Tom Petty: his ten best songs

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On November 9, 1976, the late Tom Petty released his debut album with The Heartbreakers. WECB returns to ten of his most beautiful pieces. A list, of course, not exhaustive!

10 – “I Won’t Back Down”

This song scared me when I wrote it,” said Tom Petty. “ There is no metaphor. She is extremely direct. » “I Won’t Back Down” was written in the studio while mixing “Free Fallin’”. George Harrison, who plays the harmonic line, had specified to Tom Petty that the phrase “standing on the edge of the world” was stupid – Petty promptly replaced it with “there ain’t no easy way out”. “ I hesitated a lot with this song. But everyone around me liked it and it seems they were right. »

09 – “Room at the Top”

Tom Petty was dealing with the throes of depression caused by his divorce from his first wife, Jane, when he sat down at the piano and poured out his grief in this song. “I wish I could feel you, little one” he sings. “You’re so far away. I want to reach out and touch your heart. » The sincere emotion that emerges from this title propels Echo, selection of titles inspired by the couple’s breakup. “ ‘Room at the Top’ is the most depressing song I could have written, » says Petty, who has never played it again since the end of the tour.Echo. “ I never even wanted to hear it. The last time I listened to Echo, I told myself that I put a lot more into this album than I remembered. »

08 – “Breakdown”

We were passionate children,” said Tom Petty, invited to talk about the atmosphere in the group during the recording of “Breakdown”. Tom Petty came up with this idea for a seductive and strangely simple R&B-influenced song while taking a late break in Hollywood’s Shelter Studios while recording his debut album. “ It must have been one or two in the morning, and I called the Heartbreakers to come back, » he remembers. “ They had all returned home. They came back at two or three o’clock, and we recorded the song. » The track was initially over seven minutes long, but was ultimately shortened by half upon its release as the album’s lead single. Driven by a drum line inspired by “All I’ve Got to Do” by Beatles and featuring one of Mike Campbell’s most iconic guitar parts, the song made the Top 40. As Tom Petty would later proudly say, ” It really is a perfect record. »

07 – “The Waiting”

“The Waiting” is perhaps the best example of The Heartbreakers’ ability to seamlessly fit the pieces of their musical references together. The dynamic question-and-answer style recalls “It’s My Life” by the Animals, and the chorus evokes the Byrds so much that their leader has long been convinced to have inspired it. “(Roger) McGuinn swears he told me » says Petty in reference to the phrase “the waiting is the hardest part”, adding “ Maybe that’s true. » Tom Petty remembers being inspired by the famous quote from Janis Joplin “ I like being on stage, and everything is on hold » (I love being on stage and everything else is waiting). The single of Hard Promises will mark the culmination of what journalist David Fricke will call ” the vibrant era » by the Heartbreakers, arriving at the top of the Billboard ranking for six weeks. “ It’s about waiting for your dreams and never knowing if they’ll ever come true. I always had the feeling that it was a pretty optimistic song. »

06 – “Runnin’ Down a Dream”

Full Moon Fever is one of Tom Petty’s solo albums, but every Heartbreaker (aside from drummer Stan Lynch) has played on it. “Runnin’ Down a Dream”, the album’s most catchy track, was built around a riff from Mike Campbell, initially written at a different rhythm. Petty arranged it before giving it to producer Jeff Lynne. Campbell also performs the song’s guitar solos. Tom Petty wrote the song’s assertive lyrics where he talks about the freedom to go against the grain, a way of evoking his deepest feelings about what rock ‘n’ roll means to him.

05 – “Listen to Her Heart”

Tom Petty was inspired by a story told by his wife to write “Listen to Her Heart”. Shortly after the couple moved to Los Angeles, Jane found herself in the middle of a party thrown by the R&B legend Ike Turner. With the festivities in full swing, Turner locked the doors of his home so no one could leave. Tom Petty transformed this somewhat strange incident into a piece addressed to a man who does not respect a woman’s feelings. The song is the second single from You’re Gonna Get It!. The song only reached number 59 on the charts, probably due to Petty’s explicit mention of cocaine. Mention that the label had nevertheless asked him to change the word to ‘Champagne’. “ What woman would want to leave her guy for money and champagne? » he asked at the time. “ Finally, champagne only costs $4 a bottle. »

