35 Years Ago: Tom Petty Releases a Song He Hates
On June 3, 1985, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released an uptempo soul-infused track called “Make It Better (Forget About Me)” along with a lighthearted video that reinforced the band’s off-kilter character. The problem was, Petty hated it.
The song was co-written with Dave Stewart of Eurythmics, and while it's not bad, it helped pull the Heartbreakers’ sixth album, Southern Accents, off course. The follow-up to 1982’s Long After Dark was supposed to have been a concept piece about the American South, an in-depth exploration of the place and its people. However, “Make It Better” had absolutely nothing to do with the theme, and its presence on the LP meant another, better-suited track had to be removed.
“I hate that song, it’s just trash,” Petty told Paul Zollo in the 2020 book Conversations With Tom Petty. “It was Dave just trying to get me to knock a song out. Just write a song for the sake of writing one. And I think that’s what it sounds like to me. It’s one of the few that I just don’t like. I like a lot of our work. I’m pretty proud of most of it. That one was the result of some misguided people. We didn’t really know what we were doing.”
He went as far as to admit it had been a mistake to include it on Southern Accents: “There were better songs that should have been on the album.”
The video started with him climbing into someone else’s head, and it seems that, whether intentionally or not, it’s a visual hint at what he was trying to do – or at least thought he was trying to do – with the entire project. “We've always been kind of a closed unit," he said as the album neared completion and referring to his 10 years with Heartbreakers Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench and Stan Lynch. “When we formed this group in the mid -70s, we didn't want a band that had session players – when you hear us, you know it's Stan playing the drums.”
But his bandmates had been busy on other projects, so Petty looked for new collaborators. “It was just having some more people around for more input," he explained. "It was a lot of fun, and you pay more attention when there's someone around you haven't been with every hour for a few years. ... It was a long project and I wouldn't do it again, but I'm glad I did it.”
Watch Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' 'Make It Better (Forget About Me)’ Video
In Warren Zanes’ 2015 book Petty: The Biography, keyboardist Tench offered another reason behind the appearance of “Make It Better": "The biggest picture there was we were all on a lot of coke. On the Long After Dark tour, I discovered how much cocaine there was in the world. And then I came home and went straight on tour with Stevie Nicks and, boy, did I discover how much cocaine there was in the world."
Tench noted that Southern Accents "was a great idea for a record. Tom started writing the record, from what I understand, by just writing words associated with the South: ‘Rebels,’ ‘Trailer,’ ‘Apartment.’ Then somehow out of those three words that become songs, two are left off the album. How the fuck do you leave ‘Trailer’ off Southern Accents? And ‘Make it Better’ and something else – I can’t remember [probably “It Ain’t Nothin’ to Me,” also co-written with Stewart) – are on the album.”
Among the songs left out, “Trailer,” “Big Boss Man,” “The Image of Me,” “Walkin’ From the Fire” and “The Apartment Song” would later surface on various compilations and prove how powerful an effect they might have had on the album. One track, “Sheets,” which didn’t make it out of Petty’s notebook, would have taken on the issue of Southern race relations dead-on, with the author describing it as a “scary” song, noting “it would have had to be included, if the original idea for the album had been carried through to its conclusion.”
The record’s biggest hit, “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” reached No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the follow-up single, “Rebels,” got to No. 74. “Make It Better” peaked at No. 54, acting as an illustration of all the non-Heartbreakers musical motifs Stewart had brought to the table. Perhaps if it had been a B-side, it would have been less hated. But, as Tench observed, “I think it if weren’t for the drugs, better music would have come out. Better decisions would have been made.”