Hear Tom Petty's Home Recording Of "You Don't Know How It Feels"

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Hear Tom Petty's Home Recording Of "You Don't Know How It Feels"

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(Photo by Luciano Viti/Getty Images)

Wildflowers was the first album on which Tom Petty worked with master producer Rick Rubin, a master of simplicity. It followed two albums produced by Tom’s Traveling Wilburys pal Jeff Lyne, a man whose arrangement and production style was anything but basic. Remember, this was the guy who had used strings on Chuck Berry songs with ELO. Petty’s first album with Lynne, his first solo album Full Moon Fever, contained the hit “I Won’t Back Down”; and his second, Into the Great Wide Open, which was credited as a Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ album, contained the US hit “Learning to Fly”. These two tunes reveal that Petty was already heading in a direction that must’ve seemed counter-intuitive to Lynn - a producer who couldn’t resist the use of synthesizers and drum machines - from the get-go. Indeed, Petty has been stripping back his songs to bare bones – even seemingly doing away with any decorative notes or chords – since at least the time he’d given the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart the flick, so Rick Rubin was an obvious go-to guy.

The simplicity of approach was no more apparent than on the album’s first single, “You Don’t Know It Feels”. Kicking in with a simple loping groove, the drums are the lead instrument – everything else is muted, and the opening harmonica phrase is just there for color – until the chords come in after the verse and take us through the bridge and chorus. Lyrically a loner’s song – “You don’t know how it feels, to be me” – it’s significant that it came from a Petty solo album – an album that actually features all and sundry Heartbreakers as session musicians.  Wildflowers was Petty’s second solo album. His first, 1989’s Full Moon Fever, had caused resentment from his band members and led to the departure of drummer Stan Lynch; making a second solo album after just one record with the band showed that Petty was more than willing to go it alone.

It’s also significant, in an era of hair metal and stadium bombast, that Petty chose to record a song of such homespun folksy simplicity. This folksiness would have perhaps even greater significance a year or so after the album’s release, when Rick Rubin dragged Tom and the Heartbreakers into the studio with his other new charge, Johnny Cash, for the recording of American II: Unchained. Tom and the boys, who a decade earlier had toured with Johnny’s old mate Bob Dylan, would prove themselves once and for all to be mainstream rock’s greatest contemporary connection with the early influences of folk and country. While the country, folk and blues scenes had long-held inter-generational connections between musicians – and a respect for their elders that was embedded into every musician’s psyche - rock musicians were less likely to engage, and when they did, they perhaps wore the elder as something of a badge of credibility, like U2 did with BB King on Rattle & Hum. Of course, Tom had already made some other older pals in the Traveling Wilburys, and he’d already produced albums for both early ‘60s rocker Del Shannon and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds (Petty’s final project would be an album for another former Byrd, Chris Hillman), and he and the Heartbreakers were willing and able to work in the studio and on stage as a humble backing band.  

“Humble” is a keyword here, and Wildflowers established Petty – and the Heartbreakers, who didn’t even demand billing on the album – as amongst rock’s most humble and graceful figures, willing and able to move into middle age with dignity, unlike most in rock who had reached that point previously.  Similarly, “You Don’t Know How It Feels” was Petty’s self-proclamation of singularity; yes, he led the Heartbreakers, but he wasn’t bound to them. From this point on, he would eschew modern gadgetry in the recording studio and stick with earthy sounds that ensured his records sounded timeless. And he would do whatever the hell he wanted to do. This in turn gave Petty – and the Heartbreakers  – the sort of enduring popularity that most artists can only dream about.

Available now, “You Don’t How It Feels” (Home Recording) is less drum/groove-heavy, but otherwise the instrumentation is very similar to the familiar version. It shows Petty’s strength as an artist, and, by comparison to the studio recording, Rubin’s strength as a producer. It makes clear that Rubin let Petty follow his own instincts while at the same time finding something in the song that Petty himself had overlooked. It provides fascinating insight, and if you’re a Petty fan, it’s an essential listen.

And, here's the original...

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