The music world has been mourning the loss of Tom Petty, the iconic rock artist who died from cardiac arrest on October 2. What few critics and fans have discussed, however, is that Petty's sound encompassed genres besides rock, namely blues, country, and folk. Another major influence that has been little explored is R&B, and that element permeates his first hit, 1976's "Breakdown." Its dominant drums, bass, and keyboards along with Petty's snarling narrative of a deteriorating love affair makes "Breakdown" sound like no other song in Petty's catalog.
Coming off the breakup of his band Mudcrutch, Petty formed a new band with Mudcrutch alumni Mike Campbell and Benmont Trench. Along with new members Ron Blair and Stan Lynch, the newly named "Heartbreakers" collaborated with Petty on his debut album. Called simply Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the LP was released by Shelter Records on November 9, 1976 by Shelter Records. Despite stellar tracks such as "American Girl" and "Breakdown," the album failed to attract significant attention in the United States. Britain immediately warmed to Petty, however, with the album cracking the UK top 25 chart and scoring a hit with "Anything That's Rock 'n' Roll." This was followed by a UK tour supporting lead act Nils Lofgren. After Petty achieved success overseas, Shelter Records tried cracking the American charts again by re-releasing "Breakdown" as a single in 1977. By early 1978, the song had reached number 40 on the US singles charts, and the album finally peaked at number 55.
"American Girl" may be straightforward rock and roll with touches of New Wave and punk, but "Breakdown" stands out from the rest of the album tracks. Its slinky sound and moody keyboards merge with Campbell's memorable but tasteful licks, perfectly framing Petty's emotional delivery. "It's all right if you love me / It's all right if you don't," Petty sneers through a veil of indifference. The narrator displays bravado when he claims "I'm not afraid of you runnin' away honey / I get the feeling you won't." However, he admits that her eyes give her away, that she and Petty have reached the same conclusion: they are experiencing a breakdown in communication and, ultimately, the relationship. "We said all there is to say," he concludes, his voice rising in the chorus. "Breakdown, go ahead, give to me," he cries, bracing himself for emotional collapse. "Now I'm standing' here . . . It's all right," he declares, the blues-like attitude suggesting Petty will survive this setback. Interestingly, when performing the track live, Petty often wove in Ray Charles' "Hit the Road Jack," an apt track thematically.
In the Billboard retrospective "Classic Rock Could Not Contain Tom Petty," Sasha Frere-Jones calls "Breakdown "one of the sneakiest things he released" in that it's R&B sound resembled Boz Scagg's "Lowdown." "You'd think Petty was angling to be a next-stage soul singer," she writes, positing that the singer/songwriter demonstrated in this early single just how much he would resist easy categorization throughout his career.
Petty never recorded another song like "Breakdown," which is unfortunate. His convincing, soul-filled vocals illustrated his versatility. Like Ray Charles, Petty encompassed many styles, never satisfied with being labeled as only "classic rock." As Petty told Charlie Rose in 1999, such a label "makes me feel like there's nowhere to go. I think there's a lot of places to go with rock, still. I don't think that the whole story has been told or the whole song has been sung."