diving into the song!
If you want to listen to the track before we dig in, check out the official video: https://youtu.be/f8nAdQQTJkM
I talked about the live version from 1982 US Festival and you can find that version here: https://youtu.be/hBrA4b-MXtY
For the live version that was included on the "An American Treasure" compilation, go here! https://youtu.be/QwFS_KJKuG8
(* 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 season four, episode five 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 episode covers the last track on side one of Hard Promises, the up-tempo, uplifting King’s Road. As always, please go and listen to the song before we start the episode, and, for maximum effect, listen to afterwards too to see if I’ve spotted anything you hadn’t noticed before. I hear at least three or four things on every part in every song once I sit and put my podcast brain into gear for these episodes. I’ll leave a link to the song in the episode notes and wait patiently for you to get back. You’re back. Excellent. Let’s get into it!
Today’s song holds a really nostalgic place in my heart and not for a historical connection to the song, but to the place it talks about. So my intro today is going to be slightly longer than normal as I tell you about why the King’s Road (the final track from side one of Hard Promises) holds such a special place in my memories. In 1988, at the age of 15, I made the somewhat unusual choice to join the army. Unusual in the sense that I was a very surly teen not well-suited to a life of discipline and service. I reported for my first day of military life on September 11, 1989 (so the date is a real double-edged sword for me). After just over two years in military college training to become a gunsmith I was dispatched to England’s first capital city, Colchester. After two and a bit years there and a stint on an upgrade course, I was then posted to Chelsea Barracks in the current capital, London. This was a huge culture shock for me. As a scruffy kid from a spit and sawdust working class background, London was as far away as LA would be for a kid from a small town in the US. Somewhere like Gainesville perhaps. My family are coal miners, cotton millers, factory workers, and are generally, people disconnected by a million miles from the bright lights of the capital, so being dropped into the middle of a huge, busy city took some adjusting to. The first day there though, a guy named Mark Franklin, who would inadvertently change my life forever, took me out for a pint. The first pub we went to, the Rose and Crown, was a very short hop from the barracks and from there we proceeded to a really busy, trendy, interesting street called King’s Road. Chelsea Barracks isn’t there any more, the land having been bought and converted into luxury suites years ago. And when I say luxury, I mean basic two bedroom apartments there go for around 8 million US. I spent just about two years in Chelsea, abbreviated by a stint in Northern Ireland and throughout that time, the King’s Road was where I spent a lot of time drinking, laughing, and marveling at all the people wearing funny looking clothes. The street vendors and chancers had been moved on, for the most part, by the time I was there, but there were still plenty of street artists; musicians, jugglers, magicians etc. and on any given day you might run into a group of punks, millionaires from Franklin’s Row around the corner, superstar professional footballers, or supermodels hitting the high end fashion shops. Or, you might run into a weird, spotty, nervous kid from Wigan who was just trying to keep up and hoping against hope that one day, a girl might talk to him and maybe even play with his dingaling. Hey I was young and single. And completely out of my depth!!! But I eventually became quite comfortable on the King’s Road and it just became another haunt that me and my friends would, by turns, enjoy a civilized lunch on, behave outrageously (and sometimes borderline criminally) on after too many pints, or just waste a few hours on people watching. If you’re ever in London, I would encourage you to take district or circle line to Sloan Square tube station (where I once gave Kate Beckinsale change for a fiver so she could grab a ticket) and head slightly right until you see signs for one of the coolest streets in London. If you do visit, head down to a pub called The Chelsea Potter, where I whiled away hundreds of hours laughing, eating, and socializing with my friends. The guy I mentioned earlier who befriended me that first day ended up becoming my best friend. He married a Canadian girl a year and a half later and I was his best man and the maid of honour at their wedding has now been my wife for 24 years, so the King’s Road has a somewhat tangential, but really significant meaning to me,. When I heard this song for the first time, I knew the place it was talking about immediately and it brought those heady summer days rushing right back with full force.
Anyway, I won’t bore you any longer, let’s talk about a fantastic Tom Petty song!
To start off this one, I’m going to read the entry from Conversations with Tom Petty in full because I think it provides great context for the song lyrics. Tom tells Paul Zollo, “That was a direct result of going to England and going down to Kings Road in London. We’d always go there every time we went to London because that was where all the crazy clothes were. You could buy great clothes there. Maybe what Carnaby Street was in the sixties. This was where all the giant green mohawks were. This was where people paraded, the punks were all out, and that was a fairly new thing then. It was kind of like a carnival. You could walk down the road and just see all kinds of things. Vendors. I remember we used to go buy snakeskin boots and things you just didn’t see here.” He finishes by saying “It’s just kind of a light-hearted song.”
From 1981 to 83, the song was a live mainstay of the King’s Road and Long After Dark tours, after which it was played only once, in 1987 in Jacksonville, Florida. It’s another song that most bands would use as a foundation for a live show, but it really highlights the strength of Tom’s catalogue in that he could afford to retire it from live performances and have a few dozen other songs to drop in its place instead.
