Day 2 of Michael Washburn’s blog takeover! Today, he talks about how the Southern Accents recording sessions “were a bit of a quagmire,” and unravels the riddle of why “The Image of Me” was never included in this album.
I mentioned yesterday that Southern Accents is broken backed—it’s almost a couple of different records slammed together. This so puzzling if you look at some of the songs that were cut for the album but then sat aside. For my money many of those songs are better written—and sound better—than many of the songs that were included. I’m thinking primarily of “Make It Better” and “It Ain’t Nothing to Me,” for those keeping score. Later this week I’ll play the game of which songs I think should’ve been included on Southern Accents, but for today I want to focus on one song in particular: “The Image of Me.”
“The Image of Me” was written by Wayne Kemp but it was made famous by country crooner Conway Twitty. Twitty released the song in 1968 and it became his first single to crack the top five, introducing him to massive country fame. A year or so after Twitty released the song, The Flying Burrito Brothers cut a version.
During the sessions for Southern Accents, Petty and the Heartbreakers put the song to bed. Twitty’s performance is restrained and a bit morose. It’s much the same with the Burrito Brothers. But Petty and his band upped the tempo, found the groove, set it swinging, and nailed what to me is the perfect performance of the song. I think the Heartbreaker’s performance of “The Image of Me” sounds better than just about everything on Southern Accents and as good as anything else the band ever recorded. It’s mystifying to me why the song wasn’t included on Southern Accents.
Here, if you don’t believe me, listen to it:
My opinion isn’t an outlier. In my chats with Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell, both Heartbreakers expressed extreme affection for this recording. They both think the song sounds great, but they no longer remember why the track wasn’t included on Southern Accents (it would eventually be released on the 1995 box set Playback).
Beyond the riddle of why the song wasn’t included on the record, I think “The Image of Me” helps draw attention to just how damn fine of a band Petty and the Heartbreakers were. In live shows they often included covers—my favorite is the totally raucous performance of “Shout” from Pack Up the Plantation: Live!” the live album recorded primarily during the Southern Accents tour. “Shout” is a song that we’ve all heard hundreds and hundreds of times. But in the hands of the Heartbreakers it’s born anew. It feels vital and like a living piece of rock ‘n’ roll. There are other covers you can find from the band’s career, and they are almost always incredible. “The Image of Me” seems to be a part of that. The band takes a gem and polishes it to a perfection that the original performer likely didn’t see.
Another thing about “The Image of Me” that both Tench and Campbell stressed when I chatted with them about Southern Accents was that this was the last time that the band recorded with producer Denny Cordell. Cordell was already a legend by the time he adopted the Heartbreakers as a project, and he produced the first two Petty and the Heartbreakers records. Petty and Cordell had a falling out—about money, of course—but the next decade, Cordell showed up at the Southern Accents sessions and had Petty and the band perform the Kemp/Twitty song.
The Southern Accents sessions were a bit of a quagmire. I go into this in the book, but the band took longer on this record than they ever had before. For the bulk of the project Petty and Campbell served as producers. Despite the labor, Petty often wasn’t that pleased with the outcome of his work. This was, it seems to me, in large part due to the nature of the recording process for Southern Accents. The band was tracking things individually, punching in to add vocal lines or guitar parts. Standard procedure for many bands, including the Heartbreakers, but anything but rock ‘n’ roll. When Cordell parachuted in for his brief work with Petty and the Heartbreakers, he brought them back to where they’d been when they recorded their first record in 1976. Rather than Petty singing bits of lyrics over several takes and stitching them together, Cordell demanded that Petty cut the vocal track live with the band for each take. According to Campbell, this was a bit of a shock to Petty who had grown accustomed to punching in and overdubbing. You can hear the liveliness of this on the recording. It sizzles, and it’s as good a testimony to Denny Cordell’s brilliance as a producer as I can think of.
