Tom Petty’s Fifteen Greatest Songs
With the untimely passing of Tom Petty, I spent several hours revisiting the highlights of his extensive catalogue. Petty was blessed with, or smart enough to put together, an excellent band defined by crisp ensemble playing, easily recognizable Byrds’ inspired guitar sounds, and a seemingly endless supply of ear catching hooks. Lyrically, Petty painted in broad strokes, letting the listener insert his or her own details. With apologies to “Learning to Fly,” “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” and “Walls” among others, here are his fifteen best from my perspective with the representative album listed by each song.
15. “Rebels” (Southern Accents). Few songwriters will ever come up with an opening line as good as, “Honey don’t walk out, I’m too drunk to follow.” However, I would still argue that Tom Petty performs this song like a period piece, while Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers performs it like a biography.
14. “Scare Easy” (Mudcrutch). Petty reformed Mudcrutch in 2008, his original pre-Hearbreakers band that included Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench. “Scare Easy” has the attitude of “I Won’t Back Down” without the repetition. Nice opening salvo, “My love’s an ocean, you better not cross it.”
13. “Breakdown” (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers). Petty simply re-wrote “Cheating” by The Animals for his first major label single, but he got the more recognizable tune out of the deal. Power pop legend Dwight Twilley recommended repeating Mike Campbell’s distinctive guitar lick throughout the record.
12. “Here Comes My Girl” (Damn the Torpedoes). Mike Campbell, “’Here Comes My Girl’ was interesting because we had the chorus and Tom wasn’t sure how to do the verse, he kept trying to sing it different ways and he finally came across sort of half-talking it, and that’s when the song seemed to come to life.” Nice use of tension and release dynamics as the guitars behind Petty turn to bliss when he’s with his dream girl.
11. “Into the Great Wide Open” (Into the Great Wide Open). A story about a rock ‘n’ roll dream turned failure with a lyrical phrase, “a rebel without a clue,” nicked from The Replacements’ “I’ll Be You.” A musically more enriched version of Bad Company’s “Shooting Star.”
10. “Don’t Do Me Like That” (Damn the Torpedoes). Petty on the title phrase, “It was something my dad used to say. thought it was humorous.” The band’s first major hit, reaching #10 on the pop charts.
9. “I Need to Know” (You’re Gonna Get It!). “I was trying to make a song like Wilson Pickett’s ‘Land of a Thousand Dances.’ That’s one of my favorite records.” An explosive two chord power pop rocker, pushed over the top by Petty’s palpable sense of being wounded and deceived by his love interest.
8. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” (Southern Accents). Avant-garde electronic swamp funk with sitar, cello, interjections (“Hey! Stop!”) and one of the best acid vibes since the psychedelic era. Co-writer David Stewart supposedly plucked the title from a comment Stevie Nicks made to one of her ex-lovers, a list which seems to include everyone but me.
7. “Free Fallin’” (Full Moon Fever). Petty on the Ventura Boulevard scene that inspired his biggest solo hit, “I don’t know the girl in ‘Free Fallin.’ I tried to grab a little bit of these characters on the road and it was kind of how I saw it. It’s pretty true of that time and that era, I remember. The skateboarders and the shoppers and the young kids in the trendiest possible clothes and the auto-tellers and the drive-thru banks. It’s a scene, it’s a never-ending scene.” The tune started as a joke to amuse Jeff Lynne, but ‘elo money, money, money.
6. “The Waiting” (Hard Promises). “That was a song that took a long time to write. Roger McGuinn swears he told me the line – about the waiting being the hardest part – but I think I got the idea from something Janis Joplin said on television. I had the chorus very quickly, but I had a very difficult time piecing together the rest of the song. It’s about waiting for your dreams and not knowing if they will come true. I’ve always felt it was an optimistic song.” I sing this often. I am the world’s most impatient man.
5. “You Got Lucky” (Long After Dark). Songwriter Johanna Warren, “The genius of the recording is that it’s got this slippery, layered psychological depth to it that is so human. There’s this overconfident machismo thing happening on the surface, in the performance and production, but when you get down to the emotional core of the song, what’s being expressed is really a lot of pain and insecurity, fear of abandonment, and a need to feel honored and special — all such deeply relatable, tender feelings that most us have a hard time expressing vulnerably without protective egoic shields.” I got lucky when I found this quote.
4. “American Girl” (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers). “I wrote that in a little apartment I had in Encino. It was right next to the freeway and the cars sometimes sounded like waves from the ocean, which is why there’s the line about the waves crashing on the beach. It was the start of writing about people who are longing for something else in life, something better than they have.” The Byrds meeting New Wave meeting Classic Rock meeting the quest for the distaff American dream.
3. “Even the Losers” (Damn the Torpedoes). The Heartbreakers’ greatest non-hit, a look at young love lost from a guy who, for too brief of a time, was with a girl he didn’t deserve. After the flame out, he’s stuck living with his memories, trying to hold onto his shattered pride. This one cuts hard.
2. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (Greatest Hits). Tom takes a riff from the Jayhawks’ “Waiting for the Sun” and a riff from Cheap Trick’s “The Ballad of T.V. Violence” for one of his last major pop hits. Petty once described “Mary Jane” as the same character from “American Girl” “with a few hard knocks.” Oh, my my. Oh, hell, yes.
1. “Refugee” (Damn the Torpedoes). Petty was involved with legal proceedings between record labels that would eventually result in him declaring for bankruptcy in 1979. When his record contract was sold from ABC to MCA, Petty commented that he “would not be bought and sold like a piece of meat.” He received a new and improved deal from MCA, but the anger didn’t subside quickly. Petty, “I was so angry with the whole system that I think that had a lot to do with the tone of the ‘Damn the Torpedoes’ album. I was in this defiant mood.” Everybody’s had to fight to be free. The best three minutes and twenty two seconds of his life and sometimes of mine.