"It’s brilliant in that it’s a character song, but the character isn’t Spike. We never learn whether Spike is a good guy or a bad guy. We don’t know his age, any of his characteristics, where he’s from, or what he’s doing there. He just doesn’t belong he’s just there for caricature of unwelcoming yokels to contrast with. It’s a very clever way to write a lyric."
Check out the song here: https://youtu.be/t7ALjBfVn9I
Here's the live version from Farm Aid in '86: https://youtu.be/a4HVtB7CIBo
Here's the 2012 version from Estero Florida: https://youtu.be/1u2fgGEgaPo
(* 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 episode ten of season six of the Tom Petty Project Podcast! I am your host, Kevin Brown. This is the weekly 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.
Before we get started, I wanted to thank you so much for the wonderful support for my Jake Thistle episode as well as how much engagement you had with Katie Moulton’s interview. Both Jake and Katie are extraordinary creative people in their fields and it was a lot of fun branching out and taking a tiny break from digging into the Heartbreaker’s catalogue. I was curious to see how applying this process to a different artist’s work would feel but given how much influence Jake takes from Tom as a songwriter, it was a pretty seamless transition and I enjoyed it a ton. I think I’ll try to throw at least one non-Petty bonus episode into each season moving forward! I also still have a couple of other bonus episodes to drop in the next few weeks and I’ll let you know about those as I get to them!
Today’s episode covers the second track from side two of Southern Accents and shortest song on the album, the brilliant and hilariously satirical character study, Spike.
Spike is probably Tom’s most famous character song. Told from the first person perspective, it illustrates the collision between contemporary Southern values and modern anti-establishment thinking. In Conversations with Tom Petty, Tom tells Paul Zollo, “I assumed the identity of a really kind of ignorant redneck guy who is kind of shaken up when he sees a punk rocker. I sang it from that point of view.” Unlike Rebels, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could mistake the fact that this is Tom playing a part rather than voicing his own opinion. Though Tom does tell Paul, “When you do that, you’ve got to be really careful, because there’s a certain part of the audience that really thinks it’s you and your point of view. They don’t get that you slid into a character.” As I say, you’d almost have to be wilfully stupid to miss the point of this song!
The song starts in the deep, deep south, with, bass, acoustic and slide guitar and a slick Rhodes piano part from Benmont. This is as far from California as an adopted Angeleno could possibly get in sonic terms. Stan comes in with a little kick to start us off proper underneath that playfully simple bassline that Howie is laying down. With the reverb cranked up on Mike’s guitar and Stan using his brushes on the kit, the song starts out with that wonderfully loose, sloppy shuffle. I assume people know what brushes are but maybe you don’t. So usually, a drummer players with sticks, obviously. But to get that quieter sound, it’s basically a bunch of metal wires or thin rubber or nylon rods bunched loosely together to give you that brushing, quieter tone. Benmont’s Rhodes is panned completely into the right channel which gives you that sense of Benmont playing in the bar that Spike walks into, but tucked away into a dark corner! Mike’s in the other cramped corner panned way back over the left, just like he was in the old days on that punk rocker cover debut album.
I love how swamply and slick that groove is, with Mike just teasing little fills at the end of each bar of the intro. Leading into the first verse we get those doot doo vocalizations harmonized beautifully by Howie and mirrored by Benmont on the organ. So that intro is essentially 36 seconds of pure ambiance. Just setting the tone for this dusty, grimy flea pit bar that Spike is walking toward and eventually into. During the live performance of Spike at the 1986 Farm Aid 2 show, he Tom sets the scene by saying “He was out one day in the middle of July. It was a hot day. He had his leather on. And his dog collar. And he seen a little bar y’know. Looked good to Spike. Couple of gas pumps and a pool table in there. So he walked on in.” and even without that narrative, you can sort of back fill that scene once the song starts because you get that exact sort of spit and sawdust feel from the whole tone of the song. In a 2012 live performance of the song, Tom tells the crowd that the bar that Spike goes into was a bar in Gainesville called the Cypress Lounge, which was, his words, “The meanest, nastiest bar in the whole state of Florida.” So there’s our scene. All set on Tom’s musical canvas and ready for the details to be filled in, as usual, just enough to set our imaginations racing.
