When Tom Petty passed away in October 2017, the Heartbreakers had just finished their 40th anniversary tour. He left a musical legacy that transcended genre and generational lines. Petty’s music set up camp halfway between rock ‘n’ roll, new wave, and Americana, drawing inspiration from both his Southern roots and his West Coast migration. Like the artist who created it, it was absolutely fascinating. It was a sound that paid homage to earlier influences while being firmly rooted in the present.
Here are five songs from one of rock history’s most celebrated careers.
5. “You Don’t Know How It Feels”
For his second solo album, Wildflowers, Petty linked up with Rick Rubin following years of productive collaborations with producer Jeff Lynne. The majority of the Heartbreakers played in the recording, however Wildflowers had a leaner sound than any Heartbreakers album before it, favouring acoustic guitars over electric counterparts.
The album’s roots-rock tracks would have ruled the Americana charts if it had been released 20 years later. Instead, Wildflowers was released in 1994, the same year that Purple by Stone Temple Pilots and Superunknown by Soundgarden both reached No. 1. This was the grunge period, which gave songs like “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” a slow folk-rocker that advances at a leisurely pace and is interrupted by Tom Petty’s harmonica, all the more difference in terms of sound and popularity.
Even if you didn’t smoke, singing “Let’s roll another joint” wasn’t exactly socially acceptable during the Clinton era, but it didn’t stop the song from becoming his 15th (and final) Top 40 success on the Billboard Hot 100. “You Don’t Know How It Feels” is another example of Tom Petty doing things his way, ignoring trends of the new millennium in favour of sticking to the fundamentals of his rootsy sound.
4. “Don’t Come Around Here No More”
Things became difficult for many American rock bands in the 1980s after they began their careers in the 1970s. Trends altered, tastes evolved, and MTV fundamentally changed how people listened to music. Petty was one of the few frontmen who managed to change with the times without losing the core of his musical style.
It was “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” the Heartbreakers’ standout track from their 1985 album Southern Accents, that showed Petty and the band genuinely embracing the 1980s. Songs like “You Got Lucky” made way for the electronic textures of the time, too. Petty staked his name in the digital era with this ambitious, trippy song that was heavily synthesised. In the surreal music video, co-producer Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics dressed as a caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, smoked a hookah, and played the sitar.
3. “Free Fallin’”
By the time Tom Petty started writing the songs for his 1987 solo debut, Full Moon Fever, he had already spent ten years with the Heartbreakers. The new material was openly criticised by some of the Heartbreakers. During the recording of “Free Fallin’,” bassist Howie Epstein left the studio and drummer Stan Lynch refused to play on it.
Petty rose to fame with “Free Fallin’,” whose No. 7 peak on the Billboard Hot 100 demonstrated that even without the Heartbreakers, the guy could still break hearts. His comrades weren’t present, save from Mike Campbell, whose guitar can be heard throughout. While not his first success without the band, it was certainly the largest.
2. “I Won’t Back Down”
The phrase “I Won’t Back Down” refers to more than just the fourth song by Tom Petty to reach number one on the Mainstream Rock chart in the 1980s. It also serves as a mission statement. The song, which Petty wrote one year after an arsonist burned his L.A. home in 1987, depicts a defiant, resilient Petty facing out against all of his adversaries.
Petty has a history of standing up to bullies; he had previously filed a lawsuit against the B.F. Goodrich Company for using his song “Mary’s New Car” in a television commercial, and he had earlier refused to allow MCA Records to raise the price of his 1981 album Hard Promises. The song “I Won’t Back Down” perfectly captures such spirit. Delivered by a singer who boldly made all the decisions, it is tenacious and driving.
1. “American Girl”
In their native country, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers did not become popular immediately. The boys instead established their first fanbase overseas, as “Anything That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll” rose to the top 40 of the UK Singles chart in 1977. Later that summer, “American Girl” was released and made it to the Top 40.
Despite these compliments from Britain, “American Girl” has a very American feel to it that goes beyond the song’s name. The song was really composed on July 4, 1976, which was also the Bicentennial of the United States, and its mixture of musical inspirations seems to reflect the diversity of America itself.
“American Girl” bridged the gap between the jangling folk-rock of the 1960s and the punk attitude of new wave with ringing guitar chords that honoured one of Petty’s longtime heroes, The Byrds. Since then, it has also become a mainstay of classic rock radio. It’s a unique kind of melody that seems to fit everyone and everywhere. The power of Petty is in its broad appeal, which is why “American Girl” comes in first place on this list.
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