Tom Petty has been in the news the last few days after it was reported (conveniently after Grammy voting season had passed) that back in October he had settled a controversy about the similarities between Sam Smith’s huge hit “Stay with Me” and Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”
“In a surprise backstage maneuver,” reported L.A. Times’ pop music critic Randall Roberts, “both Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne’s names have been added to the song’s writing credits. Despite never having officially collaborated, Smith, Petty and Lynne now share credit with three others due to the similarities between “Stay with Me” and Petty and Lynne’s 1989 hit “I Won’t Back Down.”
Smith, through a representative, told Rolling Stone magazine that “although the likeness was a complete coincidence, all involved came to an immediate and amicable agreement.” The Times contacted Petty’s management, and a spokesman replied, “I don’t believe he’ll be making a statement.”
However, in 2005, Petty authorized the publication of a book called “Conversations with Tom Petty” (Omnibus Press), featuring a series of interviews that musician and journalist Paul Zollo conducted with the “Full Moon Fever” singer “over many months in 2004 and 2005 at Tom’s two Malibu homes.”
In one of those interview sessions, Petty admitted to regularly “channeling” other people’s songs.
After Zollo asked the singer if he was annoyed when the Grateful Dead wrote a song called “Built to Last,” which was a title Petty had already used, the following exchange ensued:
[Petty:] Yeah. That happens sometimes. You look up, and you think you’ve come up with something, and you realize somebody else has done it first. You try not to let it bug you. What bugs you the most is when you write something and then realize it’s somebody else’s song. That’ll happen to me two times a month. I’ll be working with something and then realize I’m channeling this melody from somewhere else, and then I have to abandon the idea. But there’s only so many words and so many notes, so sometimes you do cross somebody else’s territory. [Laughs]
[Zollo:] Have you found that as the years have gone by, you’re better at knowing when you’re using somebody else’s melody?
[Petty:] Yeah. And when that happens, I just have to throw it away.
[Zollo:] Throw it away or change it?
[Petty:] Well, I just usually pitch it. And start over. Because if I change a note or two, it’s still going to be in my head that it’s that other song. So I think every songwriter must have that problem from time to time. You play something and you realize it’s Beethoven, or the Beatles.
Petty’s approach of “just chuck it” once he notices a similarity between songs has served him well in his decades-long career as a pop rocker who trades in the same few chords, progressions and structures as everyone in the post-Beatles field (nobody will ever mistake a Petty tune for one of Robert Fripp’s).
Blame it on Smith’s youth, then?