The late Tom Petty was a great singles artist – tracks like ‘The Waiting’, ‘Refugee’, and ‘Free Fallin” sound terrific blasting from cars and on classic rock radio. Petty had so many enjoyable hits through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s that my list of favourite Tom Petty songs is largely predictable. Ably supported by ace musicians like guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, and bassist/backing vocalist Howie Epstein, his songs were always beautifully presented.
When I reviewed Petty’s catalogue a few years ago I kept a note of my favourite deep cuts. Some of these tracks are relatively well-known, popping up on compilations or racking up respectable streaming numbers, but none of them was released as a single in the US. Taken together, they present an alternate history of Petty’s evolution, a talented and likeable songwriter. Contrary to the usual tradition on this site, these ten songs are presented chronologically.
10 Excellent Tom Petty Deep Cuts
from Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, 1976
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers were originally signed to Shelter Records, run by Leon Russell and producer Denny Cordell. When Russell and Cordell fell out, they closed down their Tulsa studio. But the engineers sent to retrieve the equipment from the Oklahoma studio had a great idea. They invited their new signing Tom Petty to take advantage of free studio time. The result was ‘Luna’, an odd track in the band’s catalogue, built out of a studio jam between Lynch on drums and Petty on Hammond organ. Lynch also plays the synth part.
Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid)
from Damn the Torpedoes, 1979
Damn the Torpedoes was Petty’s commercial breakthrough – signed to MCA Records and produced by Jimmy Iovine, he sounded bigger and bolder than before on hits like ‘Refugee’ and ‘Even the Losers’. According to setlist.fm, the album track ‘Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid)’ often served as the opener on the Damn the Torpedoes tour. It makes sense – it’s fast-paced, and like some of Petty’s material from his early period there’s more than a hint of power-pop.
from Hard Promises, 1981
Stevie Nicks was a fan of Tom Petty. When she asked him to produce her first solo album, he instead recommended Jimmy Iovine. She also implored him to write a song for her – Petty came up with the gentle ‘Insider’. But, as he told American Songwriter, “I was really attached to it. And it really hurt me when I did the track and the vocals. So I said, [softly] “Stevie, I can’t give you this.” And she said, “Well, I can relate to that. I completely understand. I’ll take something else.”
That something else was ‘Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around’ – a bluesy rocker written by Petty and Campbell. ‘Draggin” was Nicks’ first solo single, reaching #3 on the charts.
from Long After Dark, 1982
1982’s Long After Dark featured the lead single ‘You Got Lucky’, a smug synth-pop song that’s a misfire from the usually reliable Petty. Petty later said that “[‘You Got Lucky’] was almost a throwaway. Almost just tossed off. And the next thing we know, it’s the single.” Deep cut ‘Deliver Me’ would have made a much better lead single, a punchy rocker with a strong riff – instead it stands as one of Petty’s best deep cuts.
from Southern Accents, 1985
After five albums of southern-tinged rock and roll with The Heartbreakers, Petty strove to break free from the band’s formula with Southern Accents. He broke a hand punching the wall in frustration during the recording of ‘Rebels’. The b-side of ‘Rebels’ was the title track of Southern Accents – it adds some strings, but it feels natural and heartfelt. Petty told the Los Angeles Times in 2002 – “that may be my favourite among my songs – just in terms of a piece of pure writing. I remember writing it very vividly.”
from Into the Great Wide Open, 1991
Petty successfully reinvented himself with the acoustic jangle and glossy Jeff Lynne production of his 1989 solo album Full Moon Fever. He brought back the Heartbreakers, but kept Lynne on board, for 1991’s Into the Great Wide Open. It’s one of his most even albums; Petty released seven singles from Into the Great Wide Open, but somehow ‘Two Gunslingers’ wasn’t one of them.
Petty said that “Oh, I love that one. It’s one of my favorites. The whole idea of a gunslinger questioning his existence is great, saying, “I’m taking control of my life.” It really cracks me up, still, that song (laughs). I was tremendously pleased with that one. That was one of those rare moments when I actually got to say something and entertain the people at the same time. I wrote it in a couple of hours. Written during the Gulf War.”
from Wildflowers, 1994
Petty considered 1994’s Wildflowers his best studio album. It was created when his life was in flux – his marriage was disintegrating, while longtime Heartbreakers’ drummer Stan Lynch was kicked out of the band. There is a clutch of impressive and intimate low-key songs on Wildflowers, but the title track sets the tone from the start. It’s a masterful piece of songwriting, a gracious breakup song. ‘Wildflowers’ was never a single, although it’s one of Petty’s most-streamed songs on Spotify.
from Echo, 1999
Echo chronicled a dark period in Petty’s life – he’d divorced in 1996, gone through a period of heroin addiction, and watched Heartbreakers’ bassist Howie Epstein fall apart. Epstein missed the photo shoot for Echo and would pass away in 2003, shortly after his dismissal from the band. Petty’s still working through his personal issues on ‘Lonesome Sundown’. “The words changed several times in that song,” said Petty. “I worked on that one a lot more than the others.” The other Heartbreakers contribute to the sadness that pervades ‘Lonesome Sundown’ – there are mournful harmonies from Epstein and a typically restrained yet accomplished solo from Campbell.
The Trip to Pirate’s Cove
from Mojo, 2010
This list skips the first ten years of the 2000s – Petty had a lean decade by his consistent standards. On 2010’s Mojo he changed his approach – its looser and funkier, letting his talented band off the leash. It’s fun hearing Benmont Tench’s layer on slinky electric piano and organ, backing Petty’s rambling story of a road trip; “And she was kinda cute/If a little past her prime”.
from Hypnotic Eye, 2014
The final song on Petty’s final studio album, ‘Shadow People’ plays as a farewell – not least because it closes with an acoustic coda. Like ‘Pirate’s Cove’, it’s a bluesy rocker – Petty lost much of his melodic flair in his later years and leaning on blues progressions and giving Mike Campbell’s guitar room to shine was a wise move.
What’s your favourite Tom Petty deep cut?
More from Aphoristic Album Reviews
Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Read about the discographies of musical acts from the 1960s to the present day. Browse this site's review archives or enjoy these random selections:
I add new blog posts to this website every week. Browse the archives or enjoy these random selections: