15 Tom Petty Songs You May Have Missed (but shouldn't have)
Tom Petty was a prolific writer, and a lover of the studio, he recorded a lot of songs. His first two decades leading up to the millennium saw him releasing records at a relentless pace. An incredibly amount of material exists in the public sphere, and much more yet to be fully released. So its no wonder that many great songs have slipped by without the notice afforded to the many big hits. Here's a look, and listen, to 15 that deserve another spin.
15. FAULT LINES - HYPNOTIC EYE - 2014
Hypnotic Eye was a solid Heartbreakers record. Sonically it reminds me of the first two Petty records, rock 'n roll all the way through, as was intended. "Fault Lines" is the only song on the record that was not written by Petty alone, this one by he and bandmate, and frequent collaborator, Mike Campbell. The band struggled finding a tempo that worked, that set it apart, and on a whim they tried a bossanova beat - voila, it worked. Coming in with that rhythm, and Ron Blair's pulsing bass, then followed quickly by Campbell's piercing guitar riff, I often expect the band to bust into the beginning of Grease's "You're the One That I Want". The lyric doesn't tread new territory, yet it works beautifully. "American Dream Plan B" got the most attention for the record, but this one has legs. Sadly it would be Petty's last record, but happily it showed he was operating on all cylinders right until the end.
14. WAYS TO BE WICKED - PLAYBACK - 1995
You're in possession of a pretty damn rich collection of songs when you can give one of this quality away. Petty had already decided he wasn't going to release this recorded song when he gave it to L.A.'s Lone Justice for their debut album, and first single. it was a huge hit, with a great vocal by Marie McKee. But Petty's original was every bit as good, if not better due to the attitude that drips in his vocal. It's pure Heartbreakers guitar rock.
13. SURRENDER - ANTHOLOGY: THROUGH THE YEARS - 2000
The only new song on the Anthology, which wrapped up Petty's hits to date, "Surrender" was originally written at the time Petty's first record, and was in the running for the track list of all three of his first records. It's hard to understand how a song this great didn't make the cut, but that happens a lot in the Petty career. Riding an arpeggioed guitar, with tight harmonies provided by drummer Stan Lynch, its another song that pays tribute to Petty's enormous debt to, and love for, the Byrds. Hence, it sounds like pure gold Heartbreakers.
12. DREAMVILLE - LAST DJ - 2002
Like a dream, a scent of innocence in the air on a warm summer day, Petty captures those moments of youth, before you learn that the world is complicated. Appropriately it starts with the memory of buying guitar strings, fleeting memories of youth mingle with a blossoming love for music, playing for passion not money. That's a link most people of Petty's generation understand viscerally. It seems out of place on Last DJ, a record that stirred some harsh sentiments with its attack on corporate music, and the death of radio as we knew it. But its not. It's a reflection of it.
11. GIRL ON LSD - B-SIDE - 1994
Its criminal that this drolly sardonic slice of Petty humor is unavailable on a formal CD release. I have to imagine that will be rectified soon. Originally recorded for the Wildflowers solo record, it didn't make the cut and was later used as the B-side for the "You Don't Know How It Feels" single (a double-side pot reference). On a rolling beat, somewhere between Rockabilly and country, with overt Dylan-ese, Petty reflects on the different girls he's been involved with, and the effect each one's drug of choice had on their relationship. "Through ecstasy, crystal meth and glue I've found no drug that compares to you," says Petty. Can't help but wonder how many of these girls he met at the "Heartbreakers Beach Party
10. DON'T FADE ON ME - WILDFLOWERS - 1995
Wildflower was Petty's second solo record, this one with Rick Rubin at the helm. Petty turned in a full course of songs (over 30 recorded). Rubin pushed him to continually tinker with the songs, improving them, which led to some difficult sessions but also to what Petty called his best record. It moves around style-wise quite a bit, yet it all sounds of a piece. This sparse recording, featuring only co-writers Petty and Campbell, about a friend or lover disappearing before your eyes, might have been about bassist Howie Epstein, who was struggling with a serious substance abuse issue that would lead to his death a few years later.
9. STRAIGT INTO DARKNESS - LONG AFTER DARK - 1982
Long After Dark was the recorded that completed Petty's grip on rock stardom, following close on the heels of the monster hit Hard Promises. One of my favorite Petty songs, "Change Of Heart", finds a home on this record as do many other great songs At the heart of Petty;s themes, running through many records, is loss and the hard nosed grit to reclaim. That melancholy and optimism are the theme here as well. This song also carries the stamp of another Petty characteristic, which doesn't get commented on all that often - that of romantic. The lines "Real love is a man's salvation /The weak ones fall the strong carry on". Petty certainly carried on.