I would’ve liked to have spent more time in the book discussing Cordell’s influence on the Heartbreakers, not least because both Tench and Campbell gushed over him. I ended up feeling like a longer discussion of Cordell would’ve been an outlier given the length of a 33 1/3 book and his, ultimately, minor contribution to the released version of Southern Accents. Yet, it seems to me that maybe, just maybe, if Cordell had been onboard from jump, Southern Accents would have turned out to be a radically different record. So here I’d like to park some extended quotes from Tench and Campbell—longer than most of the quotes from them in the book—as they talk about the positive influence of Denny Cordell.
“[‘The Image of Me’] was cut during Southern Accents,” Tench said. “They mixed it, but I don’t think it was touched,” before being released on the Playback box set.
“That song is phenomenal,” I said.
“I know,” Tench almost shouted. “And you know what? Denny Cordell who produced the first couple of albums came back and produced ‘The Image of Me,’ and I was like, wow, this is the shit. You know Denny Cordell’s history? He ran Shelter Records. Cordell was a record producer, British record producer, who produced The Move before Jeff Lynne was in it. These really harsh psychedelic, jack hammer psychedelia, really harsh sounding, strange, weird, records that were big hit singles in England. He produced ‘Whiter Shade of Pale.’ He produced one or two records for Procul Harem. He produced Joe Cocker with Leon Russell, and would get Jimmy Page in to play the guitar. I don’t think he played a note, I don’t think he got into specifics, but he was a guy who had the soul of a record producer, of an impresario, and of an aficionado, and the ability to communicate with people. He was a very brilliant record producer, not in the terms of telling everyone what to play but in terms of getting it out of you.
“Cordell came back during [Southern Accents]. And we did two songs, the other one we didn’t get, I think it was ‘I’ve Forgotten More Than You’ll Ever Know about Her.’ It was fun, but we didn’t get that one. But we got ‘The Image of Me.’ And after all of the distance we had come, Denny knew how to get the best out of people. He was very old school. I know I’m rambling, but for instance when we were doing the first record or two, we would play Breakdown or we would play some song or another, and Denny would be in the makeshift studio that he built at Shelter records, lying back on the couch smoking a hash joint and paying total attention and say in this kind of English, laconic way, they’d play the tape back and there would be like six bars where it was fantastic and the rest of it wasn’t there, and he’d just listen back and go, ‘that, play it like that.’ He could do that. And he would have these parties, not wild Hollywood parties. He had a ramshackle house in Malibu, and when we first moved to California we’d just go over to Cordell’s. There’d be a nitrous tank somewhere. There’d be girls and pot and whatever. But Denny would have the best music playing. And he’d put on these Bo Diddly records I didn’t know and I’d say, ‘this is incredible,’ and he’d go, ‘but the maracas player is Jerome Green, listen to the maracas. The maracas make the record on this.’ And he’d just steer and guide every single one of us. To have Cordell come back for something like this record was really wonderful, really magical. And when Tom was cutting the vocal, Tom told me that he sang up to a point and, as you do, you say, okay, stop and pick it up there and we’ll go in there on the top of the second verse. And Cordell said ‘no, TP, we’ll go back to the top and sing it all of the way through.’ And he didn’t let him do anything on it. He made him sing it all the way through in the same voice, in the same emotion, in the same thing. And I don’t remember him being like that when we did the first record, but that’s what he did. And he was right.”
“That one would’ve been good,” Campbell said when I brought up “The Image of Me.” “I’m really proud of that. It’s got a great solo on it. I remember when we did that. Cordell came in and, you know, it’s coming back to me, some little things. We were in the studio and I think they’d played him a few things. And he went in to Tom and said, let’s try this cover. We were trying to cut the track and it didn’t feel right. Tom would go, ‘I think it’s the drums. I think it could be the bass. Something’s wrong.’ And Cordell looked at him and said, ‘Tom, if you sing it really good they’re going to sound fine.’ Basically, you know, get on top of your game and they’ll be there. The next take he got it. But we didn’t have a guitar solo. So, and I was kind of tired or drunk or whatever, so Denny said, okay, for the solo. And I said, oh, let me do it tomorrow. Ah, you’re not going to play the solo for me? Okay, let’s do it now. And the solo came out really good.”
Tom Petty’s Southern Accents publishes tomorrow! Go ahead and order your copy now. Stay tuned through the end of the week for the rest of Michael’s blog posts…