American Girl (Tom Petty song)

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"American Girl"
American Girl - Tom Petty.jpg
Single by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
from the album Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
B-side "The Wild One, Forever"
Released February 1977 (1977-02)
Format 7-inch single
Recorded July 4, 1976
Studio Shelter Studios
Length 3:35
Label Shelter
Songwriter(s) Tom Petty
Producer(s) Denny Cordell
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers singles chronology
"American Girl"
"I Need to Know"
"American Girl"
"I Need to Know"

"American Girl" is the second single from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' self-titled debut album. The single did not chart in the U.S. (until it was re-released in 1994, it only managed to peak at nine in Bubbling Under Hot 100 Singles though), but in the UK it peaked at No. 40 the week ending August 27, 1977. The song was ranked 76th on the list of "The 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time" by Rolling Stone.[4]


"American Girl" uses standard rock instrumentation of electric guitars (Petty and Campbell), electric bass (Blair), drums (Lynch), and keyboards (Tench). The tempo is fast and "urgent",[5] and is built on a repeated jangling guitar riff based on a "Bo Diddley beat".[6]

As described in Rolling Stone, "The supercharged riff set the template for decades of Petty hits, but it was also an homage to the Byrds: Petty and Mike Campbell's twin guitars mirrored Roger McGuinn's 12-string, infusing the folk-rock sounds of the 1960s with New Wave energy."[4]

Beaty Towers on the University of Florida campus

Lyrics and rumors[edit]

Due to the lyrics about a desperate girl on a balcony hearing "cars roll by out on 441", the song was rumored to have been written about a college student who committed suicide by jumping from the Beaty Towers residence hall at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. Beaty Towers is located on the edge of the university campus alongside U.S. Route 441 (called NW 13th Street through the city), and the residence hall opened in 1967, when Petty was still a teenager living in his hometown of Gainesville.

According to Carl Van Ness, the University of Florida's former historian, there have been many suicides in the school's history, but since the university does not keep a file of them, he "doesn't know for sure" if any of them involved a jump from Beaty Towers.[7] University of Florida spokesman Steve Orlando said that no one has committed suicide by jumping off Beaty Towers,[8] which would be a difficult endeavor since the dorm rooms have narrow windows and no balconies.[9][10][11][11]

When asked directly about the story in the book Conversations with Tom Petty, Petty responded:

"Urban legend. It's become a huge urban myth down in Florida. That's just not at all true. The song has nothing to do with that. But that story really gets around... They've really got the whole story. I've even seen magazine articles about that story. 'Is it true or isn't it true?' They could have just called me and found out it wasn't true."[12]

In the same interview, Petty says that he wrote the song while living in California:

"I don't remember exactly. I was living in an apartment where I was right by the freeway. And the cars would go by. In Encino, near Leon Russell's house. And I remember thinking that that sounded like the ocean to me. That was my ocean. My Malibu. Where I heard the waves crash, but it was just the cars going by. I think that must have inspired the lyric."[12]

The opening line lyric "raised on promises" echoes a line of dialogue in Francis Ford Coppola's 1963 film, Dementia 13. Referring to another woman, the character Louise says (at minute 22), "Especially an American girl. You can tell she's been raised on promises."[13]

Single track listings[edit]

  • "American Girl" b/w "Fooled Again (I Don't Like It)"
    Shelter 62007 (US)
  • "American Girl" b/w "The Wild One, Forever"
    Shelter WIP6377 (UK)
  • "American Girl" b/w "Luna" (Live) *
    Shelter WIP6403 (UK)
    * taken from The Official Live Bootleg


Chart (1977) Peak
UK Singles Chart 36
Chart (1994) Peak
U.S. Billboard Bubbling Under Hot 100 9

In popular culture[edit]

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performed the song on the BBC2 television show The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1978.[14]

The song has been featured in several Hollywood films, most notably FM (1978), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Chasing Liberty (2004) and Ricki and the Flash (2015). Its use in The Silence of the Lambs made the list of Top 11 Uses of Classic Rock in Cinema at UGO.