King’s Road is the second song in the Heartbreakers catalogue with an audible count in. I was going to mention which the first was but maybe I’ll talk about that in a different section of the episode! The count in on this one is heavily echoed with lots of reverb and features some stick count and some guitar noise. That’s all in the first two seconds. I always love those decisions to leave those little things in recordings as they give songs a kinda live feel that throws you into the room. In “three” Benmont starts a pretty epic ascending organ sweep that starts somewhere down by your bellybutton and ends up right in your eyes.
After that count in, the song just rips straight into life and doesn’t let up for three and a half minutes. This is a pure up-tempo major-key rock n roller. Stan Lynch is laying down a behemoth drum track with big crash cymbal hits on the first beat of ever second bar in the verses, thudding floor tom hits and mini-fills everywhere. Those half-time toms in the second verse give the dizzying pace of the song a momentary pause to catch its breath before barreling headlong back into that fantastic push into the chorus. “New world boy on the old king’s road”. I’d guess that to get the weight in that line, the lead is double tracked and the harmony is mixed slightly lower just to round things out. But when Stan drops that drum part out, the vocals have so much more punch into that last line of the very short chorus. The drums on this track might be the most thunderous and aggressive of any on the Iovine-era records. I can’t really think of any that sound bigger and are played as maniacally as on this song. It’s Stan in full rock-god-mode and he doesn’t let up at any point. When we get to the outro, he really amps things up and is smashing the crap out of those crash cymbals. At the three minute mark he goes to double time on the kick drum and I can tell you from experience that there’s something really liberating and exciting about just battering that kick drum through the end of a song. It gets your blood moving around your arteries I assure you and I bet this song was tons of fun for Stan to play live.
The two guitar parts on this song are another example of how Tom and Mike were in perfect lock step most of the time. If you listen to Mike’s guitar in the left channel with those little half bends and run ups, they’re overlaid beautifully on top of Tom playing the same chords in a different position, and higher up the fretboard to create this huge wall of guitar sound that just pins you back by the shoulders and doesn’t let you go. But it’s not just a strum-a-strum song, Mike is adding in those runs and coming screaming out of the choruses with those slide licks. Listen to the left channel at the 58 second mark as they come back into the second verse and Mike is dropping some sexy harmonics that just chime through the cacophony and add a tinkling bit of levity to proceedings. The bridge of this song is really interesting too as it’s not so much a bridge as a pre-verse. In lots of songs you’ll get a pre-chorus but it’s less common to get a repeated phrase come back out of a chorus into the verse, or a phrase leading into a verse, but that’s more what this is. Maybe let’s call it a post chorus as it repeats after the second and third choruses and doesn’t resolve into a real break away from the main flow of the song, but acts as a kind of temporary rest stop in the sonic maelstrom. Mike does add some guitar noodles to both sections but it’s almost as if they’re clinging on for dear life rather than taking any sort of lead. The tone he uses in these sections is really similar to the one employed on the solo in The Waiting and I like that little bit of glue that exists through different songs on the album. It gives the whole thing so much more of a cohesive feel and operates like a classical music coda to cast your mind back to early songs.
With the breathless, relentless pounding of the drums and the high-octane guitar attack, you could forgive Ron Blair for just sitting in the pocket on the bass and minding his own business, but the frequency overload of this song is only taken to further heights by a bass line that takes Ron’s signature style to the extreme in some ways. He’s sliding around the root notes in different octaves with wild abandon and putting in plenty of progressions in between.
The only sane head in the room on this one seems to be Benmont who, after that filthy organ sweep at the start provides a little stability to the whole affair by playing some big fat chords but not playing any real lead lines. When you listen to the organ though, it’s a gigantic sound. Leslie up to max and full major chords. No fifths here, we want every note we can possibly get into this song.
Alrighty, it’s time for some Petty Trivia!
Last week’s trivia question was 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? 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.”
Your question for this week is this. Kings Road is the second Heartbreakers song to feature an audible count in. What is the first!
OK, back to the song.
Let’s talk about Tom’s vocal and the lyrics for this one. Vocally, this is Tom pushing hard. He’s not nearly at the top of his vocal range, but he’s forcing the delivery deliberately when it doesn’t need to be “wearing funny looking clothes”, “I don’t know”. Those lines are stretched. “I’m a new world boy on the old kings road” are similarly given a hard edge just in how he constricts his throat and forces the notes out. That again shows how underrated a technical vocalist he was as it’s a detail that can be missed and if you’re singing this one at karaoke, there’s a good chance you’re not getting that phrasing and that delivery right. If you think about how your voice sounds when you’re holding a long note and are almost at the end of your lung capacity, that’s how Tom is delivering a lot of these lines. But it’s by design and he’s simply drawing in less air, but more frequently, to give it that urgency and knife-edge balance between success and failure. It’s a killer vocal man.
