45 Years Ago: Tom Petty Gets Nasty on ‘I Need to Know’
Tom Petty was pissed off, punky and sneering on the first single from his second album with the Heartbreakers. He also had his heart breaking on his sleeve.
"Well, the talk on the street is you might go solo / Good friend of mine saw you leavin' by your back door," Petty barks at the start of "I Need to Know." This two-minute and 24-second assault kicks off the second side of You're Gonna Get It!, which was released about a month before the single.
Petty is practically spitting as he demands of the woman in question "if you think you're gonna leave then you better say so." But the bravado recedes, just a bit, as he confesses that "I don't know how long I can hold on / If you're making me wait, if you're leadin' me on..."
"The guy in that song maybe isn't really as tough as it sounds like he's trying to be," Petty told this writer during the early '80s. "He's on the attack ... but he's hurting, too. I think you can hear that."
You can find that guy in quite a few Petty songs. "I Need to Know" in particular sounds like a sequel to You're Gonna Get It!'s other single, "Listen to Her Heart." (The two were actually the first songs he and the Heartbreakers had for the album.)
Listen to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' 'I Need to Know'
"Listen to Her Heart" was inspired by Ike Turner putting the make on Petty's first wife during a party in Los Angeles, and comes off a bit more vulnerable and hopeful. It's also sung to the would-be lothario, while the accusatory "I Need to Know" sounds like the sentiment that comes in the aftermath – after the couple leaves the party.
"I have this reoccurring character that always comes back in different forms, this escaping woman kind of thing," Petty told Mojo in 1999. "I keep trying to leave that character, but she always comes back in. I thought I'd gotten rid of her. ... Sometimes I wonder if it's me. I wonder if I'm singing about me in some way, and don't want to do it, so I transfer it over to a woman."
Petty and the Heartbreakers had been playing "I Need to Know" as well as "Listen to Her Heart" during live shows after the release of the group's self-titled first album. They performed "I Need to Know" during a June 1977 visit to Germany's Rockpalast TV show, 11 months before its release.
Watch Tom Petty Perform 'I Need to Know' in Concert
Petty wrote "I Need to Know" at a friend's house in Florida; he told author Paul Zollo in the book Conversations With Tom Petty that "the inspiration for that song was Wilson Pickett's 'Land of a Thousand Dances.' Listen to that song and you'll hear that kind of rhythm. And that's where that came from, I'm sure."
The group recorded You're Gonna Get It! quickly, the album's 28-minute length an indication of how anxious they were to put some more music out. "The first album was breaking almost a year after we had recorded it," Petty told Zollo, "and we were tired of playing that first album. We wanted to get some more product out there. So we really quickly did that [second] record. Wrote it and recorded it really quickly – and it did pretty well for us."
"I Need to Know" hit No. 41 on the Billboard 200, just one spot below the re-release of the first album's "Breakdown" not long before. It's been included on most of Petty's compilations, including Greatest Hits, Playback, Anthology: Through the Years and The Best of Everything. You're Gonna Get It!, meanwhile, reached No. 23 on the Billboard 200, 32 spots better than the debut. It was also certified gold.
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