According to Tom Petty, The Strokes have admitted to taking the riff for their 2001 single, "Last Nite", from this song. In a 2006 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Petty said "The Strokes took 'American Girl', and I saw an interview with them where they actually admitted it. That made me laugh out loud. I was like, 'OK, good for you.' It doesn't bother me."[15] The Strokes played as an opening act for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for several dates of their 2006 tour.[16]

Cover versions[edit]

Roger McGuinn of The Byrds (a major influence on Petty's music), released his own version of "American Girl" on his Thunderbyrd LP in 1977. The similarity between Petty's record and The Byrds' musical style was so strong that when his manager first played "American Girl" for him, McGuinn asked "When did I write that song?"[17]

"American Girl" has also been covered by the following artists: The Shins, Elle King, Cindy Alexander, Angel City Outcasts, Gin Blossoms, Melora Creager, Cruiserweight, Dance Hall Crashers, Def Leppard (from Yeah! 2006), Val Emmich, Everclear, Fun, The Gaslight Anthem, Goo Goo Dolls, Humble Gods, Ill Repute, Jack's Mannequin, Larkin Poe, Matchbox 20, Matthew Sweet, Of Montreal, Pearl Jam, Rasputina, Saints of the Underground, Six Going on Seven, Smith Westerns, Sugarland, Sum 41 (2011), Taking Back Sunday, Taylor Swift, The Hush Sound, Tokyo Police Club, and Twin Shadow.

All appearances[edit]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lester, Paul (February 11, 2015). "Powerpop: 10 of the best". The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. Retrieved July 29, 2016. 
  2. ^ LaBate, Steve (December 18, 2009). "Jangle Bell Rock: A Chronological (Non-Holiday) Anthology… from The Beatles and Byrds to R.E.M. and Beyond". Paste. Retrieved March 2, 2017. 
  3. ^ a b Ira A. Robbins (January 1983). The Trouser Press guide to new wave records. C. Scribner's Sons. p. 227. ISBN 978-0-684-17943-8. 
  4. ^ a b "The 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time : Rolling Stone". 2008-05-31. Archived from the original on 2008-05-31. Retrieved 2016-10-12. 
  5. ^ Laren Stover. "Richard E. Grant's Sensuous Obsession". Observer. Retrieved 2016-10-12. 
  6. ^ BILL DEAN. "Rock pioneer Bo Diddley dies - News - Gainesville Sun - Gainesville, FL". Retrieved 2016-10-12. 
  7. ^ Wilmath, Kim. "Myths, legends and UF" The Independent Florida Alligator Online, August 15, 2007. Retrieved on February 29, 2008.
  8. ^ Enkerud, Mark. "UF campus holds decades of legends, ghost stories" The Independent Florida Alligator August 16, 2009
  9. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on December 28, 2015. Retrieved 2015-10-10. 
  10. ^ "'American Girl' Suicide". Retrieved 2016-10-12. 
  11. ^ a b Rolland, David (2014-09-16). "Running Down a Dream: Tracking Tom Petty's Florida Roots in Gainesville | New Times Broward-Palm Beach". Retrieved 2016-10-12. 
  12. ^ a b Zollo, Paul. Conversations with Tom Petty (2005) p.195-196
  13. ^ Stroumboulopoulos, George. " Nod to the Gods: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, 'American Girl'",, April 6, 2014.
  14. ^ The Old Grey Whistle Test (DVD). Warner Home Video. 2003. 
  15. ^ "Tom Petty News on Yahoo! Music". Archived from the original on July 18, 2011. Retrieved August 13, 2011. 
  16. ^ "For The Record: Quick News On Hilary Duff, Katharine McPhee, Shakira, Wyclef Jean, Snoop Dogg, Bam Margera & More". MTV. Retrieved 2016-10-12. 
  17. ^ "McGuinn Takes It Easy As Comeback Takes Off" Austin American-Statesman May 13, 1991: B8