Tom Petty is often regarded as one of the greatest rock and rollers of the 1970s and beyond, but something that remains underrated in his career is his powerful vocal performances. These isolated vocals for ‘I Need To Know’ prove that along with his gifted musicianship, he was equally as skilled as a lead singer, and it was his nasal Dylan-Esque tones that ultimately elevated the songs into notoriety.
A Florida boy who grew up idolising west coast bands and southern rock, Petty crafted a sound that came from a melting pot of influences. Eric Shea, a rock programmer at Pandora, said about his style: “Petty was the last true contributor to the California sound,” before he added: “Anybody familiar with his early recordings can draw a straight line to Roger McGuinn, from the 12 string Rickenbacker to the nasal-toned vocal inflections, to the note-for-note cover of Gene Clark’s ‘I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better’ — which was more of a re-creation than a cover. He even dropped out of school at 17 to play in Mudcrutch, which sounded like a band totally in love with Gram Parsons and The Flying Burrito Brothers.”
By 1978, Petty was at the beginning of his commercial career after the 1976 self-titled debut album of his band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, which included smash hits like ‘American Girl’ and ‘Breakdown’. But with their sophomore album, You’re Gonna Get It!, the band reached even bigger heights by receiving their first top 40 album, which set the tone for their successful career on the charts to come.
The short and sweet ‘I Need To Know’ comes in at number six in the ten-song tracklist, and reaches just under the two minutes and thirty seconds mark, making it the shortest on the album. With punchy lyrics and a simple melody, Petty believed that this new in-your-face style he was leaning into reflected his lifestyle and the world around him during this period.
In a 1993 interview conducted by his publicist, Mitch Schneider, Petty said about the song’s meaning: “Alienation! (laughs). Looking back, my thoughts from this period were very blunt, just little bursts of adrenalin. At the time, we were getting described as ‘urgent.’ I must have felt that way. But to me, it wasn’t obvious. You don’t write the song and say, ‘That’s urgent.’ We just wanted to make rock and roll records and ones that didn’t embarrass us.”
He also added about its meaning, “The song was actually inspired by Wilson Pickett’s ‘Land of a Thousand Dances.’ It’s almost the same riff, but with a different beat. I wanted a track like Wilson Pickett. Of course, it came out sounding nothing like Wilson Pickett, but it’s a pretty good song.”
Over the years, longtime friend and collaborator, Fleetwood Mac frontwoman Stevie Nicks, has performed ‘I Need To Know’ at her live shows and even sang a duet of the song with Petty in honour of the band’s 30th anniversary. Its catchy lyrics and upbeat energy encapsulate everything Petty was about— simplistic rock ‘n’ roll and a good time—and his isolated lyrics prove the brilliance in that.
Listen to Tom Petty’s isolated vocals for ‘I Need To Know’ below.