Tom Petty was born in Gainesville, Florida in 1950. When he was ten years old his uncle, who was working on the movie, invited him onto the set of the Elvis Presley flick ‘Follow That Dream’ to watch the shoot. Petty was awestruck and became an instant fan, trading his slingshot for a stack of Elvis 45s. Less than 4 years later Petty knew he wanted to be in a band when he saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan show, per Wikipedia: “The minute I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show—and it’s true of thousands of guys—there was the way out.”
For Petty, that band was The Epics which would evolve into Mudcrutch – a band which included Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench. When Mudcrutch split Petty looked at a solo career but still felt the need for a band so, essentially he and Mike Campbell, co-opted Benmont Tench’s new band and formed The Heartbreakers. Their first album would drop in 1976, Damn The Torpedoes would catapult them to multi-platinum status three years later and they continued to shift a shit load of records and rake up the hits as the years went on until the mid 90s where they slipped from the mainstream though would continue to shift massively respectable numbers, prove a great live act and retain a dedicated following and critical appeal.
It felt like the shine had worn off Petty’s songwriting around the time of The Last DJ (even if it did get him a spot on ‘The Simpsons’) and solo album Highway Companion. There’s some good stuff there, of course, but the consistency and freshness had waned. Perhaps Petty felt it too as he reformed Mudcrutch and the band released it’s first album in 2008 (a second followed in 2016)- the same year that Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers performed at the Superbowl’s half time show. Tellingly, none of the songs they played were from after 1989.
Then, with the release of 2010’s Mojo and 2014’s Hypnotic Eye a few years later, it felt like The Heartbreakers had found a second (or fourth? I’ve lost count) wind – changing up their sound and approach to embrace a much more bluesy sound that unlocked a new gear and they sounded fresh and invigorated on record again for the first time in decades. Then, in the early hours of October 2nd 2017, Tom Petty was found unconscious at his home in Santa Monica, California. He’d suffered a cardiac arrest and wasn’t breathing. There were, as always in this shitty media world in which we’re forced to live, rumours about his state almost immediately. But he was resuscitated and taken to hospital where, at 8:40pm, Tom Petty died. He was 66. During his recording career he released 13 studio albums with The Heatbreakers, 3 ‘solo’ albums and 2 albums with Mudcrutch, and 2 albums with The Travelling Wilburys, selling more than 80 million records worldwide.
I’d been into Tom Petty’s music for some time – his cds were on heavy rotation and the great compilation Anthology: Through The Years was often in my car. The news of his death really surprised me and took me some time before I could listen to his music again. My ongoing Albums of My Years series has set me back into his collection.
So, with that in mind, I thought I’d put together a list of my favourite Tom Petty songs. I’m counting both ‘solo’ and Hearbreakers albums together but nothing Mudcrutch as I’ve spent no time with those albums (and precious little with Mojo and Hyptnotic Eye).
This list isn’t necessarily order-specific or concrete as I may discover more as I listen to those Mudcrutch albums or spend more time with Hypnotic Eye. But, right now….
Even The Losers – Damn The Torpedos was the album that changed it all for Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers but this standout for me was only released as a single in Australia despite how fucking good it is. Love the line “Well it was nearly summer, we sat on your roof.”
Wildflowers – Petty’s first album for Warner Bros. and first with Rick Rubin is an absolute gem. Essentially a Heartbreakers album – only Stan Lynch was missing but he’d be out of the group shortly and future Heartbreaker Steve Ferrone sat on the drum stool – and one of their finest.
The Waiting – come on, you know this song is gold.
Angel Dream (No. 4) – After Wildflowers, Petty and The Heartbreakers teamed up with Rick Rubin again for the soundtrack album Songs and Music from the Motion Picture “She’s the One”. I don’t know how this ended up as a soundtrack album (for a pretty ‘meh’ film’ but it’s a great Heartbreakers album – with some tracks from Wildlflowers sessions being developed, a looseness and charm that makes for some great tunes. If it wasn’t for the ‘soundtrack’ association and the repeat / variation of a few tunes as a result – this could’ve really changed the bands fortunes for the 90s.
