To mark the 30th anniversary of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ self-titled debut, Billboard surveyed some of Petty’s contemporaries, some of the band’s members and those who have worked closely with the group over the years about their favorite Petty & the Heartbreakers song, Petty’s songwriting craft, and what makes the Heartbreakers one of the best American rock bands.
Singer/songwriter, member of Fleetwood Mac and Petty’s duet partner on the 1981 single “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”
The Songs: “When I thought I was dying in rehab in 1994, ‘I Won’t Back Down’ was my mantra. It lifted me up out of the pain and made me fight thru it. ‘Free Fallin’ broke my heart about my life and his life and about who we were and that we simply could not change that. ‘The Waiting is the Hardest Part’ summed up my life. We can’t stand waiting — we rock and roll men and women. If we have to wait… we just don’t. Tom Petty’s songs are like a great book that you revisit when you need help. His songs make me better.
The Songwriter: “What makes Tom so good at this is that he writes about everything. Love in theory. Love in euphoria. Love in disappointment. Love in how it affects everyone; love after a long time. Divorce and how that affects everyone. New love and old love and how that affects everyone. Then he writes about personal growth and how that ebbs and flows. He writes about the world. He writes about the record business. He writes about monopolies and the nurturing of new artists that has ceased to exist. He has demanded that I start to write again when I thought I could write no more. He has, at times, been my Olympic coach. “You can do it,” he says, “You don’t need my help.” He writes about his girls; girlfriends, daughters and wives. He has always been my great inspiration. He is magical. There is not, and never will be, another like him.
The Performer: “As far as live performance goes, he just knocks you out. On stage, there is no one better.”
Widow of former Beatle George Harrison, who with Petty was a member of the Traveling Willburys
The Song: “‘Zombie Zoo’ always puts a smile on my face because George and I and Tom and a gang of us were together on the night that inspired the song.
The Songwriter & Performer: What makes Tom Petty a unique live performer is that he is a storyteller. His Florida drawl and the meter of his speech are engaging. Even his everyday observations sound more like tales, and whether he is singing or speaking you’ll hear truisms in his words. I call him Aesop Wilbury.
Singer/songwriter and fellow Billboard Century Award honoree (2000)
The Songwriter: Tom’s a really good guy. We worked together on a track for a record of mine and he worked harder than I did. He’s a great songwriter and has been since the beginning of his career. He’s remained consistent. Not all of us have.
The Songs: I have a fondness for some of his early songs that he made popular when were both were just starting out; songs like “American Girl” and “Breakdown.” I also appreciate still that he sang on my hit song “Girls” in 1984.
The Performer: Tom’s success represents a lot of hard work. It’s a hard business. It’s a big job to make a record, a big job to hold a band together and to go out on tour. He saw the importance of holding his band together, and he has stayed true to his roots.
Artist/songwriter/producer and member of the Eurythmics
The Songwriter: Tom is incredibly smart and has a beautiful mind. He has a way of distilling what he wants to say fluently, and he doesn’t take any prisoners. Everything is spot on and not messy.
The Songs: One of my favorite songs is “Southern Accents.” I also remember being in England and getting a real jolt of electricity when I first heard “Refugee.” It was such a structured song, great words… I was turned on by that. The first time I heard it sung live, I was in shock at how powerful the performance.
The Band: Every one in the band is such a character in their own way. They are a classic band, and Tom is a consummate songwriter as well as a singer/performer.
Singer/songwriter and E Street Band guitarist
The Songs: “If I had to pick one favorite song it would be ‘Refugee,’ but I loved ‘Breakdown,’ gorgeous and stark. Raw, but well produced. There was a lot of emotion in ‘Even the Losers,’ ‘Free Fallin’,’ and ‘Won’t Back Down.’ There has been integrity and substance in every hit record.
The Band: “As ‘Damn the Torpedoes’ was coming out, Tom and the Heartbreakers opened a long European tour for my solo band. It was unusual to have such an incredible rock band opening for us. As any opening act would do, they would come out and kick butt and we had to go out and make sure they didn’t. They were great every night. I was shocked.
Right from the get-go, the band had an innate ability to present great songs in a very well-produced streamlined presentation. Not a lot of frayed edges, everything in its place. They were able to present that live with quite a bit of passion. It was a rare thing.
