S8E5 Runnin' Down a Dream

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Length: 20:47 - Release Date: August 2, 2023

In his fantastic memoir, Tom Petty and Me, Jon Scott calls Runnin Down a Dream “One of the greatest driving songs I’ve ever heard” and you get his point completely. It’s a juggernaut of a rock n roll song but isn’t overpowering sonically. Again Jeff Lynne leaves enough space for the song to breath but adds in enough flare to keep you interested all the way through. It’s an urgent and riveting song; almost as if it’s an hour and a half action movie packed into for glorious minutes of pop rock perfection.

You can listen to the song here: https://youtu.be/Y1D3a5eDJIs 

And if you want to check out a version from the fantastic Live at the Fillmore album, you can find that here: https://youtu.be/oafLV5GU7tY

Album version

Live version (Fillmore '97)



(* 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 four of season eight 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. 

Some quick social media stuff before we dig in. First of all, the result of this week’s poll. On my website, I have the songs ranked as either bronze, silver or gold. Anything with a rating between 1 and 6 is a bronze. 7-9 is silver, and gold is reserved for those songs that get a maximum 10/10. My rating for A Face in the Crowd was 9/10. I was in a slight minority on this one with only 29% of you rating this a 10/10 on the Twitter poll. 52% went with 7-9 and 19% (way too high!) gave this one a 6/10.  

@ColtinLillico commented “I have to give A Face in the Crowd 10/10. It sounds like nothing else in his catalogue. Hypnotically beautiful melody. The lyrics are so simple yet have so much depth. One of Tom’s best vocal performances as well. The first side of Full Moon Fever is basically all 10s for me.” And I agreed that it’s another one of those unique tracks in Tom’s discography. 

@St1bs commented “My favourite song on the album. It feels like an ignored gem. Tbh, I didn't realise how good it was until the one and only time I heard it on the radio.” 

Handsome Dan Lopez @DansFinalSay  says “Because Tom's catalogue is so voluminous, it could be considered a "deep cut" among the hits but not in the usual sense. The lighter tone of "Yer So Bad" might've worked better in that spot. "Crowd" is so unique yet indicative of a style that would become more frequent in Tom's music that I like the idea of it being "buried" a little deeper on the album (7th maybe) giving it more of a "hidden gem" feel.”

Over on Facebook, Even The Losers says “It has a haunting feel to it. One of those minor key masterpieces.” I completely agree - and Tom didn’t write a ton of heavily minor-key focused tracks so they tend to stand out!

I love this comment from Dana Dana, who says “it’s such a beautiful song! I love the video and we really all start out as A Face In The Crowd until we meet that special person” - isn’t that the truth! And some of us are stuck with a face for radio on top of it!!!

Jen Carmichael says “Seriously one of my all time faves. It's beautiful”

And Sara Willis Rine agrees, saying “Love it, it's a beautiful song and definitely a favorite of mine.”

The peerless Dallas Helliker says “This song is all feel, vibe and atmosphere. And it's such an awesome vibe. It's almost too simple of a song structure. I do think it is verse/chorus structure (the chorus is every time you hear the claves/woodblock), but they are so sonically similar it's hard to tell. The varied guitar solo sections add some complexity to spice things up a bit. I think this song could have benefited from a bridge that takes you somewhere else sonically/lyrically, either throwing in another chord or two, or a key change. I don't know, maybe that would detract from the overall vibe. But without that, it ends up being a little repetitive. Despite this, the spooky uneasiness, the laid back feel, the understated gradual build, all make this a solid track. I give it an 8.” There was then a bit of a conversation between Dallas, myself, and Will Porteus about key changes which is worth a read I think. 

Thanks to everyone who commented again this week folks. 

Today’s episode covers the last track from side one of Full Moon Fever, the blisteringly brilliant Runnin’ Down a Dream. If you’re new to the podcast, I don’t actually use any of the music from the song in the episode itself out of respect for the estate and to avoid any copyright issues. I’d be surprised if you don’t know this track but in case you don’t, there’s a link to it in the episode notes that you can fire up before we dig into this classic.