I’ve already given you some personal background on this song and it’s because lyrically, it’s again very narrative. You can tell that these aren’t hypothetical situations. These are clearly drawn vignettes based on actual experiences that Tom and the band had when they would have been touring England in the mid to late seventies and when they come on the back of Nightwatchman and Something Big, are given more depth than they might have if the song was sequenced differently on the album. The second two lines of each verse are where Tom really drops the bombs. “There were people all around wearing funny looking clothes. Some boys, some girls, some I don’t know.” In a modern context, and taken out of context, I’m sure some people could point to that line as being out of step with a modern reading of gender. But to me, there’s no judgment at all in the line. It’s simply recognizing the androgonous reality of 70s and 80s punk and new wave fashion and attitudes. “They had socks and shirts and underwear that I’d seen before but I don’t know where”. Again, such a specific scenario that may well have been constructed but feels far more narrative. Then “You can’t get em in the USA. Not New York City, Not West LA.” So he doesn’t say “Not in New York City Not IN west LA’. Great little lyrical decisions that give the song a swagger.
One last thing I’ll say about the lyric that might be a real nerdy thing, but I think Tom was actually pulling in experiences from different parts of London and knitting them into the Kings Road narrative. For example; no-one calls it the OLD Kings Road. But, there’s a very famous thoroughfare in Southeast London called the Old Kent Road, which wends its way through Southwark and has a rich storied history. So I reckon that Tom merged that in because it world phonetically and poetically.
Overall, this song shouldn’t be as clear as it is. There’s SO MUCH going on in it. No-one is backing off really. No-one is just taking it easy, apart from maybe Benmont a little bit. Everyone is going for it. But it’s so masterfully engineered by Shelley Yakus and produced by Tom and Jimmy Iovine that, somehow, that prison riot of sound actually comes together into an unexpectedly cohesive, supremely uplifting cascade of sound.
I also love that the song doesn’t fade out. It has an actual end, which fits perfectly with the immediate frenetic pace that is set early on. The ending is like a sprinter gasping for air at the finish line before finally dropping to their knees in recognition of the race they’ve just run. That sense of energy and elation is never more obvious than when you hear or see the song performed live. Check out the live version from the 1982 US Festival at the Glen Helen Regional Park in San Bernardino, California. If you want to watch a band enjoying themselves, this is a great example of it. I’ll leave a link in the episode notes.
OK folks, that’s all for this week. There’s not a ton of musical or lyrical complexity in this song. Which isn’t to say it isn’t fabulously-written, but the focus is on the energy, the mood, and the beat of the song, rather than any changes in pace or feel. It’s meant to get your feet tapping and soul singing. This is probably what Tom meant when he said that “It’s just kind of a light-hearted song’. It’s funny that this is going to be the longest song episode by a little ways and on face-value it’s kind of a throwaway song. But it’s also really cool how we connect to art and this song just time shifts me to a different part of my life that was shoved into a corner of my brain for a long time and gets to breath fresh air every time I listen to Kings Road. I’m going to give Kings Road an 8 out of 10. I can’t in good conscience say that I can find a real flaw in it, but I will also accept that, of the songs on side one, it’s definitely the simplest and the least challenging. I also realize that my emotional connection to this song makes it more special to me, so I’ll sit on a 8 and say that it rounds out arguably the best side of any album that Tom made with the Heartbreakers.
QUESTION: Kings Road is the second Heartbreakers song to feature an audible count in. What is the first!
ANSWER: The answer is track four from side one of Damn The Torpedoes; Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid).
This question threw up by far the widest range of answers so far and I did trip a couple of people up by nto specifying that I mean album tracks. But there you have it.
When I reviewed the song in season three, this is what I wrote as my closing note: "This song is a really healthy mix of old fashioned rock n roll and country music, to my ear. Some of those guitar licks have plenty of yeehaw too them and when they’re coupled with Ron’s straight up rock n roll bassline and the driving rhythm of the drums, it creates a wonderful blend of sensibilities that really work."
Well, they put me out on the old Kings Road
I didn't know which way to go
There were people all around wearin' funny lookin' clothes
Some boys, some girls, some I don't know
And I didn't know which way to go
I'm a new world boy on the old Kings Road
Well, rockabilly music was in the air
We looked through the door, they said, "Come over here"
They had socks and shirts and underwear
That I'd seen before but I don't know where
And I didn't know which way to go
I'm a new world boy on the old Kings Road
A Pakistani man said, "Listen here
Let me fix you up before you go back there
You can't get 'em in the U.S.A.
Not New York City, not West LA"
I thought about it, said, "I don't know "
I'm a new world boy on the old Kings Road
Old Kings Road
Old Kings Road
I'm on the old Kings Road