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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.

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15

“Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”

Stevie Nicks’ first solo hit was this Petty duet. When Petty and producer Jimmy Iovine offered her the song, she asked, “Is this the right thing to do? I only get 11 songs and one of them won’t be mine.” Nicks recalled them saying, “You don’t have a single on this record. And here’s a single for you.” When the longtime pals toured together in 2006, Petty gave her a platinum sheriff’s badge that said “To the only girl in our band,” declaring her an “Honorary Heartbreaker.” 

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14

“Walls (Circus)”

Ed Burns was one of the hottest filmmakers around when he approached Petty about contributing songs for his movie She’s the One. The best of the bunch, “Walls,” was inspired by something Petty had been told by Johnny Cash. “He said to me, ‘Some days are diamonds, and some days are rocks.’ I took that line and wrote the song.” Lindsey Buckingham helped arrange its lush harmonies, resulting in one of Petty’s prettiest songs. But two different versions appeared in the film, hurting its chances of becoming a single. “It probably should have been a hit,” says Petty. 

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13

“Don’t Do Me Like That”

“It was something my dad used to say,” Petty said, explaining the title of this Heartbreakers breakthrough. “I thought it was humorous.” Initially conceived as an R&B workout around a staccato, right-hand piano signature, the song had been around a while. Written in about an hour, it was recorded in a leaner version by Petty and Mike Campbell with their previous band, Mudcrutch, back in 1974. Producer Jimmy Iovine initially dismissed the track, and even Petty thought it lightweight, but it became a hit as the lead single from Damn the Torpedoes

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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.” 

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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.” 

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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.” 

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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.'” 

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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?” 

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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 if they will come true,” Petty said. “I always felt it was an optimistic song.” 

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6

“Runnin’ Down a Dream”

Full Moon Fever was released as a Petty solo album, but every Heartbreaker (with the exception of drummer Stan Lynch) played on it. “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” the album’s most propulsive rocker, was built around a heavy riff from Mike Campbell, originally written in a different time signature. Petty straightened it out and took it to producer Jeff Lynne. Campbell also played the song’s guitar solo (a combination of searing held notes and frenetic shredding), nailing it in one take. Petty gave the hard-charging track vivid lyrics about the freedom of flying down the highway, which spoke to his deepest feelings about the meaning of rock & roll. “To me, American music was all about listening in the car,” he said. The line “me and Del were singing ‘Little Runaway'” was a friendly salute to his new pal Del Shannon, who had a Number One hit in 1961 with “Runaway,” a song Petty had grown up loving as a kid in Florida. 

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5

“Listen to Her Heart”

Petty was inspired to write “Listen to Her Heart” by a story his wife Jane told him. Not long after the couple moved to L.A., she found herself at a party thrown by mercurial R&B legend Ike Turner. As the festivities went on late into the night, Turner locked the doors to his house from the inside so no one could leave. Petty turned the odd incident into a driving, tightly wound anthem addressed to a guy who has no regard for a woman’s real feelings. The song was the second single from You’re Gonna Get It! (“Everything’s banking on that one song right now,” he told Rolling Stone in 1978, “and I’m prepared for the worst.”) In fact, “Listen to Her Heart” only made it to Number 59 on the singles charts, perhaps due to Petty’s direct mention of cocaine, which he was asked to change to “Champagne.” “What women would leave some guy for money and Champagne?” Petty said at the time. “I mean, Champagne is only $4 a bottle.” 

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4

“Free Fallin'”

With the exception of “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” his breakthrough duet with Stevie Nicks, “Free Fallin'” is the biggest hit of Petty’s career. However, when he first brought Full Moon Fever to MCA Records, not only did the label not hear a single, it balked at releasing the album at all. “I was stunned,” said Petty. “It’s the only time in my life that a record’s been rejected.” As with most of Full Moon Fever, “Free Fallin'” came together quickly. Petty had written the shimmering riff on a little electric keyboard and came up with lyrics while ad-libbing in the studio for producer Jeff Lynne. Luckily, turnover happened at the label, cooler heads were hired, and “Free Fallin'” became a Top 10 smash, staying on Billboard‘s singles chart for seven months. “There’s not a day that goes by that someone doesn’t hum ‘Free Fallin” to me, or I don’t hear it somewhere,” said Petty. “But it was really only 30 minutes of my life.”

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“Don’t Come Around Here No More”

“I wanted to make a single that sounded like nothing anybody had ever done,” Petty said of “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” Psychedelic yet synth-y, classic yet modern, the song was a radical musical reinvention concocted with English producer Dave Stewart of Eurythmics. The Heartbreakers were skeptical of an outsider revamping their sound, especially when he suggested adding a sitar. “I think most of his band – and I don’t blame them – were going, ‘What the fuck is this?'” Stewart recalled. “The record was called Southern Accents, and it sounded like we’re in India.” Petty’s lyric was based on a line Stevie Nicks said to ex-boyfriend Joe Walsh at a Eurythmics afterparty, and Stewart also suggested the Alice in Wonderland concept of the song’s groundbreaking video. “Dave and I worked on that single for months,” Petty said. “It could’ve come out as 10 different records.”

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“Refugee”

“We’re always hearing that we’re the future of rock & roll,” Petty declared around the release of the Heartbreakers’ third LP. “I don’t want to be the future – I want to be the present.” The lead track on Damn the Torpedoes ensured that. Produced by Jimmy Iovine, “Refugee” was their most brass-knuckled rocker to date, a declaration that they weren’t following any New Wave or punk-rock trends, but were a new breed of rock & roll–schooled traditionalists. As is frequently the case with the band’s creative process, Mike Campbell wrote the music, recorded it on a four-track tape and passed it to his partner. “The words came really quick,” Petty said. The recording, not so much. Campbell recalled 100 takes; Petty says 200. “I remember being so frustrated,” said Campbell. “I just left the studio and went out of town for two days.” When he returned, they nailed it, and shot a no-frills video that became an early MTV staple. And suddenly, American rock seemed born again.

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“American Girl”

“The American Girl is just one example of this character that I write about a lot,” Tom Petty said. “The small-town kid who knows there’s something more out there, but gets fucked up trying to find it. I always felt sympathetic with her.” On his greatest song, Petty channeled his sympathy into an American classic – recorded, fittingly, on July 4th, 1976. The song fuses decades of rock & roll into one supercharged anthem: Stan Lynch’s jumpy Bo Diddley beat echoes back to the Fifties; the bright guitar jangle evokes the Byrds (so much so that Byrds leader Roger McGuinn covered it); Mike Campbell’s high-flying runs at the outro are Seventies guitar-hero lightning; and the taut New Wave energy pushes into the Eighties and beyond (the Strokes nicked it for their 2001 hit “Last Nite”). Ironically, when it arrived as the second single on Petty and the Heartbreakers’ self-titled debut in 1977, it didn’t make the U.S. charts, though it did reach the Top 40 in the U.K., and remains a radio staple (“It felt like, ‘Wow, this might work,'” Campbell said, recalling the song’s initial success). The lyrics’ allusion to Route 441, which runs through Gainesville, Florida, inspired rumors that “American Girl” was about a University of Florida student who committed suicide by jumping off her dorm-room balcony. In fact, it was written in Petty’s Encino, California, apartment while he listened to the freeway outside. “The words just came tumbling out of me,” he said. “The girl was looking for the strength to move on – and she found it.”

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