At the time they released their 2nd album in 1978, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers were a struggling band hoping to break through. They had plenty to prove, and there was still a punky edge to their sound– clearly evident on the first single from the album, “I Need To Know”. At a tight two-minute-and-twenty-six-seconds, there’s no fat on this track– just a great song, a taste of the brilliant music to come.
“I Need To Know” (Tom Petty) Copyright 1977 Almo Music Corp (ASCAP)
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This is the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast, and I’m your host, Brad Page. Each episode here on the Pantheon Podcast Network, we take a song and explore it together, listening to all the elements, the arrangements, the performance and the production that makes it a great song. Musical experience or knowledge is not necessary here, we don’t get into things like music theory. We’re just going to put our ears to work and see or hear what we discover.
All the way back in episode number two of this show, our second episode ever, we listened to Tom Petty and a song from his third album called “Even the Losers”, one of my all-time favorite songs. It’s been over a hundred episodes since then, so I think it’s time we revisit Tom Petty. On this edition of the podcast, we’re taking a deep dive into a song from his second album. This is a song called “I Need To Know”.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers worked their way up through the ranks, starting out in Gainesville, FL, eventually landing in Los Angeles with a record deal with Shelter Records. They released their first album in November 1976, and though the album featured the single “Breakdown”, which would become one of Petty’s most iconic songs, at that time, neither the single or the album got much attention at all. Here in 1976, this was a band still struggling to make it, even though they had a record out.
However, things were looking a little brighter over in the UK. They were getting some airplay there, and so the band headed to England for a tour as the opening act for Nils Lofgren. They appeared on Top of the Pops and the old Grey Whistle Test TV shows. Not bad for their first time out. But when they got back to America, they were still nobodies here.
ABC Records, which distributed Shelter, had pretty much given up on the album in the States. It had been out for eight months and it didn’t seem like it was going anywhere. They only sold 12,000 copies. But one of ABC’s promotion guys, a guy by the name of John Scott, heard the record and liked it, and figured he could do something with it. He had no budget and not much support from the label, but he believed in this record, in this band and he worked his ass off.
Slowly but surely, “Breakdown” was added to radio playlists across the country. A year and a half after it was first released– a lifetime ago in the pop music world—“Breakdown” hit the top 40.
Then, the band were thinking about their next album. There’s a cliché, that also happens to be true: that an artist has their whole life to write their first album, and then six months to come up with their second.
Many bands burn through all their best material on their first album, then are immediately thrown out on the road to tour to promote that album, and then sent back into the studio to record their second album.
Not much time to write a bunch of good songs for that record, but for the Heartbreakers, luckily, magically, the songs for the second album came together pretty fast. There were a couple of tunes the band had found time to develop while they were on the road. “I Need To Know” was one of them.
“I Need To Know” was written by Tom Petty. It was released as the first single from the second album, called “You’re Gonna Get It”. The album was produced by Denny Cordell, Noah Shark and Tom Petty, and features Tom Petty on guitar and lead vocals, Stan Lynch on drums, Ron Blair on bass, Benmont Tench on keyboards, and Mike Campbell on lead guitar.
The song begins powerfully with all the instruments coming in at once. There are two guitar parts, I assume one’s played by Tom Petty and one by Mike Campbell. One is panned left, the other panned right.
That is just a great rock and roll guitar tone. Love it. The piano played by Benmont Tench is more or less panned straight up the middle. It’s lower in the mix, but he’s really rocking out here on this intro.
If you’re more familiar with Petty’s later material and that sort of sardonic, laid-back vocal style of his, it’s easy to forget just how in-your-face and punky his vocals used to be. Let’s listen to those vocals.
You can hear there’s some echo on his vocal there. One of my favorite elements of the arrangement of the song is next on the chorus, where the backing vocals repeat the title. After he sings the line, they are reinforcing his feelings and backing him up. It adds to the intensity of the song, increasing that sense of anxiety.
Let’s hear the chorus with the whole band.
Here’s the second verse, and let’s listen into the bass and drums this time around.
There’s a great scream coming up here that leads into the guitar solo. Let’s hear that scream.
And here’s the guitar solo by Mike Campbell. Let’s go back to the chorus one more time, with just the vocals and the keyboards. Because Benmont Tench is playing a really great part. Along with the piano, he’s also overdubbed an organ.
Now also if you listen closely to the last chorus, you can hear they’ve overdubbed a guitar playing these spiky little guitar stabs. They’re very low in the mix at first.
Those guitar stabs are a little more prominent this time.
“I Need To Know” by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers
“You’re Gonna Get It’, the second album from The Heartbreakers is kind of an overlooked album, coming after their debut album, which also had one of their biggest hits, “Breakdown”, and right before the “Damn The Torpedoes” album, arguably their masterpiece. It’s easy for this record to kind of get lost, but I think it’s a great album.
And we may never have gotten this record, or the great music that followed, if it weren’t for the behind-the-scenes people like John Scott, that promotions guy, who wouldn’t give up on this little rock and roll band.
Nobody makes it on their own. Every artist has people out of the limelight that put their heart and soul into supporting that artist. So, here’s a toast to people like John Scott, the people that no one ever hears about, but without them, we wouldn’t have gotten many of the great songs that we love. And of course, let’s pay tribute to Tom Petty himself, who died too early in 2017. He left behind a legacy of great songs, but I know he still had a lot more great music left in him. It was a huge loss.
Well, thanks as always, for being a part of this edition of the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast. Share with us some of your favorite Tom Petty songs or memories. Post them on our Facebook page, or on Podchaser, or wherever it is that you listen to the show.
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