Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is, ultimately, an uneven record. Taking their official lineup into account, only eight of the ten tracks can really be considered Heartbreakers songs. And due to their formation in the studio, while the album’s sessions were already underway, their collective sound isn’t as unified as it would be on all future records.
Still, all of the songs are good (to varying extents), and a few of them foreshadow the greatness that would soon become consistent for the band. “Breakdown” and “American Girl” are the obvious indicators, especially given Petty’s reputation as a hitmaker. “The Wild One, Forever” is a precursor to “Here Comes My Girl,” “Angel Dream,” and so many other beautiful love songs. And “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It),” with Petty’s snarling vocals and acidic lyrics and the band’s equally intense performance, sets up a successful blueprint that they would employ on later hits such as “You Got Lucky” and “I Should Have Known It.”
It appears they had this formula down pat from the get-go, as “Fooled Again” is one of the best tracks on the record and one of the Heartbreakers’ strongest overall early songs. Tom turns in one of his most focused vocal deliveries on the album; he is practically seething in the verses, yet remains in control of the melody. He handles the melodic dips wonderfully in the choruses, and expertly applies every screamed “I don’t like it!” Petty hit his vocal stride on Damn The Torpedoes and Hard Promises, but it’s clear listening to “Fooled Again” that he already knew and had what it took to deliver a strong performance, at least on a hard-rocking tune.
The intensity of his singing perfectly reflects the anger of the lyrics. He begins the song telling his lover about the “strange voice on the telephone telling me I better leave you ‘lone.” It’s this incident that makes him realize he’s been cheated on; “looks like I’m the fool again.” The second verse is quintessential Petty:
You never said you had no number two
I need to know about it if you do
If two is one, I might as well be three
It’s good to see you think so much of me
The cleverness of the third line would be good enough for many songwriters, but the biting sarcasm of the fourth line is brilliant. The third line creates a double meaning, referring to either his feeling of diminished importance by way of number ranking, or him feeling like a third wheel. The sharp jab that immediately follows is the best possible way to convey the utter frustration that comes along with the situation.
The Heartbreakers certainly do their part on hammering home that feeling, constructing a wall of sound that’s meaner and beefier than anything else on the record. The main chord progression creates fantastic tension. It’s ascending figure is incredibly menacing, which is interesting considering that descending figures generally sound darker (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Dazed And Confused,” “Brain Stew,” etc.). The second and third chords create literal musical tension (desire for a chord or melody to be resolved) by incorporating notes that aren’t found in standard major and minor chords, which are both made up of the first, third, and fifth notes of that chord’s scale. The addition of other notes in the scale to these chords create a slightly uneasy feeling, but Tom, Mike, and Jeff Jourard (indicating this was one of the first songs recorded after the group formed) lay on them with confidence and force.
Benmont Tench, after being absent for both “Anything That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll” and “Strangered In The Night,” works some cool magic on “Fooled Again.” He creeps in with subtle organ in the intro, laying low underneath the surface for the first verse before attacking the chorus with a string-emulating synthesizer. It could easily be cheesy, but it works surprisingly well, and ends up making the track that much more atmospheric. He effortlessly switches back and forth between the two for the next verse and chorus, and for good measure, throws in an excellently placed electric piano during Mike and Jeff’s harmonized riff after the second chorus. His layering is smart and effective, and per usual, he plays an integral part in taking the song to greater heights.
Ron Blair and Stan Lynch do a commendable job of boosting the song’s propulsive rhythm. They match up with the chordal hits so swiftly and powerfully that the groove rarely feels settling; in the end, that is exactly the treatment that the track needs. Ron’s fills in the verses are understated, in the sense that they don’t exactly pop out every single time, but the song would be clearly lacking without them. Much like “Breakdown,” “Fooled Again” demonstrates how tight Ron and Stan were locked into each other, even at such an early stage. The guitars are loud, mean, and awesome, but it’s the precise work of these two that really help the song truly rock — and rock harder than any other song on the record.
Tom clearly still thinks highly of the song, and understandably so. Aside from the two big hits and a few performances of “Strangered In The Night” in 2003, “Fooled Again” is the only song from the debut album that has made multiple appearances at Heartbreakers shows in the 21st century, and on separate tours (2006, 2011, and 2013). And while Tom’s voice has softened a bit in recent years, he still provides this track with a perfect amount of snarl, and the band still matches it accordingly.
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