Breakdown By Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (Shelter, 1978)

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Tom Petty is a rock and roll legend. That should not be understated. He is considered the leader of the heartland rock movement and an American icon. Their blue collar stick-it-to-the-man punk energy may have mellowed over time, but his lyrics and attitude have always been straight forward, getting right to the heart of their intention. Tom & the Heartbreakers were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, the first year they were eligible.

Interestingly the first people to embrace him were not the US; they were the British. TPH had 2 Top 40 hits in the UK (Anything That’s Rock N Roll, American Girl)  before having any success in their native homeland. Of course once they had some some fortunes Stateside, they began to break out in a big way. And it all started with their first failed single which refused to die – Breakdown.

Breakdown was the first single released from The Heartbreakers self-titled debut in late 1976. It had a simmering mysterious quality to it due partly to Benmont Tench’s soulful keyboards and Mike Campbell’s melancholy downwards lick on the guitar over a steady, taking-my-time drum beat. Building up with Tom’s lo-fi verses crescendoing into a snarling chorus with label mate, Phil Seymour on back up vocals. Then it drops back down to a more confidently sung verse, like Ali going back to his corner before another round. Tom hits the chorus hard again before slithering away like snake that finished his meal with ‘go ahead and give it to me’ seemingly a dare to his partner. And who doesn’t dig that fake intro? But…

It flopped. So did the subsequent 2 singles they released, even as they garnered status overseas. But as the band kept touring in the UK and in the US, Shelter Records decided to re-release the 45 in the Fall of 1977. The song’s chart run on the Hot 100 was a testament to Tom’s never say die energy, so let me lay it out for you.

November 5th, 1977 – The song debuts on the Hot 100 at #90, one spot below (Love Is) Thicker Than Water by Andy Gibb and one spot above Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood by Santa Esmeralda, both of which would peak higher than Breakdown. The #1 song was You Light Up My Life by Debby Boone. We needed Tom more than ever!

November 12th, 1977 – Breakdown jumps 10 spots to #80. Runaround Sue by Leif Garrett debuts at #79. It, too, would peak higher.

November 19th, 1977 – Breakdown jumps another 10 places to #70. Leif jumps 20 spots. Also I Honestly Love You by Olivia Newton-John, a former #1 from 1974 has been re-released and sits at #63.

November 26th, 1977 – Happy Thanksgiving. But not for Tom who only moves 5 notches to #65 as the song loses its bullet. Meanwhile future Wilbury, Jeff Lynne, leapfrogs Tom with the new ELO single Turn To Stone, now at #63, up 18 spots.

Now this is where stuff gets real…

December 3rd, 1977 – Breakdown falls 35 spots to #100. What the hell happened? How did radio and those who held interest in the song just give up? Leif Garrett not only enters the Top 40 but sits on top of Tom with another former hit, Surfin’ USA at #99. That’s right, folks. On this day we preferred two Leif Garrett cover songs to our American icon – Tom Petty.

So let’s recap: In early December 1977, The British love Tom Petty. The US loves Leif Garrett. That’s not a world I ever want to live in again.

Now that the song was on its way off the charts, it would be very difficult for it to ever become a Top 40 hit or just a well-known single. Remember this was the label’s second attempt to have a hit with this song. Maybe Tom and the band won’t even get a chance at a 2nd album. Would Shelter or ABC records drop them?

Thankfully they never had to go down that road. Through word of mouth and constant touring, miraculously the song rebounded. [I’m imagining a lot of cool parents or hip uncles and aunts buying the single or album for their kids/nephews during that Christmas.] And over the next 11 weeks, within the time span of 2 different Bee Gees #1 songs, it moved up 60 spots to finally hit #40 and Casey Kasem called the band’s name on February 18, 1978, its 16th week on the chart. It eventually became the only Top 40 song for the band in the 70s, even though they released 3 albums during that decade. [Don’t Do Me Like That peaked in February 1980 at #10.] Tom and Breakdown did not back down and it was the first of 16 Top 40 hits for him, with and without his band.

Success never comes easy. Careers like Tom’s don’t happen overnight. You gotta want it. And you gotta get lucky. Even though this would be the first of many struggles for Tom in the music industry, Tom wanted it. Tom got lucky. And as music fans we should all be appreciative of that world, because we are all better for it.

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3 Comments

  1. You are fabulous at analyzing music and putting you spin on it. I enjoy every post on your blog!

    Reply
  2. Max

     /  October 10, 2017

    Amen to that last sentence . In the clear interest of self righteousness I had the 1st single – “Anything that’s rock -roll” and was on board from the first riff to the last. Tom is the only guy I own very single song/album by. Hell, I still don’t have 1 Beatles album fer Chissakes! ( live at the BBC, but still..)
    Tommy & the boys were there for every triumph and tragedy, every heartbreak they could pick me up and dust me off, temper my rage or ‘re-enforce my very belief system so succinctly in 3 minutes or less.
    When your Pastor leaves what do you do ? Take your lessons an move them forward as best you can. You and I will meet again ….
    On a side note :
    So girls were in those messages to be sure and when Olivia Newton John is breathing soft and close into that radio speaker that she ” Honestly Loves You”….Well, that’s fine,too !
    But F*** Leif Garrett….uuuggghhh!!!!

    Reply
  3. MLH

     /  October 11, 2017

    Thanks for posting your Tom Petty article… A really enjoyable read considering the sad circumstances.
    The man really was a rock legend who will be missed by his many fans worldwide for a long time to come.
    I hope his last tour was filmed… It would be such a shame if we’ve lost those last great moments of his life.

    Reply

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