04 – “Free Fallin’”

Except “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”, a duet with Stevie Nicks, “Free Fallin'” remains one of the biggest hits of Tom Petty’s career. However, when he showed Full Moon Fever to MCA Records for the first time, the label not only failed to detect a single, but was even reluctant to release the album. “ I was stunned, » says Petty. “ This is the only time in my life that one of my albums has been rejected. » As with the majority of titles from Full Moon Fever, “Free Fallin’” saw the light of day quickly. Tom Petty wrote the danceable riff on a small electric keyboard and the idea for the lyrics came to him while improvising in the studio with his producer Jeff Lynne. Luckily, the label’s management changed, the most reluctant were fired, and “Free Fallin'” became a Top 10 hit, remaining on the Billboard charts for seven months. “ Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t hum “Free Fallin'” to me, or I hear it somewhere. But in reality, this song really only took me 30 minutes to complete. »

03 – “Don’t Come Around Here No More”

I wanted to make a single that wasn’t like anything that had ever been done before.,” Petty explained of “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” Psychedelic and synth, classic but also modern, the song is a radical reinvention concocted by British producer Dave Stewart of Eurythmics. The Heartbreakers were skeptical about the intrusion of a third party into their song, especially when this outsider suggested adding a sitar. “ I think a lot of people in the group – and I don’t blame them – were wondering what the hell this was. » remembers Stewart. “ The record was called Southern Accents and gave the impression of being in India. » Tom Petty’s lyrics are based on a phrase said by Stevie Nicks to Joe Walsh at a Eurythmics afterparty, and Stewart proposed the theme Alice in Wonderland of the video. “ Dave and I worked on this single for months, » recalls Petty. “ She could have hatched 10 different ways. »

02 – “Refugee”

We are told that we are the future of rock & roll » declared Tom Petty upon the release of the Heartbreakers’ third album. “ I don’t want to be the future – I want to be the present. » The lead single of Damn the Torpedoes affirms this intention. Produced by Jimmy Iovine, “Refugee” is one of the band’s most combative tracks, a statement that they weren’t following any New Wave or punk-rock trends, but were indeed a new generation of traditionalists old-school rock lover. As is often the case in the process of creating the group, Mike Campbell composed the music, recorded it on a cassette and passed it to his partners. “ The words came quickly, » said Petty. The recording, not so much. Campbell remembers 100 takes; Petty says 200. “ I remember being so frustrated that I just left the studio and left town for two days. » When he returned, the group successfully recorded and shot a no-nonsense music video. And suddenly, American rock was reborn.

01 – “American Girl”

This title is just another example of this character that I often write about. The kid from this small town who knows there’s something else out there, but gets tricked into trying to find it. I always felt sympathy for him. » On this song, Tom Petty translated his empathy into a classic of American music. The song combines decades of rock & roll into one intense anthem: the beat à-la-Bo Diddley by Stan Lynch echoes the fifties; the clean guitar sound evokes the Byrds (so much so that Roger McGuinn later covered the song); Mike Campbell’s transitions recall the guitar heroes of the 70s; and the New Wave energy would push the music into the 80s and beyond. Ironically, when the song was released as the second single from the band’s self-titled album, it did not enter the American charts, but managed to reach a pretty good position in Britain. The allusion to Route 441 in the lyrics inspired rumors that “American Girl” was about a University of Florida student who committed suicide by throwing herself out of her dorm room. In reality, the song was written in Petty’s California apartment while he listened to the noise of the city. “ The words came naturally to me. »

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Written by

Christopher Johnson

Christopher Johnson is a dedicated writer and key contributor to the WECB website, Emerson College's student-run radio station. Passionate about music, radio communication, and journalism, Christopher pursues his craft with a blend of meticulous research and creative flair. His writings on the site cover an array of subjects, from music reviews and artist interviews to event updates and industry news. As an active member of the Emerson College community, Christopher is not only a writer but also an advocate for student involvement, using his work to foster increased engagement and enthusiasm within the school's radio and broadcasting culture. Through his consistent and high-quality outputs, Christopher Johnson helps shape the voice and identity of WECB, truly embodying its motto of being an inclusive, diverse, and enthusiastic music community.