Rock and roll’s perpetual underdog, Thomas Earl Petty was born in Gainsville, Florida, in 1950. His interest in rock and roll was sparked when he met Elvis Presley in 1961, and was cemented when he saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. Petty dropped out of school at the age of 17 to play bass in a band, and learned guitar from future Eagle Don Felder. His band became known as Mudcrutch, and featured future Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench. Mudcrutch recorded a single but didn’t attain popularity outside of Gainesville, and split in 1975.
Petty started a solo career, but soon reconvened with the members of Mudcrutch, naming them The Heartbreakers. Lead guitarist Campbell and keyboardist Tench were joined by drummer Stan Lynch and bassist Ron Blair. Their 1976 debut album featured The Byrds-inspired ‘American Girl’ – it later became a signature song for Petty, but he was initially more popular in the UK than in his home country. In 1979, Petty was signed to MCA Records, and the larger-scale production of Jimmy Iovine helped ‘Don’t Do Me Like That’, ‘Refugee’, and Damn The Torpedoes to become very successful.
The Heartbreakers matured into one of the finest backing bands in rock music, and success continued through the early 1980s. Petty faded in the mid-1980s, as he attempted to update his style, but bounced back into the mainstream with the Travelling Wilburys and 1989’s Full Moon Fever. While Petty’s 21st century albums were generally weaker than his earlier material he remained a popular live act. Petty passed away in 2017, accidentally overdosing on the painkiller medication that he was taking for his fractured hip.
Petty emerged in the late 1970s, and his self-deprecation and stripped-back sound made him an ideal rock star for the punk era. Like The Jam were doing in the UK at the same time, Petty took his cues from the mid-1960s. The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, and Bob Dylan are all clear influences.
Tom Petty Album Reviews
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers | You’re Gonna Get It! | Damn the Torpedoes | Hard Promises | Long After Dark | Southern Accents | Pack up the Plantation: Live! | Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) | Full Moon Fever | Into the Great Wide Open | Greatest Hits | Wildflowers | Songs and Music from the Motion Picture “She’s the One” | Echo | Anthology: Through the Years | The Last DJ | Highway Companion | Mojo | Hypnotic Eye
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ 1976 debut captures them at their rawest and most retro. Recorded for the minor label Shelter, the production is less commercial than later effort, and the band aren’t as polished as they’d become. Their debut their most retro album – two songs have titles that refer to rock and roll, while ‘Hometown Blues’ has a rockabilly feel. Petty’s vocal has touches of Elvis Presley at times too, like on ‘Mystery Man’.
With the raw sound it’s clear why this 1976 debut wasn’t a blockbuster, but Petty’s writing is already solid. ‘Breakdown’ and the Byrds-derived ‘American Girl’ are the best-known songs, but there are solid album tracks too. ‘The Wild One Forever’ is a typically sincere rock ballad, while ‘Luna’ takes the slinky sound of’Breakdown’ further into jazz territory. Campbell’s guitar and Tench’s organ elevate ‘Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It)’.
My favourite Petty songs come later in his career, but Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers is a fun listen, a talented newcomer delivering raw and retro rock and roll.
You’re Gonna Get It!
Petty and the Heartbreakers took 18 months to deliver a follow up, but when it arrived it was ….. very similar to their 1976 debut. Again co-produced by Denny Cordell, it’s another half hour record of fun rock and rollers. It’s a little less retro and a little more polished than before, but mix it up on random with the debut and you have an hour of rock and roll fun.
The reason for the marginally lower grade than the debut is that the hits here aren’t quite as compelling as on the previous record. ‘Listen To Her Heart’ has always seemed like the tempo is a smidgen too slow, even though it does a good job of bringing a Roger McGuinn-style riff into the late 1970s. ‘I Need To Know’ opens at breakneck speed, like the group’s attempt at punk. There are a couple of nice gentle songs – the acoustic ‘No Second Thoughts’ and the folk-rock of ‘Magnolia’ – while the band’s stab at a funky rocker on ‘Restless’ is respectable.
You’re Gonna Get It! is my least favourite record from Petty’s initial burst of records, but it’s still solidly enjoyable.