For me, Runnin Down a Dream is all about two things. The opening riff and and Mike Campbell’s solo. In Conversations with Tom Petty, author Paul Zollo remarks that Tom cowrote the song with Mike, but Tom says “Actually, all Mike wrote was that one descending riff”. This isn’t Tom being dismissive at all, just accurate. You hear that a lot in interviews when he’s asked about certain specific things. He has that acute memory for the creative process and quietly but directly corrects people if they’re off base. Paul follows up by calling that riff “the engine of the song” to which Tom replies “Yeah. He had that riff but in a different time signature. It was kind of a broken beat. Much slower.” Hard to imagine the frenetic pace of this track being dialed back but Tom continues by saying “I liked the lick a lot and I’d sit around playing it on my guitar, experimenting with it in different ways. I came to think it sounded good in a really straight beat, really fast.” He concludes by saying that the clincher came when “I played it one night for Jeff [Jeff Lynne] and he said “Oh that’s good. That might be one of those last riffs left.” And it’s such a memorable riff. 

What it shares in common with all the very best guitar riffs is its simplicity. A novice guitar player can learn this riff fairly easily. It’s all played on the top string of the guitar and descends down from the 7th to the 6th to the 5th, to the 3rd, with an open E played each time in between. Nothing to it. But nothing really sounds like it either. The riff doesn’t even start on the one count. If you count one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and, it actually starts on the one-and. So straight away it’s a little bit of tomfoolery that I like. The song doesn’t mess around either. Like Free Fallin’ and I Won’t Back Down, we get to the point pretty quickly. That iconic riff rips the song into life and on the first one count, the drums and bass guitar also come in. Boom. No messing around. 

Immediately the drums are locked into a straight backbeat. We’ve talked on a couple of songs on side one already about programmed drums and I suspect that the hihat is again programmed here. Or sampled and sequenced in. The snare is real though I’m pretty sure, because those rapidfire fills coming out of the chorus are all natural. So again, we have a song here with not a ton going on in the rhythm section. The bass guitar is rocking out those root eighth notes and the drums are keeping time. But it’s a constant, relentless,driving rhythm section that the rest of the song sits on top of. 

After a short, four bar intro, we’re straight into the first verse. “It was a beautiful day, the sun beat down. I had the radio on, I was drivin'” Two simple lines over two simple chords. It shouldn’t be this impactful. You shouldn’t be able to do so much with this little. “Trees flew by, me and Del were singin' little Runaway. I was flyin'” A wonderful nod here obviously to Tom’s friend Del Shannon. Tom tells Paul Zollo that Del was “... running around with us a little bit during that time. That’s why I threw in the line, ‘Me and Del was singing little Runaway’. I put that in for him. I got a big smile from him on that. And Little Runaway fit the whole concept, so that was that.” I will admit that I’m a sucker for lyrics that reference old songs. There’s just something weirdly cool about hearing one legend sing about another. Little Runaway of course was a huge international hit and topped the Billboard chart for four weeks in 1961. I love that Tom says that Del was “running around with us”, completely downplaying the fact that he and Jeff Lynne had cowritten the first track from Shannon’s album he was working on at the time and along with the rest of the Heartbreakers, minus Stan Lynch had been the band on Shannon’s posthumous 1991 release Rock On! Yet another legend that the Heartbreakers backed on an album. 

Tom’s vocal in this track are really low in his register. He comments on this in Conversations with Tom Petty, saying “I remember saying to them [Jeff Lynne and Mike Campbell], Do you think we should change the key? Jeff said no, no, no, it’s perfect the way you’re doing it.” I think if you pitched up the song a couple of steps, you’d lose that really gritty edge that the open E string provides. It’s a riff that works so well because of where on the neck it’s played as much as the notes themselves.

An easy thing to miss in this song is the wailing guitar fills that are added in the spaces between the lyrics. The rhythm guitar, most likely played by Tom, is just strumming those big open chords. But in the background you hear what you could at first mistake for a keyboard pad, but is actually Mike C fading in some very tasty little noodles. After the first two lines, we then get the main riff coming in again to remind us its still there. It’s still the heart beating in the subconscious of this song. Right at the start of the second half of this first verse, you also hear a prominent guitar stab in the left channel. So again, there’s quite a lot of guitar on this, even though it doesn’t really sound like it. Little bits and pieces that Jeff Lynne is throwing back into the mix to give the song a restless sonic quality. 

