1976. The Eagles were dominating the rock and roll landscape with their masterwork Hotel California. Heart had just made their debut. Thin Lizzy had finally broken through to the mainstream with their Jailbreak album while Steve Miller was flying like an eagle, Peter Frampton was coming alive, and Bob Seger was workin’ and practicin’ on his “Night Moves.”

In the midst of this musical feast, a scruffy young band out of Gainesville, Florida, had just signed a recording deal and put out their first record naming it after themselves: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The first single, “Breakdown,” barely cracked the Top 40 which seems amazing for a song that’s such a crowd pleaser today. But what really gained them notice was the second single, “American Girl.” It was a magic combination of a simple, passionate melody and a jangly Rickenbacker guitar, and all anyone seemed to talk about was how much this group sounded like The Byrds. In fact, when Roger McGuinn’s manager first played him the Tom Petty hit, McGuinn asked with puzzlement, “When did I write that song?”

Tom Petty did admit that he did come up with the song during a visit to California, though the lyric about “waves crashing on the beach” was purely a product of his imagination. In actual fact, he was renting an apartment right by the freeway in Encino. As he told an interviewer years later, “I remember thinking that that sounded like the ocean to me. That was my ocean. My Malibu. Where I heard the waves crash,…it was just the cars going by.”