Tom Petty is an Elvis freak with a punk soul, a Dylanesque sneer and a sunny sarcasm that crosses generations and genre boundaries. He’s also an unrepentant badass with no respect for authority and a recorded catalogue unblemished by compromise. Though his records could be hit or miss, particularly in the ’80s, his best work belongs in the classic rock pantheon. Petty enjoyed a 3o year run on the charts without ever embarrassing himself, a feat that contemporaries like Aerosmith and U2 should view with jealousy (though they obviously don’t). Petty and his Heartbreakers never sacrificed integrity for airplay but they had it by the truckload anyway.
Since Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers are touring a new album this summer, let’s give them their due. It’s hard to believe Tom Petty is 63 years old. There has always been something young and defiant about his music, even as he has matured as a singer and songwriter.
Emerging from the college scene in Gainesville, Florida, Petty first partnered with future bandmates Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench in Mudcrutch. Mudcrutch earned some local popularity and recorded one single called “Depot Street.”
The band broke up in 1974 and Petty embarked on a solo career before once again joining forces with Campbell and Tench (as well as Stan Lynch and Ron Blair) to form the Heartbreakers in 1976.
The band scored a deal with Shelter Records and released their eponymous debut. Petty’s look and the general headspace of the music biz at the time caused many to lump his band in with the burgeoning punk movement. While the album has some of that three chord fire, it is definably more tuneful and indebted to southern jangle than most punk. The influence of Dylan and the Byrds cannot be ignored. Anchored by “Breakdown” and the quintessential, windows-down, speeding-down-a-summer-highway tragedy of “American Girl,” Petty’s debut offers a disc of power pop with a straight-from-the-garage attitude. An auspicious stepping stone.
Damn The Torpedoes (1979)
With their second record, You’re Gonna Get It, the Heartbreakers successfully revisited the formula and hit-to-filler ratio of their debut. But on their third record, they create a glorious masterpiece overflowing with ‘70s rock radio staples. Damn the Torpedoes is the perfect symbiosis of hook-craft and album oriented songwriting. In addition to the songs you already know (“Refugee,” “Here Comes My Girl,” “Even the Losers,” “Don’t Do Me Like That”), album tracks like the bar band kissoff “What Are You Doin’ In My Life?” and the meditative “Louisiana Rain” reveal Petty’s growing consistency as a songwriter as well as the vastly underrated fretwork of guitarist Mike Campbell. Track for track, this one’s a classic killer.
Hard Promises (1981)
Damn the Torpedoes is a tough act to follow and Hard Promises may suffer by comparison. However, this is more a credit to the former than a detraction of the latter. Hard Promises repeats Petty’s by now reliable formula, merging power pop hits (“The Waiting”) and chiming southern rockers (“King’s Road”). An under-appreciated album, Hard Promises nonetheless treads competently in the deep water of its predecessor.
From Southern Accents (1985):
Full Moon Fever (1989)
In the years before Petty recorded this one, he and his band toured as the backing unit for Bob Dylan. Petty subsequently joined Mr. Zimmerman (along with George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne, to form the Traveling Wilburys in 1988). Petty emerged from the experience with some powerful new friends and his most compelling lyrics yet. Fortunately, if Dylan’s songwriting has rubbed off on Petty, his late ’80s “singing” has not. Full Moon Fever offers Petty’s strongest vocals to date, with “Yer So Bad” and “Free Fallin’” displaying a richer and more contemplative voice. His drawling delivery is surprisingly compatible with Jeff Lynne’s production. The former Electric Light Orchestra leader brings his taste for slick arrangements and big, echoing drums to the proceedings, marking the first of two collaborative endeavors (not counting the Wilburys’ Volumes I and III). Full Moon Fever moves Petty into the next echelon of rockers both commercially and critically.
From Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Greatest Hits (1993):
Into the Great Wide Open (1991), was Petty’s second and final collaboration with Lynne. Enter Rick Rubin for what might qualify as the most rewarding full-length player of Petty’s career, an unusual distinction for an album almost twenty years down the road. Rick Rubin is well-known for standing back and letting his musicians play to their own strengths. The result is an album of laid-back, golden-throated majesty. Tracks like “Time to Move On” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels” find Petty in a state of maturing acceptance; the ragged “It’s Good To Be King” explains how Petty so effectively endeared himself to the grunge and alternative crowds of the time; and the title track is simply gorgeous. Petty at his very best, Wildflowers provides easy justification for his continuing relevance well after the demise of classic rock.
Echo would be Petty’s second collaboration with producer Rick Rubin (and the last to date). It mirrors the spaciousness, country leanings and golden hues of Wildflowers though the songwriting may be just a shade less indelible. Echo is a strong record, though it is shadowed by the melancholy of Petty’s recent divorce. In spite of its slight retreat into darker tones, Echo is a satisfying record and probably the last of Petty’s discs to strike a completely effective balance between bitter and beautiful.
When you get a chance:
You’re Gonna Get It (1979): The Heartbreakers’ sophomore record, almost as good as its predecessor, especially on hits “I Need to Know” and “Listen to Her Heart.” Pales in comparison to the follow-up, Damn the Torpedoes.
Southern Accents (1985): Petty’s collaboration with Dave Stewart (of the Eurythmics) has some memorable moments, especially “Rebels” and the new-wavey “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” but lacks consistency.
Into the Great Wide Open (1991): A third record with Jeff Lynne, notable for shiny rockers “Learning to Fly” and the title track.
Greatest Hits (1993): An excellent collection only included here for its contribution of two new recordings: a bright cover of Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air,” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” possibly Petty’s best song ever.
She’s the One (1996): This is a nice collection of ballads (“Angel Dream-No. 4”) and rockers (“Climb That Hill”) that is a hell of a lot better than the movie it was designed to soundtrack.