A selection of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers tracks that have meaning to me and have stuck with me through the years, appearing frequently on mixtapes and playlists. Not necessarily stuff you’ll find on an artist’s Greatest Hits collection.
Anything That’s Rock & Roll I mean, Petty put it all out there right at the start. This song from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers is all about the rock and roll rebellion with an aggressive garage rock vibe. “Didn’t go to work/I picked up the phone/Told the boss he was a jerk” was the sneering undertone that Petty would continue to display on nearly all of his albums right up until the end. And he meant it, man. In addition, the songs here and on the Heartbreakers’ second album have a certain urgency as well as a decidedly cinematic quality that is reminiscent of Springsteen but stripped to its most basic terms–in other words, without the poetry. Yet Petty is a poetic songwriter, as he proves eventually, one that is very adept at pulling certain details to the fore to create his mood–much like Bob Dylan.
You’re Gonna Get It The band’s second album still finds Petty a young street punk who is looking to prove himself and a band that never quite rocks as hard as you think they might be able to. Maybe that’s down to Denny Cordell’s noirish production but it’s also in the material: straightforward rock with Southern boogie tendencies and a bit of Stones-ish street influence.
Shadow of a Doubt (Complex Kid) Just as happened with Bruce Springsteen, Petty got into the fight of his life with his record company over sale of his catalog and issues resulting from signing a typically horrible contract to get in the studio and make the first album. This all happened when Petty was at the height of his songwriting abilities and as The Heartbreakers coalesced into one of the best rock and roll bands around at the time (sound familiar?). They recorded their third album Damn the Torpedoes, unquestionably one of their finest records, only to have the record company threaten to shelve it. Petty responded by filing for bankruptcy, a move that made his contracts subject to renegotiation. MCA uncharacteristically folded, granting Petty his publishing rights and his own Backstreet vanity label. Damn the Torpedoes was released to strong sales and almost universal acclaim. The album spawned so many hit singles that other tracks–like this one, which perfectly balances Petty’s jangly Byrds-influenced pop with some new wave energy and a little Southern grit–hardly got noticed.
Louisiana Rain This gorgeous ballad that concludes Damn the Torpedoes was one of two songs that producer Jimmy Iovine pulled out of the ruins of Petty’s former band, Mudcrutch and insisted on recording for the new album. The other track was ‘Don’t Do Me Like That.’ Both tracks got rearrangements and widescreen treatment from Iovine that helped certify Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers as the next big thing arena filler. Petty reportedly wrote the song at the home of Leon Russell at a time when he was working for Russell as an assistant.
Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around About the time that Petty recorded “Insider”, a duet with Stevie ‘Belladonna’ Nicks for his album Hard Promises they also cut this track for Nicks’ forthcoming album. The two prinicpals’ voices are a perfect match. Petty has all the angst of Lindsey Buckingham with less range and The Heartbreakers simmer with a sinister energy, creating an atmosphere much like their singles ‘Breakdown’ and ‘Refugee.’ That’s because the song was a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song that Jimmy Iovine convinced them to record with Stevie Nicks, whose record he was also producing.
The Best of Everything Southern Accents, Petty’s sixth album, was something of a mess. You could tell there were the seeds of a major statement there, with the tracks ‘Rebels’ and ‘Southern Accents’ providing Petty’s feelings about being from the South and what life was like for Southerners in general. But these Side One bookends are interrupted by the incongruous funk-rock of ‘Don’t Mean Nothin’ to Me’ and the psychedelic Dylan-pop of ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More”, both of which were co-written by producer Dave Stewart. In addition, Stewart was only one of several producers who had their hands on the recordings, and the results are a little unfocused, with horns added. But this track, the album’s final song, is a real winner. Its world-weariness and melancholy optimism say more about people who are proud yet broken than all the regional detail in the world.
I Won’t Back Down After touring to support Southern Accents, resulting in the band’s first live LP, Pack Up the Plantation: Live and releasing Let Me Up I’ve Had Enough, a more stripped-down album with the Heartbreakers, Petty went solo for Full Moon Fever. Although band members were hurt by Petty’s actions almost all ended up contributing to the album as well as guests and friends like Petty’s Traveling Wilburys companions Roy Orbison. Jeff Lynne co-wrote and produced much of the album (including this track) and George Harrison provides acoustic guitar and backup vocals. “I Won’t Back Down” became Tom Petty’s theme song, encapsulating his life and career in a single statement of purpose.
Kings Highway Into the Great Wide Open continued the Jeff Lynne influence on the group’s sound, and it was released under the moniker of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and in many ways this is not as satisfying a period in Petty’s career only because we have come to expect things to be a bit edgier. Lyrically and musically this track stands out on the album with a sunny outlook as well as some self-reflection, as Petty sings “I don’t wanna end up in a room all alone/Don’t wanna end up someone that I don’t even know.” As Petty said in a 1999 interview: I think it’s important to give them (young people) hope and realism in the same package, you know? You can be realistic but there should be — there should be hope in it. Because hope’s what we’re about. If we don’t have hope then we don’t go on.”
The Last DJ This 2002 album saw Petty coming back to a more raw sound, not stripped down but not so glossy as the sound Lynne had been using. It also saw Petty once again sounding off about the music industry on the title track and several other songs on the album. The corporate buyouts of local radio stations in the ’90s hollowed out one of American culture’s great archetypes, the DJ as tastemaker and arbiter of cool. In a 2010 interview with MOJO Petty explained that the DJ was partially a metaphor: “Radio was just a metaphor. ‘The Last DJ’ was really about losing our moral compass, our moral center. We don’t care who gets hurt any more in the quest for the dollar. That was what I was trying to say.”
Ways To Be Wicked Petty’s box set Playback featured a boatload of B sides, extras, and tracks written for other artists. It contains several songs that were meant to be included on Southern Accents, including a cover of Nick Lowe’s ‘Crackin’ Up.’ In 2015 the sixth disc was released separately to streaming services under the title Nobody’s Children, and it includes this version of the song Petty gave to the band Lone Justice to record on their 1985 debut album. This version is a little different, driven by Stan Lynch’s floor toms as Petty works up the sparks lyrically a la Dylan’s ‘Positively 4th Street.’