The first verse starts as Spike walks into the bar and one of the good old boys sees him over the top of his PBR and nudges his buddies in a very “hey get a load of this freak!” way. “Look we got another one, just like the other ones.” So clearly Spike isn’t the first punk they’ve seen lately. “Another bad-ass, another trouble maker. I’m scared ain’t you boys scared?” You can imagine this toothless hillbilly yucking it up with his buddies and leering at Spike daring him to start something. Underneath, that low shuffle continues with a chord change on “I’m scared” to heighten the tension in the room. There’s a really neat little trick Tom pulls lyrically when he transitions from the line “aint you boys scared” to “Oh I wonder if he’s gonna show us what bad is.” Again it doesn’t sound at all like a song lyric but exactly like the kind of sarcastic antagonism you find in seedy bars the world over. It’s such a stilted crammed-into-place delivery that it just again ramps up that feeling of unease and potential menace “Boys we got a man with a dog collar on, think we oughta throw ol’ Spike a bone”. So this is where we discover that the character’s name isn’t actually Spike, that’s just the pejorative nickname that old one-tooth and his pals have decided to bestow upon him. Tom goes up to that falsetto and lands on the root note at the top. Then back into the Doot doo do do do do section. In concert that changes sometimes to doot do do deedle dee, doot doodle do do do. So they’d have fun with the phrasing. And on the recording he leads into that section by saying “Make me say” whereas in concert he’d usually say “And Spike would say”. I’ll leave a couple of links to live performances of this one because when you watch the band play this one, it’s almost as if they have more fun playing this song than anything else in the catalogue. Perhaps it’s the gleeful parody of an attitude they don’t like that the song embodies or maybe it’s memories of the recording process, or possibly a combination of factors. It’s also just a heck of a fun song to sing. Tom tells Paul Zollo, “I remember we cut that very late at night, really stoned. We were all pretty high. Higher than we would normally be.” So you can imagine that the recording process itself would have been as much fun as the song is. Some of the looks between Benmont, Mike, and Tom during the 86 Farm Aid performance could definitely be described as “knowing”.
In the second verse, we get Mike adding in a touch more of that hot sauce on the slide and his playing throughout this song actually reminds me a little of a song called The Man’s Too Strong from Dire Straits huge album Brothers in Arms, which was also released in ‘85, though Knopfler is playing a dobro and tonally it’s a lot different. But the actual licks are quite similar in places I think.
“Here’s another misfit, another Jimmy Dean”. Again that sneering, who does this punk kid think that he is vibe that really makes you root for Spike even though you know nothing at all about him. “Bet he’s got a motorbike, what do y’all think. Bet if we be good we get a ride on it if he ain’t to mad about the future” - these lines again are disjointed and Tom really leans into the drawl to make them accusatory and mocking. Things take a slightly sinister turn though with the line “Maybe we oughtta help him see the future ain’t what it used to be” and the second half of both those two lines are double tracked on the vocal. You can hear Tom’s voice twice. So just another little bit of production to make the song move slightly in different directions.
Alright folks, It’s time for some Petty Trivia!
Your last question, that I already posted the answer to on Twitter, was this: Southern Accents peaked at #7 in the US, but which album spent the most weeks at #1 on the US Billboard chart in 1985? Was it a) Reckless, by Bryan Adams (2), b) Born in the USA, by Bruce Springsteen (3), c) Brothers in Arms, by Dire Straits (9), or d) No Jacket Required by Phil Collins (7 - in three different blocks of 4 weeks, 2 weeks, and 1 weeks)?
I managed to hoodwink most of you again with this one on the Twitter poll. Most of you, 75%, went for Born in the USA but in ascending order, Bryan Adams stayed at #1 with Reckless for 2 weeks, Born in the USA was #1 for only 3 weeks (and a further 4 weeks previously in 1984), Phil hit top spot for 7 weeks in three spells, but Brothers in Arms topped the chart for 9 straight weeks (Aug 31 - Oct 26)! The year began though with Prince ending a remarkable run of 24 weeks at Number One with his magnum opus, Purple Rain.
Your question for this week is this. The Heartbreakers performed a killer live version of Spike for Farm Aid 2 in 1986. The event was held at Manor Downs, Texas, but the Heartbreakers set, along with those of the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan, were broadcast via satellite from which city? Was it a) Gainesville, Florida, b) Buffalo, New York, c) San Diego, California, or d) Kansas City, Missouri? Don’t forget to head over to Twitter to vote your answer!
OK, back to the song. Two verses in, we get the unforgettable chorus. “Hey Spike, whaddya like?” This line is sneered over the top of a hanging note, with all the instrumentation. Again, that’s a loaded question to this guy. Don’t say the wrong thing buddy. Don’t pick the wrong side. There’s that territorial feeling creeping in that these guys are having fun mocking this guy but won’t hesitate to escalate their distaste. The drop in the playing leaves the question hanging in the air for a second before the shuffle comes back, before dropping out for the second time. The first pass of Hey Spike is a four bar phrase, with the second dropping out after three bars and into that bridge, which is a really spacey, airy D-C C-D alternating progression repeated twice. You can really hear the acoustic guitar in this passage with Tom adding some grace notes into the lick. There’s then an Em chord - the only time it pops up in the song, with Mike playing maybe his shortest ever solo. But gods is it a tasty little slide lick.
