Over the course of a 40-year career, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had plenty of hit songs. The fan favorites just kept coming with each album, starting with their self-titled debut, which spawned two songs – “Breakdown” and “American Girl” – that would remain in the set lists for the next four decades.
When Petty diverged into solo albums, he found big songs there, too. His first venture on his own, 1989’s Full Moon Fever, included instant classics “I Won’t Back Down,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and “Free Fallin’.”
It was never about numbers for Petty; it was about what resonated with fans. And even though he’d occasionally dip into deeper cuts at his concerts, he knew what he’d want to hear if he attended a Tom Petty show. “If I was a fan, and they didn’t play ‘American Girl’ or ‘Free Fallin’,’ I’d be disappointed,” he told Rolling Stone as he started 2017’s 40th-anniversary tour.
With a catalog as vast as Petty’s, it makes sense that some great songs never left the studio and made it onto the stage. Below we run down our Top 10 Songs Tom Petty Never Played Live.
10. “Feel a Whole Lot Better”
From: Full Moon Fever (1989)
When it came to carrying the torch of Laurel Canyon folk-rock, no artist was better suited for the job than Petty. On his debut solo album, he paid direct homage to one of his biggest influences, the Byrds, with a cover of “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” which originally appeared on the band’s classic 1965 album, Mr. Tambourine Man. Even though the Heartbreakers frequently performed covers in their shows – including a rendition of another Byrds song, “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” — this harmony-laden track never appeared in their sets.
9. “Red River”
From: Hypnotic Eye (2014)
Petty’s last album with the Heartbreakers, 2014’s Hypnotic Eye, showed no signs of an aging rock band. If anything, it showcased the experience and wisdom gathered after several decades of songwriting. So it’s a bit surprising that “Red River,” one of the album’s two singles, was never performed live. “I’m a big fan of the things Jesus had to say,” he told USA Today in 2014. “I’m not religious at all, and I never heard him say I had to be. But I do hear him saying God is within you. ‘Red River’ is not quite that deep. I was having fun with the idea of this girl trying to find whatever it is she’s looking for, and she’s not sure what that is.”
8. “The Trip to Pirate’s Cove”
From: Mojo (2010)
Like many artists of his generation, Petty, who hailed from the southern bayous of Florida, grew up on ’60s R&B. But it wasn’t until 2010’s Mojo that he and the Heartbreakers deliberately incorporated that influence into an album. One of the more mellow tracks, “The Trip to Pirate’s Cove,” painted a vivid picture of some friends cruising the California coast, causing trouble along the way: “We lost a wheel in Santa Cruz so we partied with some motel maids. My friend said I don’t like mine, so what do you say we trade?“
7. “You Can Still Change Your Mind”
From: Hard Promises (1981)
Fleetwood Mac‘s Stevie Nicks was a regular guest on the Heartbreakers stage, lending her voice to songs like “Learning to Fly” and “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” But she never got the chance to sing “You Can Still Change Your Mind” in front of an audience, although her voice is prominently heard in the recorded version. The tender closing track on Hard Promises features an arrangement written mostly by guitarist Mike Campbell. “I thought it sounded like something that could have been in the Beach Boys‘ catalog somewhere,” Petty said in 2005’s Conversations With Tom Petty, “Very different from what we normally do.”
6. “Won’t Last Long”
From: Echo (1999)
Perhaps part of the reason “Won’t Last Long” never appeared at any concerts is because Petty had quite literally forgotten he had penned the song. “I have no memory of writing it,” he said later, recalling a moment when his wife played the record. “I thought, ‘What a cool song.’ … It was such an odd feeling when it came on, because I was listening to it really as somebody who was hearing it for the first time.” With a driving guitar riff beneath his vocal, Petty recites a mantra of hope: “I’m down, but it won’t last long.”
5. “A Self-Made Man”
From: Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) (1987)
There’s something comical about “Self-Made Man,” a jaunty number with a semi-swing beat. But when the chorus kicks in, an underlying sense of anguish bursts through: “So help me baby, look what love can do. It scares me baby, does it scare you too?” According to Petty, Johnny Cash came close to covering the song, but the country legend didn’t think his voice lent itself to the song’s major seventh chord. The pair later collaborated on a cover of Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” from Cash’s 2000 album American III: Solitary Man.
4. “You Tell Me”
From: Damn the Torpedoes (1979)
Keyboardist Benmont Tench was often the Heartbreakers’ ace in the hole, especially onstage. His sturdy playing on “You Tell Me” almost serves as another rhythm guitar if it wasn’t for the delicate riffs that occasionally show up between Petty’s vocals. “Let me know when you’re finished with me,” the singer laments. “What you want me to be? Baby, you tell me.”
3. “Grew Up Fast”
From: Songs and Music From ‘She’s the One’ (1996)
Some songs seem built to be performed live … like “Grew Up Fast” from the She’s the One soundtrack album. The verses are subtle, with Petty’s rich vocal backed by a quiet hand-drum rhythm, but when the chorus lands and the full band enters, it’s off to the races. It’s the juxtaposition between the segments that keeps listeners engaged throughout the song and would have revved up live audiences. When the tension fully breaks midway, a short jam session ensues with a bluesy electric piano solo by Tench and gritty guitar section from Campbell.
2. “Between Two Worlds”
From: Long After Dark (1982)
Tench and Campbell once again showcase their give-and-take at the start of this Long After Dark deep track, with the guitar lines gracing the top of the dramatic piano intro. “That’s a good example of the Heartbreakers as a live group, just finding their way,” Petty later said of the song, noting that the introduction wasn’t planned or rehearsed. It fell naturally into place during recording. While the song was never performed by the Heartbreakers, Campbell has covered the song live with his band the Dirty Knobs.
From: You’re Gonna Get It! (1978)
A sweet song about a fleeting southern romance originally written for Roger McGuinn, “Magnolia” was eventually turned down by the Byrds member. In it, Petty recounts a delicate story of a warm-weather rendezvous with a woman he likely won’t ever see again: “I know that she’s out there somewhere in the world. She’s forgotten me but I remember her.” It’s easy to hear the lyrics echoing across an amphitheater during one of Petty and the Heartbreakers’ many summer tours.
Tom Petty Albums Ranked
He’s a rock ‘n’ roll rarity: an artist who was consistent until the very end.