One of my favorite songwriting lessons comes by way of the late great Tom Petty who was, in his wheelhouse (which wasn’t small), a masterful songwriter.
He discussed this in an interview in Paul Zollo’s ‘Songwriters On Songwriting’ book. Mike Campbell, guitarist in his band The Heartbreakers and frequent writing partner, had written the whole chord structure of a new song that Petty liked, and the band recorded a strong track.
Petty said: “I had the whole melody sketched out and most of the words, but I couldn’t figure out the Title for a long time. I was singing ‘You Rock Me’ but I knew that wasn’t going to fly. And then… it hit me. Because I didn’t want to change the phrasing.
“I could change ‘Rock’ to ‘Wreck’… It’s amazing to me how one word can completely change the entire thing… It can really lift the whole trip and elevate it if you’re patient enough to get that one little word or key line.”
When I read this I was immediately struck by the difference between ‘You Rock Me’ – okay, but super-cliched – and ‘You Wreck Me’ – fresh, and with a high-intensity potential.
As co-writer Mike Campbell recalls it (from an interview in songfacts.com):
“I remember when he called me, he said, “I’ve got some words to this song.” I said, “What do you call it?” and he said “It’s called You Rock Me.” I remember thinking, I don’t know, it sounds kind of ordinary, but we really like the track and everything. We went ahead and cut it and we lived with that for a while, but we kept saying, “You Rock Me…”
“Then one day he came back and goes, “I’ve got it, I’ll just change it to ‘You Wreck Me’.” And the whole thing took on a new meaning. It’s an example of one little word changing the whole thing.”
I still find it inspiring and exemplary that Petty, who liked to write fast when he could, was willing to just hang around the song, singing it over and over, until the tumblers in the lock fell into place and the safe opened.
I’ll give Tom Petty the last word:
“I was smart enough to just go ahead and sing ’You Rock Me’ because I felt it. I felt the same emotion, really, and I felt the same melody and the same timbre in the voice. So I’m glad I was smart enough not to just quit.
“I had to find it, yeah. It’s almost like it’s there and I just have to keep digging until it reveals itself.”
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