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Tom Petty’s 50 Greatest Songs

His hits have defined rock radio since the Seventies, and he never stopped writing great music. Here’s the definitive guide to his best songs

“It’s a strange to say out loud, but I always felt destined to do this,” Tom Petty told Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke in 2009. “From a very young age I felt this was going to happen to me.” From his early days as a hard-jangling realist amidst the fluff-addled Seventies, Tom Petty was always one of rock’s most enduring Everyman heroes, as well as one of the preeminent songwriters of his generation. A Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers show could reach the two-hour mark and not make it through all of his hits and memorable album cuts, or explore every nook of his career. And he was writing classic songs right up to the end. Here’s our definitive rundown of his 50 greatest.

12

“Into the Great Wide Open”

One of Petty’s most vivid story songs chronicles the demise of a guitar-toting “rebel without a clue” who comes to Los Angeles and gets eaten alive by the record industry. The song’s Julien Temple–directed video starred Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway, and Petty himself as everything from narrator to roadie. “One of the only times I’ve ever felt fulfilled by a video,” Petty said. “I even had people coming to me wanting to make it into a movie.” 

11

“I Need to Know”

One of Petty’s most driving Seventies rockers has roots in Sixties soul. “I was trying to make a song like Wilson Pickett’s ‘Land of a Thousand Dances,’ ” Petty said. “That’s one of my favorite records.” You can especially hear that influence during the bridge, which features Benmont Tench’s roiling piano. But it’s Petty’s impatient intensity that sells the song. Written at a friend’s house in Florida and cut in L.A. at Sound City Studios, it reflected the desire of a young band trying to strike while the iron was hot. Said Petty, “We wanted to get product out there.” 

10

“I Won’t Back Down”

“That song frightened me when I wrote it,” said Petty. “There’s not a hint of metaphor in this thing. It’s just blatantly straightforward.” “I Won’t Back Down” was written in the studio while “Free Fallin'” was being mixed. George Harrison, who performed background harmonies, told Petty that a line about “standing on the edge of the world” was dumb – so he promptly replaced it with “there ain’t no easy way out.” “I had a lot of second thoughts about recording that song,” said Petty. “But everyone around me liked the song, and it turns out everyone was right.” 

9

“Room at the Top”

Petty was deep in the throes of depression after divorcing his first wife, Jane, when he sat down at a piano in the studio and poured his heart into this song. “I wish I could feel you, little one,” he sang. “You’re so far away. I want to reach out and touch your heart.” The emotionally raw song kicks off Echo, a collection of tracks inspired by their breakup. “‘Room at the Top’ is the most depressing song I’ve ever written,” said Petty, who hasn’t played it a single time in the past 15 years. “I haven’t even wanted to hear it. Though the last time I heard Echo, I did think, ‘God, there’s a lot more on here than I remembered.'” 

8

“Breakdown”

“We were passionate kids,” Petty said, describing his band’s mood during the recording of “Breakdown.” Petty came up with the slinky, eerily spare R&B-influenced song while taking a late-night break at Hollywood’s Shelter Studios during sessions for his first album. “It was one or two in the morning, and I called the Heartbreakers and had them all come back,” he recalled. “They had all gone home. They came back at two or three in the morning, and we cut the song.” The track originally went on for more than seven minutes, but it was eventually shortened to less than half that length when it was released as Petty and the Heartbreakers’ debut single. Driven by a drum track that was inspired by the clipped, anticipatory beat on the Beatles’ 1963 song “All I’ve Got to Do,” and featuring one of Mike Campbell’s most memorable guitar licks, it just made the Top 40. As Petty proudly said later, “It’s really a perfect little record, isn’t it?” 

7

“The Waiting”

“The Waiting” might be the single greatest example of the Heartbreakers piecing something together from their rich classic rock knowledge. The song’s call-and-response hook echoes the Animals’ “It’s My Life,” and the chorus is so evocative of the Byrds that their leader thought he’d had a hand in it. “[Roger] McGuinn swears that he said it to me,” Petty said, referring to the line “the waiting is the hardest part,” adding, “Maybe he did.” Petty actually recalled cribbing it from Janis Joplin’s famous declaration “I love being onstage, and everything else is waiting.” Either way, the lead single from Hard Promises was a high point in what Rolling Stone senior writer David Fricke called the Heartbreakers’ “golden twang” era, topping the Billboard rock chart for six weeks. “It was about waiting for your dreams and not knowing