Into the Great Wide Open: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Breakdown” (1976)

“‘Breakdown,’ I wrote that, and we cut it. It was really long. Maybe seven or eight minutes … And somewhere near the end, [Mike] played that lick … Dwight Twilley came in, and when that lick came by, he goes, ‘That’s the lick! Oh man, that’s the lick!’ So we stopped the tape, rolled back and listened to that lick. And I said, ‘Yeah’ … By now it’s one or two in the morning. And I called [The Heartbreakers] and had them all come back. They had all gone home. I called them, and they came back at two-thirty or three in the morning, and we cut the song. The version you now know.”

After reading Tom’s recollection of the “Breakdown” recording session, the mood of the song makes a lot more sense. In fact, with its laid-back groove, interweaving parts, and spacious atmosphere, it’s almost impossible to imagine it being recorded any time other than the middle of the night. The Heartbreakers’ drive and determination paid off; the late-night session spawned the first great song they ever committed to record.

“Breakdown” improves on “Rockin’ Around (With You)” in every single way. Musically, it is the first sign of the group’s impeccable ability to construct a unified sound. Stan Lynch sets everything up with a killer beat, sparsely alternating between the kick drum, snare, and hi-hat. As the rest of the instruments settle in, he makes sure to keep it steady, giving the song a very hypnotic feel. When the first chorus hits, he begins to vary the hi-hat rhythms and augment the beat with well-placed tom hits, appropriately mirroring the arc of the song without sacrificing the groove. Lynch has remarked that to his ears, his playing on the first couple Heartbreakers records sounds stiff; while this may be argued for certain songs, he has a remarkable feel and shows impressive restraint on “Breakdown,” making it one of his best early performances.

Ron Blair locks right in with Lynch’s bass drum hits, while also contributing some subtle slides and fills during the song’s brief breaks. During Blair’s original stint with the group (which concluded after the Hard Promises tour), he consistently fit the mold of a solid bassist: knowing his place as a member of the rhythm section, contributing to the song’s groove, and standing out when it was applicable. Blair and Lynch won’t often be discussed alongside Jones and Bonham, Entwhistle and Moon, or Bruce and Baker in conversations concerning the best rock ‘n’ roll rhythm sections, but they consistently filled their roles accordingly and were a key element in the Heartbreakers’ sound. Their tightness on “Breakdown” serves as proof of this.

Mike Campbell’s slinky descending riff (the one that Petty and Dwight Twilley zeroed in on) is truly masterful, in the sense that it sounds completely obvious and natural despite its unique melodic intervals. Campbell plays the lick with the absolute perfect tone; it is biting enough to stand out and contribute to the song’s mood, but it retains a certain smoothness so as not to overpower anything too much. However, it must be said that although the riff is the most famous part of the song (and understandably so), it’s Benmont Tench’s electric piano work that serves as the real meat of the track. The oscillating figure he plays during the verses ties everything together wonderfully, and is just as important as Campbell’s riff. He appears to pay a small tribute to Ray Manzarek in the verse breaks, and also provides a quick, Billy Preston-esque solo after the first chorus to shake things up a bit. Of course, no one doubts the brilliance of Campbell or Tench, nor their vast contributions to the group. Still, it’s pretty remarkable to hear this track and know it was the first of so many that they helped elevate to greatness.

The culmination of all these exemplary performances is an extraordinary, moody backdrop that, like many other songs on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, doesn’t sound like any other Heartbreakers track. In the case of “Breakdown,” this is not a slight at all; if anything, it speaks to their remarkable diversity as a group that their first hit doesn’t mirror the sound of any later hits, yet remains relevant and timeless. It should be said that Jeff Jourard is also credited as playing electric guitar on this track; Jourard was in the band that Tench had put together to perform his solo songs, and was briefly a member of the Heartbreakers before they decided to stick with the two-guitar setup. It appears that his contribution is limited to doubling Campbell’s riff in between the first and second chorus and possibly playing rhythm electric in the choruses, so it’s safe to say that the song’s signature sound is a result of the core original group.

Whereas “Rockin’ Around (With You)” didn’t leave anything to the imagination lyrically, “Breakdown” is a much more interesting set of lyrics. Is Tom reaching out to a potential lover, both of them seething in lust? It’s a possibility. “There is no sense in pretending, your eyes give you away. Something inside you is feeling like I do; we’ve said all there is to say.” The subsequent chorus would be the breaking point, with Tom letting his guard down, crying out for her to “give it to me” and “take me through the night.” However, it’s just as likely that this is one side of a dialogue between doomed significant others. If this is the story, Tom is playing the role of the frustrated man, overconfident and/or extremely observant of his partner’s habits and patterns (“I’m not afraid of you running away, honey — I get the feeling you won’t”). In this situation, his call for the breakdown is much more serious. It’s an attempt to get her to reveal her true emotions, assuring her that whatever they are, “it’s all right.” In 1980, Grace Jones recorded a reggae version of the song. Petty wrote a third verse for her cover: “It’s okay if you must go; I’ll understand if you don’t. You say goodbye right now, I’ll still survive somehow. Why should we let this drag on?” This verse lends more to the theory of the song being about a soured relationship, but the original set of lyrics is intriguing in its ambiguity.

In addition to it being his first exceptional lyrical effort, it’s also Tom’s first really strong vocal performance. He effectively matches both the brooding quietness of the verses and the more sinister attack of the choruses. Especially notable is the opening “baby” of the first chorus; after singing in his middle range during the verses, the melodic jump is smart and passionate. Tom Petty will never be mistaken for having great vocal technique (nor would Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, or so many others; who says you need great vocal technique to be a great vocalist?), but he has always made the most out of his range and written the best melodies for it. This is highly evident in “Breakdown.” He is joined on the choruses by Stan, possibly Benmont, and the late Phil Seymour, who at the time was also signed to Shelter as a member of the Dwight Twilley Band. They provide soaring background vocals that are very reminiscent of Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles, which gives the second half of the chorus a bigger, fuller feel. Their presence is the final piece in creating what is an unbelievably complete song.

The famous live version of “Breakdown,” recorded at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles in August 1985 and released later that year on Pack Up The Plantation: Live!, features Tom singing the first line of the song; the audience responds by completing the rest of the verse, the entire second verse, and the first chorus, complete with background vocals. It demonstrates exactly how memorable the song is; 38 years later, it still sounds fresh, and is one of the biggest highlights of the first record.

Dylan Sevey

A Rhode Island-based writer and musician, Sevey is an avid listener of blues, jazz, folk, and rock 'n' roll. He serves as frontman for Dylan Sevey and the Gentlemen (www.facebook.com/ dylanseveymusic), and is the drummer for Smith and Weeden (www.facebook.com/ smithandweeden). Twitter and Instagram @dylansevey; contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.