The song then repeats the refrain Hey Spike, adding in the immortal line “You’re scarin’ my wife” under which there’s some congas as percussion and a quiet little tom roll from Stan. More sarcasm from the beer-bellied rednecks as they implore “Hey Spike, tell us ‘bout life” before the lead antagonist taunts Spike saying “I might need me a dog collar too boy. It might make me safe”. Mike again ramps up the licks in the outro before the snare drum drops out leaving the bass and Benmont’s part leading things out in the fade. The last thing we hear is a dog panting and licking its lips. If I had to guess, I’d say that “Hey Spike, you’re scarin’ my wife” was improvised while high and left in because it made everyone laugh. Similarly, the dog effect at the end might have been someone half or fully baked laughing their butt off and suggesting that to end the song. And you know what, I’m 100% there for it!
Alright folks, that’s all for this week. I wonder if there was an element here of Tom giving a wry nod back to the issues the album cover of the Heartbreaker’s debut cause. Those bullets around Tom’s neck on the album cover, combined with the leather jacket, came in 1976, right around the time of the punk explosion and the dawn of pierced faces, wild hairstyles and a seemingly aggressive type of disregard for authority. So Tom could embody all of that in his protagonist Spike, who we actually learn very little about as the song is written from the perspective of a staunch conformist seeing this “other” and feeling nervous about what he intends to do. It’s the eternal conflict between the energy of youth and the stoicism of an older generation. Add in the layer of a very socially conservative part of the country and you get a fabulous cultural dissonance to drop this character into. It’s brilliant in that it’s a character song, but the character isn’t Spike. We never learn whether Spike is a good guy or a bad guy. We don’t know his age, any of his characteristics, where he’s from, or what he’s doing there. He doesn’t belong he’s just there for the caricature of unwelcoming yokels to contrast with. It’s a very clever way to write a lyric.
The song was a mainstay on the Southern Accents tour and played sporadically through to 1989. It was again played here and there in 2001, 2008, and 2011-2014. The only thing I find a little surprising is that it wasn’t played at all during the Filmore residency. It’s clear that the band really liked this song and it made it onto the Live Anthology, so I’m curious why Spike never popped his head up in San Francisco.
Look, for me, Spike’s a straight 10 because it’s a brilliantly drawn pastiche of parochial attitudes in small towns everywhere. Stereotypes exist because there’s a grain of truth in them, and Tom captures that truth in the marriage of both the tone of the music and the tenor of the sarcastic abuse which is directed at Spike. This is then married perfectly and undercut melodically with those doot doo vocalizations. But look, I don’t know if I can really put this one at the very top table. Yes, it’s expertly constructed and stands out on a record full of new ideas as a fun, funny little ditty. But there’s not a ton to it musically, Tom lays down that half spoken, half sung vocal line gorgeously and it would be a song that you’d go nuts for if you saw it live. But does it belong on the same shelf as Southern Accents, Rebels, and Don’t Come Around Here Now More? I have to be as objective as I can I think, so I’ll give Spike the most rock solid 8/10 I’ve given so far.
QUESTION:The Heartbreakers performed a killer live version of Spike for Farm Aid 2 in 1986. The event was held at Manor Downs, Texas, but the Heartbreakers set, along with those of the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan, were broadcast via satellite from which city? Was it a) Gainesville, Florida, b) Buffalo, New York, c) San Diego, California, or d) Kansas City, Missouri?
Look, we got another one
Just like the other ones
I'm scared, ain't you boys scared
Oh, wonder if he's
Gonna show us what bad is
Boys, we got a man
With a dog collar on
You think we oughtta
Throw ol' Spike a bone
(Make me say...)
Aw, here's another misfit
Another Jimmy Dean
Bet he's got a motorbike
What do y'all think
Bet if we be good, we get a ride on it
If he ain't too mad about the future
Maybe we oughtta help him see
The future ain't what it used to be
Listen, hey Spike, what do you like
Hey Spike, what do you like
(Oh, I say...)
(Oh, I said...)
Aw hey Spike, what do you like
Hey Spike, you're scarin' my wife
Hey Spike, tell us 'bout life
Could you tell me 'bout life
I got me a dog collar too boy
Might make me safe
I say aw
I might say...