The first disc from 1995s Playbox box set is called “The Big Jangle”. Surprisingly Runnin Down a Dream isn’t on that first disc and I say this because the chorus has a very big jangle. The main riff is 7 notes, all eighth notes starting on that one-and in the bar. In the chorus we get a big jangly acoustic guitar playing the on the same beats. We also have a very jangly listen-to-her-heart tone guitar playing the straight chord progression. It’s a fun little progression this one though because it’s step up, step down, step up, step down. A G E, E G A, A G E, E G A.  We also get a nice little touch here on the bass guitar, matching that descending/ascending cadence. The chorus then finishes with one bar of the main riff taking us back into the next verse, accompanied by that machine gun snare fill. 

In the second verse, the guitar layering comes into play again as those guitar stabs we heard very briefly in the second half of the first verse become more prominent here in the first half of this verse chipping in on the 2nd and 4th beats. But they’re dropped out again, save one louder stab in the second half the verse. We still have those atmospheric sweeping guitar fills adding texture in the background and we proceed into the second chorus with little fanfare. The choruses have a great backing harmony from Jeff Lynne, that’s mixed quite low but just fills out the vocal in this section. 

The bridge section is a really simple C, D, E step up progression, with the layered oo oooo vocals in the background. We get a really cool off beat drum kick snare pattern with some floor toms mixed low to lead into this section, which help build us into the tension that the bridge creates. This section runs for 10 bars and there’s  no solo. Unless you know this song like the back of your hand, in which case you’re already starting to hear Mike’s solo at the end of the song, which is played over the same progression. It echoes back in time and builds your anticipation for the fireworks to come. 

The lead back out of the bridge into the third verse is really cool as there’s no fill, no lick, no real marker at all to signal a change back into the verse progression.

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

Your question from last week was this: How many albums did Tom have ranked in Rolling Stone’s 2020 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Was it a) 1 b) 3, c) zero, or d) 4? The answer is…… 3. On Facebook, Carol Rosenberg Shapiro said “I’m taking a wild stab at the rolling stone question. Guessing 3 albums in the list” and proceeded to pick Damn the Torpedoes, Full Moon Fever, and Wildflowers. All three correct Carol. The highest position was Wildflowers at a criminally underrated 214th. Damn the Torpedoes comes in next at 231 and Full Moon Fever is inexplicably ranked at 298. Oh wait, it’s not inexplicable is it? It’s Rolling Stone. Some of the albums in the Top fifty made me shake my head but lists are basically a bit rubbish generally. If you’re going to rank The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, as good as it is, above Revolver, then I think your list might have to be null and void!

Your question for this week is this - and it’s a deep, deep cut! In the song US 41, from 2010’s Mojo, what was the name of Lucky’s Wife? Was it a) Sandra-Dee, b) Georgie-May, c) Bernadette, or d) Annie Brown

OK, back to the song. The last verse adds one more little bit of production wizardy on the word “Dark” in the line “The sky grew dark”. That last word has a huge delay on it to give that wonderful faint echo of the word and we get one of my favourite lines in the song. “I put the pedal down to make some time.” I don’t know why I love that line so much but to me its so evocative. You can just see the whole scene in your mind’s eye and that little detail really makes that mental image pop. We then have a harmony vocal on the words “waiting down this road” to add a touch of colour to this last lead into the final chorus. We then get the off beat hitchstep drum pattern which led us into the bridge fooling us into thinking we’re heading into that section again, but instead we have a repeat of the chorus. This chorus ends with the main riff played three times before we head back into that bridge progression and one of the very best solos that’s ever been played in my humble opinion. Am I allowed to say my opinion is humble when host a podcast giving constant declarations about songs and artists? As humble an opinion as a podcast host can give. How about that? 

At 3 minutes and 2 seconds, Mike Campbell’s guitar roars into your consciousness like a meteor burning its way through earth’s upper atmosphere on the brink of either burning itself out or crashing into the planet with a gigantic thud. You’re never really sure which way it’s going to go and thankful for it. This is arguably the first time in a Tom Petty song that we hear Mike Campbell fully and truly take all the brakes off and just tear into the instrument like a man possessed. There’s a superb passage in Conversations with Tom Petty where Tom explains the recording of this solo to Paul Zollo. It only makes this performance even more amazing. Tom says “The most incredible thing about that one to me, which to this day amazes me, was the solo at the end. There was no one there but me, Mike, and Jeff. We were in Mike’s TINY little studio in his house. Mike was just sitting there with his head down and that bit came and he started to play.”  Now that alone should send shivers down your spine, but it’s what Tom says next that cements this solo in the very top echelon for me. Tom goes on “He played that incredible solo. But he looked like a stone statue. He didn’t ever blink or move. And he had his back to us. I remember Jeff looking around his shoulder and looking back at me and making this face like “Is he really doing this?” It was one take. One take. And he played that incredible solo.” 

