S7E2 Runaway Trains

               
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Length: 16:06 - Release Date: March 15, 2023

"After passing on what would become Boys of Summer during the Southern Accents sessions, Tom was clearly ready to try to use a less typical Heartbreakers groove brought to him by Mike Campbell. One of five co-writes on the album, this song shares a definite mood with Boys of Summer, with it’s minor key verse and major key chorus and the healthy dose of 80s synth. As with Boys of Summer, we can probably safely assume that Mike had the whole song demo-d and brought it to Tom almost fully formed, just missing lyrics. I’d also make an assumption that it was written mainly on keyboards as F# isn’t a natural key for any guitarist to write in.”

Today's episode covers track two from Let Me Up (I've Had Enough!), Runaway Trains.

Check out the song here: https://youtu.be/9bW9FSMJ0JI

You can find the live version from Jacksonville, FL in 1987 here: https://youtu.be/Yphc7QjJE_Y

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 to episode two of season seven 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. 

If you’re listening to this episode on the day of its release, I’ll probably still be in Iqaluit, which is the only city in the territory of Nunavut, just south of the Arctic circle. Nunavut covers 1.9 million square kilometers and has a population of around 36,000. My job has afforded me a few cool trips; Brussels, Berlin, Utrecht in the Netherlands, and New York City, but as soon as this opportunity to travel to Baffin Island came up, I had my fingers crossed that it would turn out. To go and see a completely different culture, in my own country, is so exciting. Hopefully on next week’s episode, when I’ll be in Ottawa,again for work, I’ll hopefully be able to tell you all about it. And even share a photo of a polar bear or two perhaps! 

Today’s episode covers the second track from Let Me Up I’ve Had Enough, the synth-heavy Runaway Trains.

After passing on what would become Boys of Summer during the Southern Accents sessions, Tom was clearly ready to try to use a less typical Heartbreakers groove brought to him by Mike Campbell. One of five co-writes on the album, this song shares a definite mood with Boys of Summer, with it’s minor key verse and major key chorus and the healthy dose of 80s synth. As with Boys of Summer, we can probably safely assume that Mike had the whole song demo-d and brought it to Tom almost fully formed, just missing lyrics. I’d also make an assumption that it was written mainly on keyboards as F# isn’t a natural key for any guitarist to write in. In Conversations With Tom Petty, Paul Zollo says to Tom “I know you’ve said it’s not one of your favourites, but it’s a great song”, to which Tom replies “I heard that on the radio not long ago and it is good. I was pleasantly surprised. Somehow I got it into my head that I didn’t like that. But I did like that when I heard it”

I mistakenly said last week that this was the second single released from the album, based on Wikipedia. More fool me for not fact checking that! I’ve edited the wiki page now, because yes I am a gigantic nerd! I also edit any page which references the Heartbreakers as “Tom Petty’s backing band”. In that case, out of indignant nerdery!

The song opens with three open harmonic guitar notes and is quickly followed by arguably the most 80s sounding piece of music the Heartbreakers ever recorded. When you think of Heartbreakers’ synth songs, you’re more likely to think of You Got Lucky or Don’t Come Around Here No More, but this one to me really screams it’s decade very loudly. That opening synth lick always makes me think of something like the warehouse scene in Beverley Hills Cop. Or maybe a chase scene in Lethal Weapon. It has that real Miami Vice Jan Hammer feel to it. And linking things back to Boys of Summer, it has a very similar repeated pattern which plays under the three chord progression. So the chords change and that F# suspended arpeggio adds in some suspension to  the notes in those chords. We also get some pretty reverb heavy drums from Stan Lynch, rolling around the toms. You then get twin guitar fill parts, with some very cool and identifiably Mike Campbell licks and I assume it’s Tom adding in the softer notes in the left channel. To achieve this effect, the guitarist will turn their volume knob all the way down and turn it up as they’ve played the note. This way, you don’t get the attack from actually striking the string, the end effect being called violining or volume knob swells, for obvious reasons. After eight bars, there’s a great fake intro drum fill from Stan as he comes in on the snare to signal what you think is going to be the start of the beat, but he drops instead back into those tom fills with a very echoey sound. It’s a very thin snare sound and while it definitely isn’t an electronic drum, it’s almost as if they wanted to emulate a more electronic snare sound. The bass through this section is mixed incredibly low almost to the point of being inaudible. So again, the whole thing has a very moody, pensive aura to it. 

