Deep Cuts: Tom Petty
My love affair with the music of Tom Petty began in 1989 when I saw his video for “Free Fallin’” on MTV. Like many in my generation, the song really struck a chord with me and I ran out to buy Full Moon Fever, which goes down as one of the best CD purchases I’ve ever made. Much like U2’s The Joshua Tree, which I talked about as part of my U2 Deep Cuts article, Full Moon Fever has absolutely no weak spots – every song is good. Two years later he and the Heartbreakers released Into The Great Wide Open, and after hearing “Learning To Fly,” I knew I was hooked. I started to explore Petty’s back catalog a bit more and found familiar Heartbreaker tunes like “American Girl,” “Breakdown” and “Refugee.” Luckily for me, in 1993 the group released its first Greatest Hits compilation, which still serves as a fantastic introduction to the band.
As time went on, Petty released the terrific Wildflowers and contributed all of the tracks to the She’s The One soundtrack, which was completely overlooked. It was during these years that Petty cemented himself as one of my all-time favorites, a moniker that he and his band will continue to hold as long as I draw breath.
I saw the Heartbreakers in concert several times during this span – they’re an excellent live act, by the way – but my most memorable experiences came during their tour in support of Echo. Being a member of his fan club, I had access to tickets before they went on sale to the general public. I was living in Memphis, Tennessee so I bought tickets to both the Nashville and Memphis shows, which were on back-to-back nights. I went to the Nashville show with my best friend (and future best man) and we found ourselves in the second row, dead center. Needless to say, as a huge fan, this was an exciting and overwhelming experience. For the Memphis show, I took a girl I had just started dating at the time (I can’t even remember her name) and we had seats around the 20th row. In the middle of the show, she heads off to the bathroom and ends up missing more than a half hour of the concert. Of course, by the time she returned I was pretty pissed, but she said she ran into a couple of guys who were on their way out and they handed her their tickets – which were in the first row.
We headed down to the front and found out that the tickets were on the very end of the row, which was still a good way from the middle of the stage. Since everyone in the front row was leaning on the stage, we were able to walk behind them and just as we reached the middle of the stage, two fans left, leaving a gaping hole right up against the stage. We jumped in there and I spent the last third of the concert about five feet from Tom. During the encore, as he was playing the song that started it all, “Free Fallin’,” he came down a step on the stage and played right in front of me. His guitar was literally two feet from my face. I reached out and tapped his boot three times with my fist and when I looked up, he was looking right at me with that big, toothy smile of his. I’m not one that is easily star struck, but this was a heavy moment in my life. After the song, he dropped his guitar pick right in front of me. (I just pulled it out to take a look – “ROCK LIVES” is printed on it.) Later that night, I broke up with the girl that I took to the show, and she still owes me for Barenaked Ladies tickets I bought for her and a friend, but since she’s the one that got me down to the front row, I guess I’ll finally let it slide.
I get a few strange looks when I tell people that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are one of my all-time favorites. But I’ve turned a fair share of my friends on to his music – it really helps to see him live. If you’re just getting into the band, check out my list of essential songs and be sure to check out the group’s artist page. Also, the folks over at Omnibus Press were kind enough to send me a copy of Paul Zollo’s book, Conversations With Tom Petty to review.
Lastly, over the course of several years, I’ve had the luxury of digging deeper into their catalog and have put together a list of 30 deep cuts that I think are vastly underrated songs. For you troglodytes out there without an iPod, the songs should fit on two compact discs, so download, burn and enjoy.
“The Wild One, Forever” – Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
This Springsteen-esque track was actually written with the Rascals in mind during a break in the recording of “Breakdown.” It has a great melody over the initial guitar riff that carries the song until the chorus, which really shows how much potential Petty had in 1976.
“Insider” - Hard Promises
Producer Jimmy Iovine wanted Petty to write a song for Stevie Nicks’ Bella Donna, which Iovine was also producing. But after Petty finished “Insider,” he said “it really hurt me when I did the track” and he couldn’t give the song up. Nicks understood and even sang harmony on the beautiful ballad. Nicks ended up using the Petty’s “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” instead.
“A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me)” – Hard Promises
The Heartbreakers’ usual bassist, Ron Blair, was drifting away from the band during recording sessions for Hard Promises, so Petty brought in one of his heroes, Duck Dunn (Booker T & the MG’s), who plays an exquisite bass line while Petty moves through the vocals. The song then explodes from the soft verse into the chorus. Petty feels that the single would have received much more airplay if not for the Heartbreakers’ appearance on his duet with Stevie Nicks, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” which was released as a single at the same time.