Singer/songwriter and member of the Byrds
The Songs: I love Tom Petty. He’s a wonderful musician and a wonderful artist, a great guy and a good friend. “American Girl” is the song that means the most to me because it’s the first one I heard him do. I recorded it myself because I liked it so much. We went on the road together, played it in a lot of places and had a good time. The song brings back good memories for me. Tom and I also wrote a song together, “King of the Hill,” which we recorded for my album “Back From Rio.” The song was a moderate hit, and he sang it with me.
Singer/songwriter, former member of the Del Fuegos and VP of Education at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum
The Songwriter: There are singer/songwriters that were guys with bands. Of that group, Petty had the capacity to really tell the story in the simplest way. Petty’s stories were distilled in such a way that it allowed you to identify with the protagonist in the deepest way. When I was going through terrible s***, there was a Petty song. I could tell you my life from 15 years old on with Petty songs better than I could with photographs. He has a distinct gift as a writer.
The Songs: I don’t have one favorite song, but I can pick a couple. Songs like “Straight Into Darkness,” “The Wild One, Forever,” and “Casa Dega.”
Heartbreakers guitarist, songwriter, co-producer
The Song: “The first thing that pops into my mind is ‘American Girl.” We recorded it for our first album. I think it was around the 4th of July. It was really fun to make that record and I just had a feeling that this song had a really special quality to it. Not just the way it was written, but the way we recorded it, the way the band played on it and the sound that it made. When we recorded it, I just had a feeling that we were really onto something. There was something really special about this song, this sound, this thing we’re doing, which is really us. This defines what we are. To this day, we don’t always put it in the set, but when we do, [when I hear] that first chord, I have that same feeling for it.’
The Songwriter: “We have a great songwriter. His character is very powerful and it’s easy to play with someone like that and sound good. It worked to his advantage that he found a group of players that had empathy and an instinctual understanding of how his songs could be realized.”
The Band: “It’s the old cliché of chemistry and the way we play. There’s a certain talent that Ben has, that Tom has, and that I might have, and when you put it together, something happens that’s better than all of us.”
The Song: “There’s a song that nobody seems to notice on our second album, ‘You’re Gonna Get It,’ called ‘No Second Thoughts.’ It’s pretty brief. It’s just a little short story, but it’s wonderfully written and open enough to interpretation. And I love the feel of the track. It’s just [drummer] Stan [Lynch] beating on some boxes or something and a little bit of organ, some acoustic guitars, and a pretty good bass part.”
The Songwriter: “I just see us as this rock’n’roll band that’s got a terrific songwriter, a really great songwriter that is deceptively good. There are 30 years of great songs that this guy wrote - and he wrote a lot of them with Mike [Campbell]. They run deeper than they seem on the top, which is a great thing about rock’n’roll. You can run things past people and they don’t even know what they’re getting.”
The Band: “If it’s really good live, it’s because we’re all aiming at the same thing. There should to be some telepathy there. [Original Heartbreakers bassist] Ron Blair is back in the band and as the new guy he’s been in the band 10 years. If you’ve got a lot of really good songs and play them with heart and you’re aiming at the song, that’s going to make for a really good show.”
Head of American Recordings, co-producer of the 1994 Petty solo album “Wild Flowers” album and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” a new song included on the band’s 1993 “Greatest Hits” set
The song: “It was never a single or anything, but there’s a song on ‘Wildflowers’ that really moves me called ‘Hard on Me.’ It’s one of the very first things we cut together, so it’s got some emotional relevance to me personally. Both the song is good, the tone of it is great, and the mood of the performance just captures the song perfectly. It’s a perfect moment in time. It sounds really real, really live, personal, and intimate, and of a moment. It’s personally revelatory lyrically, open, and honest. It’s just a beautiful song.”
The Songwriter: “If you look at his body of work, there are so many great songs. He’s an incredible songwriter and when it comes to record making, he’s a true craftsman. There are just not a lot of people that can do that. It’s somewhat of a lost art.”
The Band: “On top of that, you have Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, which is arguably the best American rock band, so you have a great band, with great songs, who make great records. It’s really hard to beat.”
Former Electric Light Orchestra leader, Petty’s Traveling Wilburys bandmate and co-producer of the Heartbreakers albums “Full Moon Fever,” “Into the Great Wide Open” and “Highway Companion”
The Song: “One of my favorites, ‘Square One,’ was just in a film [“Elizabethtown”]. It was just a lovely tune, but my all-time favorite is one that I worked on is ‘I Won’t Back Down.’ That kind of sums up Tom — he’s a cool guy and he’s tough. I think he really did a great job on that, but I’m biased because I co-wrote the thing.”
