American Girl (Tom Petty song)
|Single by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers|
|from the album Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers|
|B-side||"The Wild One, Forever"|
|Recorded||July 4, 1976|
|Studio||Shelter Studios, Hollywood|
|Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers singles chronology|
"American Girl" is the second single from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' self-titled debut album. The single did not chart in the United States (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.
The song was the final song performed by the band live, on September 25, 2017, at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, California. Petty died of complications from cardiac arrest after an accidental prescription medication overdose on October 2, just more than a week later, signaling the end of the Heartbreakers' 40-year career.
Composition and recording
American Girl was written by Tom Petty around the time he and the Heartbreakers signed their first recording contract. It was recorded on the 4th of July in 1976, the Bicentennial of the United States.
"American Girl" uses standard rock instrumentation of electric guitars, electric bass, drums, and keyboards. The tempo is fast and "urgent," and is built on a repeated jangling guitar riff based on a "Bo Diddley beat." 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."
- Tom Petty – rhythm guitar (played in unison with Campbell), lead vocals
- Mike Campbell – lead guitar, rhythm guitar (played in unison with Petty)
- Benmont Tench – piano, Hammond organ
- Ron Blair – bass guitar
- Stan Lynch – drums
- Phil Seymour – all backing vocals
Lyrics and rumors
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 involved a jump from Beaty Towers. University of Florida spokesman Steve Orlando said that no one has committed suicide by jumping off Beaty Towers, which would be a difficult endeavor since the dorm rooms have narrow windows and no balconies.
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.
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.
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 17), "Especially an American girl. You can tell she's been raised on promises."
Single track listings
- "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
|UK Singles Chart||40|
|U.S. Billboard Bubbling Under Hot 100||9|
|U.S. Cash Box Top 100||68|
In popular culture
The song has been featured in several Hollywood films and television shows, most notably FM (1978), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), The Sopranos (1999), Scrubs (TV series) (2001), Chasing Liberty (2004), Parks and Recreation (2009), Ricki and the Flash (2015) and The Handmaid's Tale (2017). 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." The Strokes played as an opening act for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for several dates of their 2006 tour.
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?"
"American Girl" has also been covered by the following artists: The Killers, The Shins, Elle King, Cindy Alexander, Angel City Outcasts, Elvis Costello, Melora Creager, Cruiserweight, Dance Hall Crashers, Def Leppard (from Yeah! 2006), Val Emmich, The Dollyrots, Everclear, Fun, The Gaslight Anthem, Goo Goo Dolls, Gin Blossoms, 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 Luke Sital-Singh.
- Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
- Pack up the Plantation: Live!
- Greatest Hits
- Anthology: Through the Years
- Runnin' Down a Dream
- The Live Anthology
- Mojo Tour 2010 (Live Version)
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