“Change of Heart” – Long After Dark
When asked about this track, Petty has said, “I was trying to write an ELO kind of song. I think the inspiration was ‘Do Ya.’” This influence is obvious as the track starts off with a crunchy guitar. While Petty only refers to “Change of Heart” as a “good rock song,” the track shows Petty’s considerable versatility within the rock genre.
“Straight into Darkness” – Long after Dark
This track didn’t really work in the studio until Petty decided to turn it over to the piano. Once the Heartbreakers heard the pretty piano intro, they knew how to play the track. Even though it wasn’t released as a single, Bruce Springsteen once pulled Petty aside and told him what a great song it was.
“Surrender” – Anthology
This track was recorded for just about every Heartbreakers album, but wasn’t released until the band agreed to put out the 2-disc Anthology. They used to open shows with this song back in 1977, but the version here was recorded in 2000 (complete with high harmonies they used to use), so it has a timeless quality to it.
“Breakdown” – Pack Up The Plantation (Live)
Though he’s not particularly happy with the group’s only live album to date, everyone sounds great on the seven-minute version of “Breakdown.” After Petty opens with the first line, “It’s all right if you love me,” the crowd takes over and sings all the way through the chorus. While most artists would pick up where the crowd left off, Petty just quips, “You’re gonna put me out of a job,” and starts the first verse over. Later on, Petty goes on a humorous rant directed at the other person in the fictional breakup.
“Ain’t Love Strange” – Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough)
Petty wrote this track on an electric piano while he was going through a rocky romance period with his first wife. The new wave keys are a bit of a departure for Petty, but the song has one of his patented, catchy choruses.
“Last Night”- Traveling Wilburys, Volume I
The members the Traveling Wiburys (Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Petty) only got together to record a B-side for Harrison, and wound up making an entire album. “Last Night” has a melodic bass line and features Petty working through the whimsical, humorous lyrics about a brief love affair in a barroom. Roy Orbison comes in to sing the bridge, and the contrast between their vocals works well. After spending years inexplicably out of print, the Wilburys albums are set for reissue in 2006.
“Depending on You” – Full Moon Fever
One of the many gems on the back half of Petty’s masterpiece, Full Moon Fever, “Depending On You” is like Songwriting 101 - subtle, catchy verses led by a great bridge into an up-tempo chorus. When asked about the album Petty said, “That whole album sounds so good. It intimidates me a little bit. How will I ever do that again?”
“A Mind with a Heart of its Own” – Full Moon Fever
Inspired by the title of the Connie Francis song, “My Heart Has a Mind of its Own,” this up-tempo track fits in perfectly with the back half of Full Moon Fever. The best line in the song was ad-libbed during production: “I’ve been all around the world/I’ve been over to your house/You’ve been over sometimes to my house/I’ve slept in your tree house/My middle name is Earl.” His middle name really is Earl.
“The Dark of the Sun” – Into the Great Wide Open
This track features an acoustic guitar sound that makes the song seem like a continuation of Full Moon Fever.
“All the Wrong Reasons” – Into the Great Wide Open
This was inspired by a family that Petty knew that went from riches to rags overnight. It was written during the first Gulf War and Petty didn’t feel good about the direction that the country was heading. It has a great melody, even though the lyrics are somewhat conflicted.
“Wildflowers” – Wildflowers
The title track to Petty’s eleventh release, “Wildflowers” is a sweet, acoustic number and is arguably his best ballad. When writing the song, he sat down with his guitar and his tape recorder and ad-libbed all of the lyrics as he played. He didn’t change a word.
“Girl on LSD” – B-side, “You Don’t Know How It Feels” single (Ultra Deep Cut, OOP. Check Half.com or eBay.)
“Girl on LSD” was too drug-oriented to be released on a proper Petty album. It features humorous lyrics written from the point of view of a man who falls in love with a series of women, each with their own vice. He occasionally plays it in concert and it continues to get a great response.
“Honey Bee” – Wildflowers
Starting with Petty muttering, “All right here we go. This is a little number we call give me some sugar little honey, natural bee,” this track kicks into gear with one of Mike Campbell’s best guitar riffs, where the bluesy chords keeping ascending. It was meant to be a break from the emotionally heavier material on Wildflowers, and quickly became a fan favorite, though it was never released as a single.
“Got My Mind Made Up” – Playback
“Got My Mind Made Up” was actually a castoff from the Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) sessions, and was later recorded by Bob Dylan (with the Heartbreakers backing him) on Knocked Out Loaded. It has a great, thumping beat behind Petty’s considerable vocals.