Room at the Top – By the time Rick Rubin and The Heartbreakers got to work together on a Heartbreakers album ‘proper’, Petty was in the midst of a divorce and Echo feels more like a solo album given its subject matter. But it’s a bloody good disc that’s oft overlooked – including by me. This is just a beauty and, of all of his songs, it’s this one that I find hard to listen to in light of his passing.
Straight Into Darkness – Balls to the wall classic for me. “I remember Bruce Springsteen saying something about the song at a time when I felt like that album was kind of lost on people,” Petty said. “That meant a lot.”
It’ll All Work Out – The band’s last album before Petty went solo and they shifted gears again is a weird one and Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) is probably better known for ‘Jammin Me’ but I love this chilled out, delicate song – a type for which Petty had a real knack for.
Southern Accents – I love this song, no two ways about it. Southern Accents feels like an album of two halves, with original ‘concept’ songs mixed with class A hits but this, one of the ‘concepts’ is gorgeous. I love the lyric and delivery of ” For just a minute there I was dreaming,for just a minute it was all so real, for just a minute she was standing there, with me.”
Something Big – I’m a sucker for a ‘story’ song even if it is as deceptively dark as this one. Scratch that: ESPECIALLY if it’s as deceptively dark as this one.
Hope You Never – Another great from the She’s The One soundtrack, really dig the way this one builds and the beat.
Rebels – Another of Southern Accents‘ ‘concept’ songs and while the keyboards are very of the time it’s so well written it doesn’t hurt it none. The keyboards may be due to the fact that Petty was so high that he got so angry over arrangements he punched a wall and broke his left hand (causing pretty severe nerve damage). I guess it served as a wake up call as he called up Jimmy Iovine and asked him to come help finish the song and several others from this then-troubled ‘concept’ album.
You Wreck Me – a harder hitter from Wildflowers that just kicks. Even if Petty did feel it was a throwback: “I thought, ‘Man, this sounds just like the Heartbreakers about 1980’ – that style [that tells you] exactly who that is. So I got into it, to do a nostalgic song – ‘All right, we’ll go as far back as high school.”
Runnin’ Down A Dream – Petty’s first ‘solo’ album was a relaxed recording that featured all but one Heartbreaker (Stan Lynch again) and Petty’s friends George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne – who also co-produced and wrote seven of Full Moon Fever‘s songs with Petty. For such a low-key album, Full Moon Fever went bonkers: hits like ‘Free Fallin’ and ‘I Won’t Back Down’ and their MTV staple vids helped it sell millions of copies and become Petty’s commercial peak. Of the 5 singles released from it, this is still my favourite.
Alright For Now – while this little Petty ditty is, oddly, my favourite on the whole album. I guess it’s the ‘for now’…. sometimes, most, that’s enough.
The Wild One, Forever – even on their first album The Heartbreakers showed they have a real knack for this not-quite-a-ballad slow blazer, yearning sorta thing.
American Girl – there’s no way of getting around it, the band’s first ‘hit’ is a classic.
Something Good Coming – The sole selection on here from Mojo, there’s something captivating about the vibe of this one for me.
Saving Grace – for his last solo album, Tom Petty worked again with Jeff Lynne and Mike Campbell, though no other Heartbreakers appear on Highway Companion. It’s not a bad album but lacks the consistency of his previous two. This is one of the highlights.
Waiting For Tonight – Oddly, this was recorded with the Heartbreakers during the a break from the Full Moon Fever sessions and put away until 1995’s Playback box set (which was one of the first things I got hold of when getting into Petty which is strange considering it’s a 6cd box set). Apparently it’s The Bangles on background vocals… why this was overlooked – it’s all hook much like ‘The Waiting’, it’s stuffed with great lyrics and is catchier than one of those contagious things…. were it not for Spotify having the ‘Nobody’s Children’ disc from Playback I think it would remain missed by many.
Don’t Come Around Here No More – Another gear and game change for Petty and the Heartbreakers. Stolen from Stevie Nicks who, having felt that Petty nailed the vocals, declined to use it on the album she was working on with Jimmy Iovine. The title is, according to Dave Stewart, a phrase he heard Nicks shout at Joe Walsh with whom she was throwing out of her house after a long drink and drug-fuelled party. The video for this put the band into MTV heavy rotation and all that came with that but…. it’s a great moment when the gears shift around the four minute mark.