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Exploring Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits

Exploring Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits

Tom Petty’s seminal Greatest Hits albums recently received a vinyl reissue upgrade. The Spectrum Culture staff rolled up its sleeves and analyzed the collection, track by track.

1. “American Girl

It’s that riff, isn’t it? That has to be what makes “American Girl” such a timeless piece of pop history, right? Well, no, but that’s a big part of it. Nothing that Tom Petty sings on “American Girl” so effortlessly captures that unsuppressed, carefree spirit in the way that that riff does. It espouses endless possibility, a place and a life where anything can happen. Even the song’s brief instrumental bridge can’t seem to hold that riff back for much longer than a few seconds before it comes roaring back. It’s a powerful piece of music, and it’s easy to see why everyone from low-rent bar bands to The Strokes has tried to bite off of the riff to “American Girl” over the years.

Of course, “American Girl” is more than a riff. Petty’s vocal performance is remarkable, evoking proto-punk snottiness and the wistfulness of early rock & roll. The Heartbreakers are sharp as knives, and their harmonies backing up Petty already evoke the Byrds well before Petty started covering them. Just about everything on “American Girl” is an instant classic, from the vocal and instrumental performances to the composition itself. But, man, that opening riff…

2. “Breakdown

It starts off simply enough: a slow drum groove followed by some lethargic blues licks that gradually build into a laidback, almost nonchalant guitar figure that crops up here and there. There’s nothing flashy about any of this; it’s a workmanlike approach that lies at the heart of Petty’s appeal, with and without the Heartbreakers. He, like John Fogerty before him, is capable of effortless American rock ‘n’ roll that resonates with listeners across the spectrum. From the emotionally masochistic lyrics to the layered, angelic harmonies, “Breakdown” manages to distill the essence of Petty’s appeal in under three minutes. Not a second of the compactly structured song is wasted, each moment of the utmost importance, building as though a tightly scripted play. You have your introductory remarks, casual dialogue, establishment of motifs, an increase in tension, a satisfying release and a dénouement that serves as a bookend to the whole of the proceedings. So simple-sounding is this and many other Petty songs that the actual level of difficulty in crafting such pure pop/rock is known only to those who have tried and failed.

3. “Listen To Her Heart

listenTom Petty has one of the most laid back, laconic voices in rock, so no matter how often he can and does get bitter and angry lyrically, the effect is still almost always disarming. Like on “Listen To Her Heart,” wherein Petty pronouncing the word “cocaine,” just because of the intonation of his voice, makes it sound like an expletive. Coming out of the mouth of virtually any other rock star of Petty’s generation, it wouldn’t register as remotely notable – this was the ‘70s, after all. But here, it perks the ears and indicates that Petty means business.

“Listen To Her Heart” is indeed Petty & the Heartbreakers at their most rambunctious. The blazoning opening riff and jangly guitars epitomize the neo-Byrdsian style the band’s early work quickly became known for, but they’re less measured than usual. The playing is aggressive, almost sloppy in the best possible way, while Petty himself sounds atypically restless and animated. That’s understandable; legend has it that Petty wrote the song after Ike Turner made an insistent pass at his then-wife, a circumstance that would surely piss off any man enough to sneer, “She might need a lot of loving/ But she don’t need you.”

4. “I Need To Know

Sounding for all its worth like a Bob Seger song during the introductory statement, by the time Petty’s vocals kick in “I Need To Know” becomes something of a new wave Dylan, all nasal whine and crisp guitars. Here again Petty manages to distill a universal sentiment into a 2:22 pop/rock song that could well have a very specific target in mind. With the opening lyric “Well the talk on the street/ Says you might go solo,” the ambiguity sets in straight away. Is this a reference to a fed-up lover looking to break away from the relationship or is it a more pointed, almost accusatory statement directed at a disgruntled bandmate? Either would work in this instance, yet the follow up plea of needing to know the answer as to whether or not they plan to stick around could just as easily be rooted in a failed romance as the dissolution of a musical partnership. It’s an excellent example of a songwriter using ambiguity to create something universally relatable.

5. “Refugee

“Refugee” may well be Petty’s most popular song outside the trio of hit singles on Full Moon Fever, or at least the one that gets the most radio play. Which is ironic, considering the fact that it’s often mistaken for a Bob Dylan song. How come? Sure, Petty has always had a nasally Dylanesque quality to his voice, though he of course sounds much more like Roger McGuinn than Dylan. But has Dylan ever written a straight-ahead rock song as meaty and bombastic as “Refugee”? Surely not.