There’s another big drum fill for almost a full bar leading into the first verse, where Tom comes in on the second beat. Once this first verse is in full swing, the snare sounds a little fuller and less electronic, so it could just be the way Stan was hitting the drum head a little lighter, or the amount of reverb that was added softening it up. The chord progression in the verse is the same as the intro and the bass is again quite soft and lacks punch.This would be deliberate but I find that, like Jammin Me, it sort of washes out the lower frequencies a little and makes it a little stodgy. 

The pre-chorus is a lovely change to B with a nice, bright full chord played in both channels on two both guitars. There’s a neat little structural trick that Tom pulls here too. In the verse, he sings in the first and second bars with the third and fourth left open. In this pre-chorus, he shifts this to the second and third bars of each four, with the first and fourth left open. It adds a completely different dynamic to this section without doing a bunch of dynamic heavy lifting. Not to keep harping on the 80s movie theme, but this part really reminds of John Hughes movies like The Breakfast Club or Pretty in Pink. 

Those bigger open chords over that steady rhythm lift us out of that foreboding place and offer a glimmer of hope which is realized as the chorus comes in. Again Tom switches up the bars he’s singing on with the second and fourth bars being mainly used in this section. His vocal in this section is quite restrained and melancholy, similar to his delivery in Learning to Fly from 1991’s Into The Great Wide Open. The drums feel a little bigger in this section too and there’s the addition of some more synth or organ. On the one count of the first bar of each eight, there’s also a booming synth note that’s added and again mixed very low so it’s not dominant but really signals that change into this section.

It’s a two part chorus with the final line being the title refrain. We’ll get into the lyrics at the end of the song, but I would say right now that I think the lyrics do lift this song. The chorus is one of those really evocative pieces of writing that Tom was so adept at that has an air of mystery and ambiguity to it, like Straight Into Darkness or Time to Move On. 

The first chorus leads us back into the second verse with no fanfare and no two or four bar interlude. With the way the drums are mixed and that repetitive keyboard progression, there’s a very metronomic, industrial feel to the whole song. The second verse is basically the same as the first but we do get some fantastic little Mike Campbell licks added panned hard, hard right. Listen from about 2.03 to 2.08 to that gorgeous tone. I sometimes think that if I had to pick one word to describe Mike Campbell it would be tasteful. Everything he does just fits like the cornerstone of a building or the last piece in a jigsaw. 

We go again into the pre-chorus and I do love how Tom drops into that lower register. It adds more to the dynamic change in the chorus. Again we get those glorious guitar arpeggios suspended over the root notes and Tom crooning us through those fabulous chorus lyrics.

Alright folks, It’s time for some Petty Trivia! 

Your question from last week was: How many Tom Petty solo and Heartbreakers studio albums contain fifteen tracks? Is it a) zero, b) 4, c) 1, or d) 3? (4) Wildflowers, Songs and Music from “She’s The One”, Echo, and Mojo.

The answer is, b) 4. The eventual studio release of Wildflowers was pared down from it’s double-album concept to 15 songs over four vinyl sides. The following two albums, Songs and Music from “She’s the One” and Echo also had fifteen tracks meaning Rick Rubin hit fifteen on all three albums he produced with Tom and the Heartbreakers. The last album to contain fifteen tracks is also the longest album in the Heartbreakers catalogue, Mojo, which clocks in at sixty five minutes and nine seconds. 

Your question for this week is this; When the Heartbreakers took to the road with Bob Dylan on the True Confessions tour, in which country did they open the first leg, on February 5, 1986? Was it a) Japan, b) Germany, c) New Zealand, or d) Canada

Alright, back to the song. The middle eight takes us into yet another Karate Kid, Rocky IV montage type airy, pulled back synth-laden section with Stan’s drums and lots of percussion adding the accents. We get Tom vocalizing “Runaway, don’t blame me girl” and Mike and Tom adding in little guitar licks and there’s an especially bright, different guitar tone that comes in the left channel in the second half of this bridge section. This section is actually 24 bars and in the last eight we get another tasty, very sparse guitar solo from Mike Campbell which is again reminiscent of work in Boys of Summer. This section leads back into the pre chorus with then a very slight, half measure hitchstep into the chorus for one last time, with Tom singing the lines in the chorus through once and the song fading out over that progression. 