8. WAITING FOR TONIGHT - PLAYBACK - 2000
There are so many things that make Petty's song's great, starting with Heartbreakers themselves. There is the straightforwardness of the songs - folk chords, and typically lyrics of deceptive simplicity. There's the timbre of his voice, the nasal quality ("whiney" as George Harrison called it, favorably comparing it to Dylan's). But often missed is the attack of the vocals, which ride the rhythm of the song, doubling its impact. It's obvious here, on a track included as an extra on the box set Playback. Really Tom, you couldn't find a spot for a song this great on a regular release? The lyrics spill out, like warm water from a spigot. less lyrics then rambling loosely connected thoughts. There's an urgency that drives them, and the vocal, that creates a meter of its own. Add to that the sweet backing vocals the Bangles, and you have a perfect Petty cocktail.
7. SWINGIN' - ECHO - 1999
With its pounded downstrokes guitar, mournful harmonica, and insistent, almost shouted vocal, "Swinging'" is a classic late period Petty song that is sadly overlooked. The album it came from, Echo, was inspired by the painful and acrimonious divorce that preceded it, lacking the usually bouyant Petty vibe. But it wasn't missing the razor lyrics Petty was known for, as he uses a boxing match as metaphor for his failing, battling marriage. It's a song that grows on you with each listen.
6. IT'LL ALL WORK OUT - LET ME UP (I"VE HAD ENOUGH) - 1987
Three chords can be melded into many shapes, including a beautiful Irish melody, with a melancholy lyric. Familiar terrain here - loss, regret, ending with positivity - this song nonetheless stands out as a near perfect piece of atmospheric art. The song drips with its emotions, supported by an arrangement featuring mandolin, and yet isn't cloying or fabricated, but honest and real.
5. THE WILD ONE FOREVER - TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS -1976
42 years on, the Heartbreakers first record is still startling in its originality and confidence, from the assured songwriting to Petty's singular vocals. This great song, which is somehow overlooked, not only packs the wallop of the entire first record, it somehow foreshadows all that would come later. The band play beautifully, particularly Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell, but also Ron Blair who contributes cello to the track, an instrument he did not know how to play. Petty's vocals, shouted and frayed, brim with emotion and wrought with anguish, tell the story of an intense love that has left a deep scar on him. The lyrics are compact, cinematic in the opening stanza, and quickly hit you with a stomach punch to the gut as you realize this great love affair was a one night stand, a couple of hours that left their mark forever. Petty wrote many songs as great as this one from his first record, but probably not a better one.
4. ANGEL DREAM (#2) - SONGS AND MUSIC FROM "SHE"S THE ONE" - 1996
Writing for Ed Burns; film opened a vein for Petty. His marriage over, and the dark times that enveloped that period passing, he found a new lease on life with his soon to be new wife Dana. Written for her, "Angel Dream" wears its emotions on its sleeve. The lyrics poetically frame the redemptive nature of the great redeemer, love, with perhaps the most beautiful melody Petty ever wrote. It's mood and muse wrap you up and carry the listening into the dream. Hard to write a more perfect love song.
3. ROOM AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD - ECHO - 1997
One of the bleakest songs in the Petty catalogue, this one comes from a deep, personal pain. The Echo record was written and recorded during a very dark period for Petty - the collapse of his long time marriage, which disrupted his relationships with friends and children, as well as an uncharacteristic descent into heroin addiction. The narrator envisions a place separate from all the trials and pain of life, way up high, where he can look down free at last. Escapism Petty called it, but its not hard to imagine some inchoate thoughts of suicide within the lyric. So painful was the song that Petty refused to ever play it again after the Echo tour. But with time as the great healer, near the end of his life he entertained bringing it back into the set list, recognizing the song's brilliance.
2. SOMEWHERE UNDER HEAVEN
Written for the Wildflower record, which was originally conceived as a double record, Petty somehow forgot writing or recording this beautiful track until he and Rick Rubin set about putting together outtakes to complete a Wildflowers re-reklease as a double (a project which still remains out of sight). Co-written with Mike Campbell, it's the guitars' strident, shimmering sound, that is the main sonic theme. Lyrically its the redeeming power of love, perhaps the only salve that will soothe future pain, that is central.
1. WALLS - SONGS AND MUSIC FROM "SHE"S THE ONE" - 1996
Begun with a couplet that originated from Bob Dylan - "Some days are diamonds, some days are rocks" - "Walls" captures the magic that is the essence of Petty's best songs. It's melody is straightforward, riding the same four chords for verse and chorus, worming their way into the brain. The lyric seems to hold a strong personal connection (written around the time of his divorce, and meeting his second wife) yet feels universal. The production, like the song, captures the best elements of classic rock arrangement with a variety of instruments filling different sonic spaces, atop of a solid magnetic groove. And then there's Mike Campbell's lead solo which sounds like its played on a Rickenbacker guitar, and is pure George Harrison. Not to mention Lindsay Buckingham going all Fleetwood Mac on the backing vocals. For me its one of his most perfect recordings, and should have charted far higher then the paltry #69 it got.