“Refugee” is one of two songs on Damn The Torpedoes for which Mike Campbell received a co-writing credit with Petty, and according to Petty, it’s “mostly Mike’s music.” If that’s the case, then it’s a tour de force for a guy who has always begged out of the spotlight and instead played the role of consummate sideman. He manages to wring a palpable sense of drama out of a pretty simple chord sequence, and the chunky, string-bending guitar leads he plays are among his most memorable. But it’s Petty who really sells the song with his impassioned, braying vocals on the soaring chorus.

6. “Don’t Do Me Like That

dont_do_me_like_that_tom_petty_usTom Petty has more than once been charged with being a one-dimensional songwriter, someone too devoted to his classic rock heroes to really be considered great. That argument loses a bit of steam when considering Damn The Torpedoes, his third – and likely his greatest – album with the Heartbreakers. Most of the album runs Petty’s signature sound through the ringer, replacing his big rock hooks with a more skeletal and nervy approach to songwriting. However, ever the populist, Petty gave listeners a lifeline in the form of “Don’t Do Me Like That,” and it’s one hell of a lifeline.

Here, Petty demonstrates a different side to his songwriting, pulling in ideas from soul and R&B. Now, this wasn’t exactly new ground for a rock band; Petty released this only a few months before Elvis Costello riffed on the whole genre with Get Happy!! But coming from a guy who had, until that point, been a really conservative songwriter, it was a relief. Speaking of Elvis, Petty does his best impression of an Angry Young Man here. The sweet pinings of nostalgia are all but gone, replaced with an acerbic commitment to the here and now.

7. “Even The Losers

“Even The Losers” is the most rapturous love song on the Heartbreakers’ most romantic album (Damn The Torpedoes), and though it’s clear the girl Petty’s singing about is long gone, his main takeaway is how lucky he was to be with her. As Benmont Tench’s organ climbs to the heavens, Petty thanks his loser self for retaining enough confidence to make a healthy relationship work, at least for a while. We get the sense this isn’t a guy who’s had much (or any) luck in love, so it’s harder for him to take what he and his lover shared for granted and thus easier for him to focus on the good times.

Strangely, it opens with what sounds like the ending of an entirely different song, followed by a cry of “It’s just the normal noises in here.” This is probably a glitch Petty left on the tape as a goof, and theories abound about to whom the voice belongs (the most common theories are guitarist Mike Campbell’s wife or frequent studio visitor Stevie Nicks). It adds nothing to the song, but it sets the stage for a long history of between-song Pettyisms, including a similar glitch at the start of “Louisiana Rain” and the “hello CD listeners” monologue on Full Moon Fever.

8. “Here Comes My Girl

Above all, Damn The Torpedoes is a delicate balancing act. Throughout the album, Petty is trying to have it both ways between the bar-band folk-rock of his upbringing and the plastic soul sound that he’s attempting to implement. On “Here Comes My Girl,” that balancing act is laid out as an actual song. Or two songs, even; one could argue that “Here Comes My Girl” is two compositions mashed together, the product of mad genius or a rushed songwriter who somehow came good.

The verses of “Here Comes My Girl” are unlike much of Petty’s catalog before or since. Petty talk-sings with a swagger reminiscent of Mick Jagger, except Petty is less about charming cool and more about aggression. Try as he might, Petty can’t affect those Jaggerisms convincingly, but in trying to do so, he stumbles upon something far more unique and true to his style. Then, the chorus hits in all of its sweetness. Petty and his band come in like soothing angels, comforting the speaker with the one person who can make everything better. It’s an oddball pop song from a songwriter who rarely writes oddball pop songs, and “Here Comes My Girl” is pulled off so well and so convincingly that it makes one wish that Petty would travel down this road more often.

9. “The Waiting

waiting“The Waiting” is not just the best song Tom Petty ever wrote – it’s a nearly perfect pop song on every level. It’s one of those songs that’s so impeccably constructed and performed that it seems like it must have just been dreamed into existence and emerged fully formed out of Zeus’s forehead one day rather than, you know, Tom Petty actually sitting down and writing it. Petty has certainly done harder rocking songs than “The Waiting,” and perhaps more compositionally ambitious ones, but none so supremely, perfectly melodic. Few others have, either.

The first thing about “The Waiting” that makes it so good is that it’s almost mechanistically well constructed in the context of the traditional verse-chorus-bridge rock song structure. The way Petty’s voice drops from a higher to a lower register when transitioning from the airy, yearning verse to the warm, comforting chorus is brilliantly effective, as is the way the mostly minor key bridge injects a touch of funk (musically) and uncertainty (atmospherically) into the proceedings. All the while, a bed of friendly, clean, jangly guitars propel the song forward and ensure that nothing jagged appears in the mix to get in the way of the resplendent vocal melody. Then there’s the lyrics. Petty has never been mistaken for a literary genius as a lyricist, but, at least in this case, simplicity works best, and he captures what it feels like to fall in love as well as anyone ever has.

