Dave Grohl was actually a member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for a short time, drumming with the band in November 1994, after Nirvana had ended with Kurt Cobain’s death but before he got the Foo Fighters off the ground. He appeared with them on Saturday Night Live, performing “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and “Honey Bee,” but declined an invitation to join the band as a permanent member.
Seventeen years later, however, Grohl had a chance to pay tribute to Petty (who turned 64 on October 20). At a 2011 gig in Council Bluffs, Iowa, opening act Motörhead didn’t make it to the show, so the Foos played for almost three-and-a-half hours, doing 29 songs, including covers of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out,” Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues,” Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades” and Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Breakdown.”
The front-row fan video in this clip also captures Grohl introducing the band and goofing around on Van Halen – skip ahead to 1:50 if you just want to hear the song. “Breakdown” is fundamentally ambivalent – “It’s alright if you love me / It’s alright if you don’t” – and it’s unclear whether it’s describing a night of passion or a desperate plea at the end of an affair. But Grohl knows what it’s really about: that slow, sinuous guitar lick.
“Breakdown” was the very first single released by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It peaked at Number 40, meaning that at least the band got to hear their name said by Casey Kasem on the American Top 40 countdown. Petty says that he wrote it on piano during a break while recording the band’s debut album, because they had run through their entire repertoire. “I think we got the drumbeat from a Beatles record, ‘All I’ve Got to Do,'” Petty said. “We just varied it. That was the idea, to have that kind of broken rhythm on the high hat.”
The following night, the band needed another song, so Petty went back to the piano and wrote “The Wild One, Forever,” while the Heartbreakers played cards. He then went back to the piano on a third night, and came up dry, rather to his surprise: “I realized, oh, I’m not going to be able to do that every night.”