Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “I Need to Know”

These posts are about the songs that fell just short of crossing the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had a late-breaking, glancing success with their self-titled debut album, released in 1977. The band’s first few singles — including at least one stone-cold classic — went nowhere on the U.S. charts, at least at first. After U.K. listeners warmed to them a bit, the act’s label, Shelter Records, circled back to the group’s very first single, “Breakdown,” and gave it a rerelease. It broke into the Billboard Top 40, if just barely. Suddenly introduced to the possibility of building momentum, Petty and his cohorts rushed back into the studio, convinced they needed to put a sophomore release into record shops as quickly as possible.

When they started in on their second album — which, after some wrangling, bore the title You’re Gonna Get It! — the band had only two fresh songs that were already written and road-tested. One of those compositions had its origins in the newfound ability to fill their ears with just about any slab of rock history they wanted.

“We were listening to anything we could get our hands on,” Petty later explained. “It was a great educational phase. Because we were on a big record label, all of a sudden we got free records. So many records at our disposal.”

According to Petty, one of the artists whose output they asked for was Wilson Pickett. They received a whole stack of records and started working through them. Petty was especially taken with “Land of 1000 Dances,” and he tried to write a song with the same spirit. There’s definitely a reminiscent rhythm and overall energy to “I Need to Know.” Instead a survey of dance-floor moves, Petty puts the tune to lyrics covering the tried-and-true theme of romantic misery: “Who would’ve thought that/ You’d fall for his line/ All of a sudden/ It’s me on the outside.”

“I Need to Know” was released as the lead single from You’re Gonna Get It! It nearly matched the chart peak of its predecessor, “Breakdown,” finishing its upward climb just one place lower. It just so happened that one place was the difference between an official Top 40 hit and an also-ran. The album’s second single, “Listen to Her Heart,” fared worse, stalling out at #59, in part because radio programmers were squeamish about the mention of cocaine in the song’s second line. The label was through with You’re Gonna Get It!

Actually, the label was really just through. Around that time, Shelter’s distributor, ABC Records, was sold to MCA Records. Things got messy when Petty rejected the idea that his contract could be transferred without his consent, leading to acrimony and lawsuits. Petty even filed for bankruptcy in the shadow of the dispute. From the outside, it almost seemed that Petty’s music career was over just as it was getting started. Of course, that wasn’t the case. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would endure, and soon enough they’d become well acquainted with much higher positions on the chart.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.

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