Can you imagine being in that room? Can you imagine seeing that magic happen? That gigantic drop half way through the solo and the bends. And the stone cold fury. If anyone were ever doubted Mike Campbell’s ability as a lead guitarist, they should have been blown to dust after hearing this performance. Some musicians have to really work at solos, composing and structuring them. Some people play entirely by feel. Mike definitely was more of the latter, but even so, to pull something like that out of thin air, in ONE TAKE, is just utterly extraordinary. Jimmy Page apparently played the solo that ended up in Stairway in one take too. He did record two or three others but it was one take. I would humbly submit that this solo is more impressive. It has more different distinct parts and different techniques thrown into it and it so perfectly sends the song spiraling off into infinity that had someone actually tried to write a solo here, it wouldn’t work. It’s one of those moments of genius that us rock n roll fans live and breath for. Pure dynamite. 

The lyrics in this song overall are tight, concise, and as I said earlier, really evocative. It’s relentless, determined, unapologetic, slightly ominous, and just expertly crafted. “Yeah runnin' down a dream that never would come to me. Workin' on a mystery, goin' wherever it leads”. That’s the freedom and wanderlust that started in Dogs on the Run but reaches its frenzied zenith in this track. Two words with the letter zed back to back at no extra cost there folks! And sorry to my American friends, I simply can’t bring myself to say Zee!

Runnin Down is, unsurprisingly, the joint third most played live song in Tom’s catalogue. It’s a staple for every cover band that’s ever taken to the stage and Mike Campbell plays it with the Dirty Knobs almost every gig. The song reached #22 on the Billboard chart and #1 on the rock chart and was accompanied by a fantastic black and white cartoon video that is introduced by Tom’s enigmatic hat wearing character who also introduces the video for I Won’t Back Down. At 4 minutes and 23 seconds, it’s the longest song on Full Moon Fever - mainly because they needed to keep as much of Mike Campbell’s solo in as possible. None of this was edited out for radion and most stations would leave the song on til the fade in the song rather than fade it out early. That’s how compelling and iconic that solo really is. 

OK PettyHeads, that’s it for this week! In his fantastic memoir, Tom Petty and Me, Jon Scott calls Runnin Down a Dream “One of the greatest driving songs I’ve ever heard” and you get his point completely. It’s a juggernaut of a rock n roll song but isn’t overpowering sonically. Again Jeff Lynne leaves enough space for the song to breath but adds in enough flare to keep you interested all the way through. It’s an urgent and riveting song; almost as if it’s an hour and a half action movie packed into for glorious minutes of pop rock perfection. On a blisteringly brilliant album side, as the closer, this is the one that takes the cake for me. If my rating system went to 11, this would be occupying that space. As it is, I’ll give this the easiest ten out of ten I can award.


Petty Trivia

QUESTION: In the song US 41, from 2010’s Mojo, what was the name of Lucky’s Wife? Was it a) Sandra-Dee, b) Georgie-May, c) Bernadette, or d) Annie Brown

ANSWER: The answer, of course, is d) Annie Brown. I can’t wait to get to Mojo and US 41. It’s one of those strange little tracks that seem in congruous in Tom’s catalogue at first glance. But it’s also a really fun, short little number that introduces the name Pulpwood to many people. Pulpwood of course being the nickname of Tom’s grandfather. 


It was a beautiful day, the sun beat down
I had the radio on, I was drivin'
Trees went by, me and Del were singin'
Little runaway
I was flyin'

Yeah, runnin' down a dream
That never would come to me
Workin' on a mystery, goin' wherever it leads
Runnin' down a dream

I felt so good, like anything was possible
Hit cruise control and rubbed my eyes
The last three days the rain was unstoppable
It was always cold, no sunshine

Yeah, runnin' down a dream
That never would come to me
Workin' on a mystery, goin' wherever it leads
Runnin' down a dream

I rolled on, the sky grew dark
I put the pedal down to make some time
There's something good waitin' down this road
I'm pickin' up whatever's mine

I'm runnin' down a dream
That never would come to me
Workin' on a mystery, goin' wherever it leads
Runnin' down a dream

Yeah, I'm runnin' down a dream
That never would come to me
Workin' on a mystery, goin' wherever it leads
I'm runnin' down a dream