The Songwriter: “His songs are unique. He’s got his own little spot in the whole spectrum of music. He’s got tremendous words and very different kind of melodies. I always admire what he does with them. And he’s a great singer. I think his singing has even gotten better over the years.”
The Band: “They’re just so tight, they kind of know what they’re going to do before they do it. And Tom’s a great frontman, he wears ’em every night and he really enjoys it. That’s the key to it all.”
Manager, East End Management
The Song: “‘Even the Losers.’ I like all his songs because of lyrical content, but in the case of ‘Even the Losers,’ when I hear it on the radio or when it’s playing, even after all these years, I sort of tune into it again. If I’m in the car, I put the volume up.”
The Songwriter: “Tom’s got the entire package: lyric and melody. Also, he can tell an entire story in one line or paint a picture in one line. You don’t have to listen to the entire song or an entire verse to get a meaning from it. One line will do the job for you.”
The Band: “They can play anything. They’re so tuned into each other and so similar in their tastes the can do things that nobody else can do.”
Co-producer of the Heartbreakers albums “Damn the Torpedoes,” “Hard Promises” and “Long After Dark,” chairman of Interscope/Geffen/A&M Records
The Songs: “I’ve always loved ‘The Waiting,’ ‘Even the Losers,’ and ‘American Girl.’ It’s all about the lyrics. He would just write things that take you out of where you are and put you in a place and you go, ‘Wow, I feel like that or have felt like that in my life.'”
The songwriter: “Tom is just a brilliant songwriter. He’s different than most. He was one of the original guys to hark back to American songwriters and also a lot of English songwriters. It was a time when there were these long rock songs, but he would write a three- to four-minute piece that had all the passion of any Led Zeppelin song or Bruce Springsteen song, but yet he condensed it in a three- or four-minute rock song. And he’s very good at it. He’s a great lyricist, a very poignant lyricist.”
The Band: “What makes them sound the way they do is as much their imperfections as it is their talent and originality. It’s the way Tom lays on a beat, and the bass and drums are slightly right behind. It is incredible chemistry. When you put all the instruments up, it would just lock. [Mike Campbell’s] guitar, [Benmont Tench’s] organ, and Tom’s guitar go so well together. What you really have is an orchestra. When blended together it has a real concert sound.”
Former president of Warner Bros. Records
The Song: “I love ‘Free Fallin’.’ We were lucky: my wife and I and [former Warner Bros. chairman/CEO] Mo Ostin and his wife were all up at Mo’s house having dinner with George [Harrison], Tom and Jeff [Lynne]. They brought their acoustic guitars with them… It was kind of like being in Nashville or something. You had these three gigantic guitars in this big living room with wood ceilings. Tom played ‘Free Fallin’.’ I have to imagine it was one of the first times. It was just unreal to hear it that way. I remember saying, ‘Do it again, do it again.’ I just had to hear it again. It was a fantastic presentation of a song.”
The Songwriter: “Most great writers have their own take on the world. He sees things in his way, which makes it unique. I can’t exactly explain that, except that you know his language when you hear his songs. By the words that he uses, often you can tell it’s Tom.”
The Band: “Those guys are individually great musicians and they really get Tom. They know when he’s right; they know what to do to get to the right place musically. They just have that knack. Put that into a band and it makes life easy. Certainly it must make life easy for him, because he has such a wonderful support group.”
Sr. VP, William Morris Agency
The Songs: “If I could pick two, I’d pick ‘Learning to Fly’ and I love the song ‘It’s Good To Be King,’ which affected me very deeply. When I first heard it, I had to sit down and write Tom a letter. I love that song and it just touched me somewhere very deep. That song really just stopped me in my tracks.”
The Songwriter: “To be a great songwriter, you have to have experienced a lot and I think Tom has. You’ve got a depth that he really reaches down into and obviously he has a great talent for turning a hook.”
The Band: “Each member brings tremendous musicianship. Mike Campbell is incredible, as is Ben. You’re talking about world-class musicians. Tom’s no slouch on his instrument either. It’s the way they connect with the audience and the way they connect with each other. That’s what makes a great live show.”
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