Certain Songs #1003: Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers – “I Need To Know”

Album: You’re Gonna Get It!
Year: 1978

This is the one. Right here.

While I thought “Breakdown” was OK, and I never heard “American Girl” on the radio, I was absolutely bowled by “I Need To Know” from the very start, as it blasted from the FM radio and maybe the AM as well.

I’m pretty sure it was this song — plus the reviews of You’re Gonna Get It (I remember that either CREEM or Circus or maybe Rolling Stone called it “California mystery rock”) (probably because of the “go back to California line in “Hurt”) — that spurred me to try Tom Petty in late 1978, and I’ve never looked back.

With Stan Lynch bashing away on his like a man possessed, Petty & Mike Campbell’s guitars barely have time to establish the main riff before a pissed-off Petty lays into what could be either an unfaithful lover or band mate.

Well the talk on the street
Says you might go solo
A good friend of mine saw you
Leavin’ by the back door

But of course, what makes “I Need To Know” one of TP’s trio of Power Pop classics is the brilliant call-and-response chorus, two parts catchy and two parts pissed.

I need to know (I need to know)
I need to know (I need to know)
If you think you’re gonna leave
Then you better say so
I need to know (I need to know)
I need to know (I need to know)

You’re singing it right now, just the call-and-response part, and that would be enough, but then they swing into a post-chorus:

Because I don’t know how long
I can hold on
And if you’re makin’ me waaaayyyeeeaaait
If you’re leadin’ me on
I need to know (I need to know)
I need to know (I need to know)

The genius part of that post-chorus, of course, is TP’s “making me waaaaayyyyeeeaaaaiiiit,” which perfectly contrasts with the relatively clipped vocals in the rest of the chorus.

With Benmont Tench providing the response vocals as well as myriad piano hooks throughout, “I Need To Know” has a perfunctory second verse, before getting back to that indelible chorus, not to mention a buzzsaw Campbell guitar solo introduced by a triple-tracked scream.

This is brilliant stuff. Everything I’ve ever wanted from rock and roll. And looking back, nearly 30 years later, you can tell that Petty is almost overwhelmed with all of the ideas he’s coming up with to decorate his otherwise incredibly simple songs. And it was only gonna get better.

“I Need To Know”

“I Need To Know” performed live in 1978

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