In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: Now that we’re a few weeks into our new year’s resolutions, we’re featuring songs about giving up.
It’s difficult to picture anyone but Tom Petty at the helm of “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” the biggest hit off of his 1985 album with the Heartbreakers, Southern Accents, and the song that catapulted the band into the MTV era. The Heartbreakers had already made some headway in that arena with their previous record’s “You Got Lucky,” with a post-apocalyptic video that showed that you could take the Heartbreakers out of grimy warehouses and clubs and drop them into a grimy landscape. The legendarily trippy video for “Don’t Come Around Here,” with Petty serving as a Mad Hatter playing mind games with an innocent Alice, further proved that the band could hold their own with MTV stars like Michael Jackson and Madonna.
The song didn’t sound like a typical Petty composition, and there’s a reason for that, as there are about three or four other bands present in the song’s backstory. It was penned by Dave Stewart of The Eurythmics after his first trip to L.A. (hence the “Wonderland” theme of the video, where he appears as the caterpillar). On that trip, Stewart hung out with Stevie Nicks, who at the time was trying to dodge besotted Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh. It was to Walsh that Nicks reportedly stated the song’s legendary title. So Stewart ostensibly wrote the song for her, but an unsuccessful recording session left the composition up for grabs, and Petty snagged it. (Only fair, really: The excellent Nicks/Petty duet, “Stop Dragging My Heart Around,” wound up on a Nicks album, not a Petty.)
It was a savvy move by Petty. The song incomprehensibly kicks off with old (sitar) and new (drum machine) sounds intermingling, with a minimalist melody line and simplistic, repetitive lyrics. But it’s that insane combination of old and new that works so well, augmented by unfamiliar Heartbreaker elements like strings and a female backing vocal (which makes a lot more sense once you realize the song came from a Eurythmic) wailing in the distance. Strong voices shout the catchy and effective “Hey!” throughout the song, as Petty tries to get this girl off of his lawn. The defeated Petty despairs, “I’ve given up / Honey please, admit it’s over,” surging into a guitar-fueled finale that features the Heartbreakers as fans had come to know them. But by the end of the song, they had also seen the band’s other side. And it’s a side that resonated: Petty’s Mad Hatter hat now resides in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.