The lyrics in this song took me a little while to appreciate for some reason. Maybe I spent too long being a little put off by the synth-heavy arrangement or something but I think I overlooked them for quite a while. It has a very driving, traveling feel as early as the opening line. “She’s up there all alone. I’m down here changing lanes”. Straight away you feel that this is about two people who have seen a distance develop between them. The pre-chorus confirms this with Tom hoping that his lover will set him free. “I’m counting on you babe, to get you out of my mind”. Again Tom could easily have inverted that and made it a much more masculine point of view that he pretty much avoided his entire career. As I said earlier in the episode those, it’s the chorus that carries this entire song. “I guess it’s one of those things you can never explain. Like when an angel cries. Like runaway trains”. The harsh juxtaposition between those two images is fantastic. You have a very ethereal idea of broken heavenly perfection coupled with the earthly horror of an out of control locomotive. “Like one of those times that’s never the same” isn’t quite as strong, but leads into “Like when something dies. Like runaway trains”. So there’s an aching poignancy in how those lines are coupled with that major key resolution in the chord progression.  Nothing technically mind-blowing but as always with Tom, just very carefully and tastefully done. The one thing I think this track is really missing that could have really kicked it up another notch is a Howie Epstein harmony part in the chorus. 

There’s a great live bootleg version of this track that I’ll post a link to. In the intro, Tom introduces Benmont by saying “Y’all give a big hand to Benmont Tench over here playing piano. He’s a wild man but we love him.” I love this arrangement so much more than the studio recording and they add in a great crunchy little guitar lick to rock things up a bit. Having Benmont open the song on the piano and Stan easing back on the drums gives the song even more atmosphere for me. There’s more searing guitar in this version and Tom puts more edge onto his vocal delivery in places. We also get some big piano chords leading into the outro that again give the song so much more impact for me than the synth ever offers. We also have another great guitar part leading out. It’s a shame that there isn’t an official live version of this one kicking around anywhere because it’s one of those songs that’s far superior to the album version. It’s great that this live bootleg copy exists though as the track was only played live eighteen times (according to setlist.fm at least) all between the end of May and the end of July in 1987. 

OK Pettyheads, that’s all for this week. This is a really simple song and this album has simplicity and economy as a motif. For me it doesn’t always work, but for this song, I think the metronomic quality of it fits and the simple arrangement is fine because it’s bolstered by a strong lyric. This is a song I didn’t listen to all that much before starting with my listen-throughs for this season, but it’s really grown on me. I was actually ready to be quite dismissive of the track and I do think that like Jamming Me, it’s hampered a bit by production. I don’t love the synth-heavy 80s action movie feel of it but the song itself is great otherwise and the live version is really, really solid. Go listen to Mike C shred some sexy blues guitar. My preconception before digging into the song and especially before listening to that live version is that this one is a bit of flop that is rescued slightly by a pretty great chorus lyric. But I think that with an arrangement closer to the live version and better production, where you could hear Howie’s bass more clearly, I think this could have been a knockout. So I’m going to give Runaway Trains an 8 out of 10.

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Petty Trivia

QUESTION: When the Heartbreakers took to the road with Bob Dylan on the True Confessions tour, in which country did they open the first leg, on February 5, 1986? Was it a) Japan, b) Germany, c) New Zealand, or d) Canada

ANSWER: The answer is, c) New Zealand. After kicking off the tour with a hectic fifteen shows in less than four weeks in New Zealand and Australia, the band played four dates in Japan before taking a short break ahead of the US leg of the tour where they played 41 shows in two months. A breakneck pace by anyone’s standards. 1986 would be the last time that the Heartbreakers would tour outside of North America and Europe and featured some of the largest crowds in the Heartbreakers career including over 100,000 who packed the Robert F Kennedy Memorial stadium in DC on two consecutive nights on July 6th and 7th.

Lyrics

She's up there all alone
I'm down here changing lanes
Her room was dark and cold
I'm listening to the waves

And I'm depending on time , babe
To get you out of my mind

I guess it's one of those things
You can never explain
Like when an angel cries
Like runaway trains

Like one of those times
That's never the same
Like when something dies
Like runaway trains

She says, "I understand
I'm used to being alone
And holding my own hand
I'm stronger than you know"

And I'm depending on time, babe
To get you out of my mind

I guess it's one of those things
You can never explain
Like when an angel cries
Like runaway trains

Like one of those times
That's never the same
Like when something dies
Like runaway trains

Runaway
Don't blame me, babe

And I'm depending on time, babe
To get you out of my mind

I guess it's one of those things
You can never explain
Like when an angel cries
Like runaway trains

Like one of those times
That's never the same
Like when something dies
Like runaway trains


They're tryin' to build outside my door

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Live

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