The Meaning Behind “Runaway Trains” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Why it Caused a Rift with Stevie Nicks

“Runaway Trains” didn’t distinguish itself much as a single when released by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1987 off the album Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough). Yet many fans count it as one of their favorites for how it combines Tom Petty’s acumen as a lyricist with Mike Campbell’s ability to compose dynamic soundscapes.

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What was the song about? Why did Petty feel the album that included it was a bit disjointed? And how did it briefly cause a rift between Stevie Nicks and Petty? Let’s find out all we can about this extremely underrated track.

Running with “Runaway”

Petty wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice. About 1984, he was presented with a synth-heavy demo Heartbreakers’ guitarist Mike Campbell had composed, but he turned it down. Don Henley gladly accepted it, wrote a piercing set of lyrics, and “The Boys of Summer,” Henley’s biggest solo hit, was born.

Hence, Petty decided to give it a go when Campbell presented him with a somewhat similar demo—all moody chords and insinuating synths. That’s how “Runaway Trains,” which would be the second single off Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), came to life.

The album was produced by Petty and Campbell, and the duo intended it to be a return to basics by the band without the outside influences that had affected Southern Accents in 1985. But the album suffered from a bit of an identity crisis, as Petty admitted to author Paul Zollo in the book Conversations with Tom Petty:

“If you hear that record, it’s two records in one. There’s my stuff, and there’s Mike’s Stuff. And all of Mike’s stuff sounds completely different from mine does. (Laughs) His stuff is this really produced stuff, like ‘Runaway Trains.’ Then you’ll hear my side of things, and it’s much cruder.”

One interesting side note to “Runaway Trains” was how it briefly caused a rift in the relationship between Stevie Nicks and Petty. Nicks was an immediate admirer of Petty when she first heard him, so much so that she once asked him if she could join the Heartbreakers. While she was refused, she did collaborate several times with Petty, most notably on the hit duet “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.”

Years later, Nicks grabbed a cassette from Petty’s house she thought was intended for her, one which included the instrumental demo that would become “Runaway Trains.” She wrote lyrics to it and started recording it with Fleetwood Mac. It sounded so good that she played Petty the early results over the phone. That’s when Petty realized that she had taken a tape that was meant for him only and became angry. Thankfully, the two smoothed things over. Nicks eventually took the lyrics she wrote, set them to different music, and ended up with the song “Ooh My Love.”

What is “Runaway Trains” About?

“Runaway Trains” uses some evocative similes in the refrains to try and sum up the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness engendered by a breakup. The narrator compares it to unexplainable phenomena: Like when an angel cries / Like runaway trains or Like when something dies.

The verses, by contrast, set up the separation between the two in stark, haunting terms. She’s up there all alone / I’m down here changing lanes, Petty begins. In the second verse, the girl explains that she’ll survive, and you wonder if he wishes he could reach the settled place she has: I’m used to being alone / And holding my own hand / I’m stronger than you know.

In the pre-chorus, Petty sings, And I’m depending on time / To get you out of my mind. Yet the lonely horizons conjured by Campbell’s music suggests that even time might not heal this would.

“Runaway Trains” deserves a second listen if you’ve written it off as ’80s ephemera, if only because of the simpatico chemistry between the two driving artistic forces of one of the finest bands of all time.

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Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images

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