“You Come Through” – Playback
Another Let Me Up castoff, this track was resurrected when producer George Drakoulias heard it as he was sifting through the studio tapes for material. Since the version on the tape just had a drum machine, he asked Lenny Kravitz to come in and play drums on it. Kravitz heard the song for 30 seconds then sat down to play the beat. He also added bass and backed up Petty’s Sly Stone-ish vocals, turning the track into the best of the unreleased material on Playback, and one of my favorite Petty songs of all time.
“Ways to Be Wicked” – Playback
Petty and Mike Campbell couldn’t get the track to work in the studio during the Damn the Torpedoessessions, so Iovine took it to another band he was producing, Lone Justice. The version on Playback was recorded in one take during the Let Me Up sessions, but it didn’t make the album.
“Can’t Get Her Out” – Playback
Yet another Let Me Up castoff, this track begins with a great guitar riff before hitting the primal chorus. Benmont Tench backs up Petty with some great organ and bassist Howie Epstein’s background vocals are near-perfect.
“You Get Me High” – Playback
The band was performing in Europe when one night Petty decided to improvise this song onstage. He started it up and led the band through it. With its obvious drug references, the song went over well, so they decided to record it later. When asked about the bold move of playing an unrehearsed song for the first time on stage, Petty replied, “I can’t imagine doing something like that now.”
“Waiting for Tonight” – Playback
This song charted in 1996 with the release of Playback, but was never released as a single, so it still is not on the radar of many casual fans. Petty’s vocals are great, as he sort of sings and speaks his way through the song. He brought in the Bangles (yes, the Bangles) to sing backup and their high harmonies provide an interesting counterpoint to Petty’s vocals.
“Angel Dream (#2)” – She’s the One
Petty wrote this beautiful ballad as he was falling in love with his future wife. Two versions of this song (the other being “#4”) ended up on the She’s the One soundtrack. The other version has a strange rhythm to it, which takes away from its intimacy, so I prefer this version.
“California” – She’s the One
Written and recorded during the Wildflowers sessions, this track somehow missed the cut and ended up on She’s the One. It’s basically a love song written for the Golden State, and anyone who has made the move (or has dreamed about it) can relate to the song’s upbeat optimism. The lyrics in the chorus - “California’s been good to me / I hope it don’t fall into the sea / sometimes you’ve got to save yourself / it ain’t like anywhere else” – couldn’t be more appropriate. This is one of my very favorite Tom Petty songs.
“Change the Locks” – She’s the One
As he was cobbling together the soundtrack for She’s the One, Petty decided to include a Heartbreakers’ cover of this Lucinda Williams song. This is the best cover I’ve heard the group do, and I think it is superior to Williams’ version.
“Billy the Kid” – Echo
There is a weird noise before this track begins – it’s the sound of Mike Campbell hitting record and starting his guitar. The band played the song over and over all night, but it was never as good as that very first pass, so they left that weird noise in. Petty loves this song, and it’s easy to see why. The song builds through the verses and then shifts into an inspirational chorus.
“No More” – Echo
This is another example of Petty’s ability to write a beautiful ballad. It has a melancholy feel to it, accentuated by descending guitar along with subtle strings and piano. Petty’s somber vocals complete the track.
“Blue Sunday” – The Last DJ
Largely ignored due to the content of the first few songs on the album, this ballad has a little story to it, set against some great acoustic guitar and Petty’s compelling vocals.
“Have Love Will Travel” – The Last DJ
Buried towards the end of the album, this gem features some classic Petty lines – “so pretty and so insecure,” “trying to rope a tornado,” “they love it like you love Jesus” – along with a great bridge that leads into a touching, intimate chorus.
“Can’t Stop the Sun” – The Last DJ
The album's closer, this song was mostly written by Mike Campbell. He even had a title and the lyrics, which surprised Petty, who ended up changing the title and rewriting 90% of the lyrics. It’s an inspirational song and a fine way to end the album.
Other songs that just missed the list:
“Southern Accents” (Southern Accents)
“It’ll All Work Out” (Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough))
“The Apartment Song” (Full Moon Fever)
“Zombie Zoo” (Full Moon Fever)
“Two Gunslingers” (Into The Great Wide Open)
“Time To Move On” (Wildflowers)
“Don’t Fade On Me” (Wildflowers)
“Down The Line” (Playback)
“Climb That Hill” (She’s The One)
“Dreamville” (The Last DJ)
If you think I’ve left anything out, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m happy to hear your suggestions and maybe discover a great new song or two along the way.