10. “You Got Lucky

“You Got Lucky” is one of the uglier songs in the Tom Petty catalog. The warmth one might associate with rock’s smiliest frontman is pretty much absent here. Instead, its languid, minor-key synth line creates a sickly, industrial miasma not unlike what the Police cultivated on “Spirits In The Material World” (which sounds a bit like this song sped up). And its lyrics are mean in a patronizing John Lennon sort of way (“Go, yeah go, but remember good love is hard to find”).

“You Got Lucky” belongs in the tradition of classic rock songs like Led Zeppelin’s “All My Love” and Van Halen’s “Jump” that use a stereotypically dainty ‘80s synth sound to create grooves as hard and driving as anything a guitar can do. It’s an adventurous outlier on Long After Dark, the oft-forgotten 1982 Heartbreakers album that mostly sounds like a rawer version of what he usually does. Notably, this was Petty’s first time using a synth on record. He needed a good reason for such a bold stylistic departure. “You Got Lucky” is a solid enough song to justify it.

11. “Don’t Come Around Here No More

Tom Petty isn’t exactly Mr. Experimental. In fact, he’s probably one of the most conservative of the great classic rock songwriters, even regressive at times in his adherence to the two guitars/bass/drums three-minute rock song template the Beatles et al. established in the mid-‘60s. That’s what made the first few Heartbreakers records such potent antidotes to the bloated arena rock and overproduced ‘80s schlock with which they were competing for space on the airwaves. Which is why, when Petty did occasionally break out of his comfort zone and do something a little bit weird like “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” the sole hit off Petty’s first (and last) semi-experimental album, Southern Accents, the results were decidedly mixed. It’s certainly got a lot of interesting elements, particularly the straight-outta-‘67 sitar drone and Petty’s accompanying Middle Eastern-sounding vocal. But much of the rest of the arrangement—the echoey drums, the synths, the high-pitched background singers—instantly date the track to the mid-‘80s, so it hasn’t aged too well. There’s a reason Petty playing jangly mid-‘60s Beatles/Byrds/Stones-style pop songs didn’t sound dated around the same time and still don’t today – that sound was and is timeless. Had Petty spent his career trying to imitate Strawberry Alarm Clock, he probably wouldn’t have made it too far. And if his entire oeuvre sounded like “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” he may have succeeded for a while, but he would have never achieved the decades-long longevity he has.

12. “I Won’t Back Down”

i_wont_back_down_singleA great Jeff Lynne production from Petty’s solo career highlight Full Moon Fever, “I Won’t Back Down” set the stage for a sonic template Petty would find himself going back to often through the rest of his career: massive drums, almost-Wall of Sound production, a guitar that goes “ruk-ruk-ruk,” vocals so dryly produced as to be comical by contrast. The lyrics are pretty generic inspirational bullshit – he doesn’t even say what’s draggin’ him down – but it’s the way the song sounds, and how Petty fits those words to Lynne’s landscape, that makes it the album’s gem.

Three-fifths of the Traveling Wilburys play here – George Harrison on guitar and Jeff Lynne on a handful of instruments. Remarkably, Petty had a cold during the session, and it was George who advised him to boil a ginger root and stick his head in the steam to clear his sinuses. If you listen closely, there’s a bit of mucus garbling around deep in Petty’s throat, but not enough to ruin a lovably laconic performance. Memo to pop stars: keep this recipe in mind before you cancel your tour.

13. “Runnin’ Down A Dream

Man, what are songwriters going to do once the quickly approaching day comes when everyone just rides around in self-driving cars? There are so many fucking songs about cars and driving out there, but once vehicles become automated, you might as well be writing a song about your toaster.

Once that day comes, perhaps we’ll look back even more fondly on the 20th Century and its robust car-based songwriting industry, and remember “Runnin’ Down A Dream” as we do today – as one of the quintessential road rock songs. It’s for precisely that reason that there’s not a whole lot to say about it. There’s no deep meaning to the lyrics; it’s just about the feeling of freedom in driving down an empty road with nowhere in particular to go. Musically, it’s a straightforward 4/4 rock song that happens to benefit from a classic hook—Mike Campbell’s nifty little escalator-like guitar riff—that gets repeated as many times as possible because why get cute and dance around the thing when you’ve got something so undeniable? It is worth noting that Campbell—who co-wrote the song along with Petty and Full Moon Fever producer Jeff Lynne—plays one of his flashiest ever lead guitar parts. Because nothing goes together better than cool cars and bitchin’ guitar solos.

