“Runnin’ Down a Dream” by Tom Petty
We have already noted how “Free Fallin’“, a track which Tom Petty released concurrently with this one, is based on sort of open-road motif. And such a thematic inference is even more pronounced in “Runnin’ Down a Dream”.
The entire narrative, on the surface, is based on the vocalist more or less enjoying a ride down a seemingly-unending highway. But the reason this particular track may feel so (as if the trip has no specific destination) is because said journey in and of itself is also symbolic.
In fact all things considered, we can argue that it is even more symbolic than it is literal. And what it represents, as the title states, is the narrator “running down a dream”.
Thus the car ride rather represents his life’s journey. And the destination is to realize this “dream”, which in Tom Petty’s case was becoming a superstar.
This is something he actually accomplished at a certain stage in his life. And that’s also the impression we get from the song, that the ride isn’t never-ending per se, but rather the destination is not a physical one. The journey is very excitable to the narrator. And he doesn’t know exactly how pursuing his vision will turn out. Moreover there are disheartening obstacles along the way. But as implied, he is still anxious to realize his goal, which is why he is “running”.
And let it be known that there are virtually no proper nouns mentioned in the lyrics(i.e. as compared to Free Fallin’). So the song has a general applicability, representing anyone with a likewise past, present or ideology. That is to say that generally speaking, the lyrics could apply to any person who is vigorously chasing their vision.
But more specifically, like the narrator himself, the said individual would also be traversing a great distance in the process. Also the dream is such that the chaser cannot definitely predict what will transpire. So it isn’t like, say, setting off to pursue a certain job. Rather it would be more along the lines of a person seeking to fulfill a certain stage in his or her destiny in a most-expeditious manner, until they actually achieve such.
Tom Petty (1950-2017) has experienced a number of notable hits throughout his career as both a soloist and in partnership with the Heartbreakers. So there is no consensus as to which single in his discography would be his signature song. Some would argue “Free Fallin’”, another tune which, like this one, comes from his 1989 album “Full Moon Fever”, would be it.
Yet others would say the less-celebrated “Runnin’ Down a Dream”, as made evident by the fact that a 2007 Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ documentary was named after this song. And for the record, Petty did remain a member of the Heartbreakers even after also going solo in the late-1980s.
And right upon becoming a solo artist, the first album he dropped was “Full Moon Fever”. This occurred, with the backing of MCA Records, on 24 August 1989. And that also marks the official release date of “Runnin’ Down a Dream”.
Facts about “Runnin’ Down a Dream”
In terms of its overall success, this track did top Billboard’s Album Rock Tracks chart, which is of course an impressive achievement. It also appeared on the UK Singles Chart and Billboard Hot 100. However, it did not break the top 20 of either and humbly charted in 5 countries in total, with no certifications.
Yet as implied earlier, its popularity overall has overshadowed its somewhat-meek chart showing. It has enjoyed an illustrious pop media presence. For example, utilized by videogames, movies, ESPN (during the 2008 World Series), the NBA during the 2006, 2008 and 2010 Finals), etc.
But one of the most-notable renderings amongst the lot would be during the 2008 Super Bowl Halftime Time, in which Petty and the Heartbreakers used the tune as part of their four-song setlist.
As inspiration for this track’s music video, which Jim Lenahan directed, Petty and co. relied on the Little Nemo cartoon / comic strip. And a clip also features a reference to King Kong (1933).
Tom Petty wrote this song alongside two of his regular collaborators, Jeff Lynne and Mike Campbell. In fact the latter was a member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreaks throughout the band’s entire run from 1976-2017.
In terms of proper nouns which are mentioned in the lyrics, there’s only two – “Del” and “Runaway”. The former is a shoutout to another musician, Del Shannon (1934-1990). And “Runaway” (1961) was his signature song, itself being considered an American classic.