14. “Free Fallin’

By now, you’re probably a little sick of “Free Fallin’,” and that’s understandable. Like the other singles off of Petty’s massive Full Moon Fever, it’s one of those songs that goes a bit unheralded because it’s always been there. In instances like that, though, it’s important to consider why “Free Fallin’” became such a massive, ubiquitous hit in the first place. In this case, it was all the result of one of those lightning-in-a-bottle collaborations between a reinvigorated, newly-solo Petty and his fellow Travelling Willbury Jeff Lynne.

“Free Fallin’” is about as clean-cut and polished as Tom Petty gets, and a lot of that is because of Lynne. The former ELO man was at the height of his powers as a studio wizard, and he uses all of his tricks here to turn Petty into a modern pop balladeer. Petty does his part, as well, by crafting a simple, yet unforgettable melody and a lyric that is archetypal Petty. At this point in his career, Petty had laid the groundwork for his sound and explored beyond it enough that all he really needed to do was do what he does best here. That’s a harder task than it seems to be, but Petty absolutely nails it here.

15. “Learning To Fly

tom_petty_the_heartbreakers-learning_to_fly_s“Learning to Fly,” from 1991’s Into The Great Wide Open, blows up the “I Won’t Back Down” sonic formula to Spectorian proportions. By almost any definition, it’s one of the biggest songs Petty ever made. The drums slam like lead weights, the chord progression stubbornly refuses to change, and ten robots seem to be playing ten acoustic guitars in unison. The only things that aren’t maximal are Petty’s vocals, as laid-back as ever, and the reliably understated guitarwork of Mike Campbell, whose idea of a solo seems to be playing six notes before disappearing.

The lyrics are cryptic, but not in the same vague way as those on its sonic progenitor; it could be about aviation, war, love, drugs, perseverance. (Petty’s indicated the song was inspired by an interview with a Gulf War pilot, but “coming down” could mean so much.) But the imagery is beautiful, all those dirt roads and skies and clouds. This is a stunning song, one of the prettiest classic rock staples and the crown jewel of Into The Great Wide Open.

16. “Into The Great Wide Open

Much like “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “Into the Great Wide Open” details the flameout of yet another faceless wannabe hoping to make something of themselves in a world that can unbelievably cruel and uncaring. Here Petty uses a linear narrative to document his subject’s – Eddie – rise and fall; a failed rock star who, as Petty scoffs, is “a rebel without a clue.” Writing from an insider’s perspective, he saves the most cutting verse for the end as Eddie, decked out in a leather jacket and chains, meets an A&R man who delivers the crushing assessment of not hearing a single in what Eddie has to offer. “The future was wide open” Petty concludes, leaving Eddie’s future to chance yet hinting at a less than positive outcome. It’s a bar band rocker with a cautionary moral directed at all those who feel they can play the part simply by looking it. It’s not a world just anybody can crack, and given the sheer number of nameless, faceless individual attempting the same, it’s essentially an exercise in futility. Into the great wide open, indeed.

17. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance

There’s a certain cynical sneer in Petty’s voice on “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” It’s not quite to the level of his fellow Willbury’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” but the basic sentiments carry through both songs. And while Dylan’s was rooted in actual spite and malice, Petty’s take seems more fictional in nature, almost an abstract character piece that could be about a young girl named Mary Jane or Petty’s own relationship with drugs. “Last dance with Mary Jane/ One more time to kill the pain” could allude to an unrequited romance or a self-imposed cessation of a longtime habit. In either case, there’s a level of disillusionment within the song’s narration that takes several listens to truly sink in, due to the rather straightforward nature of the song’s instrumentation. It’s another in a long line of impressive, All-American rock ‘n’ roll songs penned by Petty that impressionistically hints at the darker underbelly of Middle America, something generally lost on those from the coasts who tend to see these so-called flyover states as lacking. Think of it as the anti-Mellancamp.

18. “Something In The Air

It’s always odd when an artist essentially self-proclaims a song to be a hit by adding it to a collection of quantifiably successful songs. Doing so is a fairly cocksure way in which to shove “new” material down the throats of fans casual and devoted alike. Petty’s take on the Thunderclap Newman hit “Something in the Air” arguably has no place on a greatest hits collection. It offers nothing new, does not transcend or negate the need for the original and is essentially a vanity project. Yet with Petty taking on a cover to close out the revised greatest hits collection for his band that has spawned countless covers in bars across the country (if not the world), it’s as though he were tacitly acknowledging the fact that we’re all in the same boat. And while some will toil away unfairly in obscurity, others will rise to the top of the charts. The only difference between the two is a little luck. Regardless of the cover he would have chosen, it’s an act of solidarity and appreciation of those working musicians who, had things not fallen as they had, could just as easily have been Petty himself.

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