Damn the Torpedoes
Petty’s recording contract was sold to MCA Records in 1979, embroiling him in a legal dispute where he declared himself bankrupt to escape the contract. Damn the Torpedoes was eventually released on the MCA subsidiary Backstreet. More significantly, it paired Petty with producer Jimmy Iovine, who provided Petty with a beefy and contemporary sound. On the back of hits like ‘Don’t Do Me Like That’ and ‘Refugee’, Damn the Torpedoes made Petty into a major league rock star even though the album became stuck at number two behind Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
Petty was already a talented songwriter before he broke through commercially – if anything Damn the Torpedoes is less consistent than previous albums as ‘Century City’ and ‘What Are You Doin’ In My Life?’ feel like filler. But his best material on Damn the Torpedoes has much more replay value, due to both fuller mixes and more nuanced writing. The band’s chops are constantly improving; Benmont Tench’s organ ebbs and flows through ‘Refugee’ while Lynch’s crisp drumming underpins ‘Don’t Do Me Like That’. Minor hit single ‘Even The Losers’ (which opens with Mike Campbell’s wife discussing their washing machine!) is one of Petty’s best, underlining his loveable loser persona. ‘Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid)’ is a strong deep cut too, Petty articulately analysing a complex relationship.
Damn the Torpedoes, along with Petty’s next two records, mark his most consistent period – all a little flawed, but loaded with great material.
Petty again became embroiled in a legal dispute for Hard Promises. Due to his newfound fame, MCA wanted to issue his album at a superstar price of $9.98. Petty threatened to name the album eight ninety eight, and MCA backed down. After the arena rock of Damn the Torpedoes, Hard Promises is more modest and more intimate album of Petty songs.
The best-known and best song opens Hard Promises – ‘The Waiting’ is a glorious slice of Byrds-inspired pop. The intro opens with the subdominant chords and the verse melody opens with the dominant chord, making it unclear what key the song is during its opening bars. ‘The Waiting’ is the standout classic, but there’s plenty of solid Petty material here. The album title is taken from ‘Insider’, the most gorgeous piece Petty ever recorded with Stevie Nicks on harmony vocals and Tench’s vibrato-laden organ. Rockers like ‘Nightwatchman’ and ‘A Thing About You’ are enjoyable, and Hard Promises finishes strongly with the ballad ‘You Can Still Change Your Mind’.
Hard Promises is one all-time Petty classic (‘The Waiting’) backed with a whole bunch of solidly enjoyable prime-era Petty material, but that’s enough to constitute a strong album.
Long After Dark
Long After Dark is often regarded as the black sheep of Petty’s classic rock period. This is clearly based on the lead single ‘You Got Lucky’, an uncharacteristically smug piece with a prominent synth part. Disregarding ‘You Got Lucky’ and Long After Dark continues both the sound and the quality of Damn the Torpedoes and Hard Promises. It also marks the first change in the Heartbreakers, with bassist Howie Epstein replacing Ron Blair. Epstein’s a major asset for his harmony vocals, which are prominent all over the record.
I don’t dislike ‘You Got Lucky, but it’s not the obvious lead single here – the power pop of ‘Change of Heart’ would have been the better choice. The brooding piano-based ‘Straight Into Darkness’ on side two is another Petty classic, while rockers like ‘Deliver Me’ and ‘A One Story Town’ are also strong. Long After Dark is also notable for high quality outtakes – ‘Keep A Little Soul’ and ‘Keeping Me Alive’ are beloved obscure tracks.
Long After Dark marks the end of Petty’s initial prolific period with the Heartbreakers, and it’s just as good as the previous two.
Petty originally planned his sixth album as a concept record about the American South. The concept was abandoned during the difficult recording sessions – Petty broke a hand punching the wall in frustration trying to mix ‘Rebels’, and later recalled about the album that “when I hear that one, I can taste cocaine in the back of my mouth.” Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics was brought in as a collaborator, co-writing three songs with Petty. The resulting album is easily Petty’s most stylistically diverse and it’s also diverse in terms of quality.
Stewart co-wrote the outstanding ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’, a neo-psychedelia piece where Stewart plays electric sitar. It was written after Stewart witnessed Stevie Nicks telling Joe Walsh “don’t come around here no more” when they broke up. This provided a satisfying symmetry since Nicks’ hit ‘Edge of Seventeen’ was inspired by Nicks mishearing Petty’s wife explain that they met at the “age of seventeen”. The ballads are strong – the title track and ‘The Best of Everything’, while songs like ‘Dogs on the Run’ and ‘Mary’s New Car’ fuse a 1980s facade onto the Heartbreakers sound. But some of these songs just don’t work – in particular the funk-rock of ‘Make It Better (Forget About Me)’ and the oddball ‘Spike’.
Southern Accents is an unusual Petty album – it’s uncharacteristic for him to have such an uneven record.
Pack Up the Plantation: Live!
I’ve never heard this live double-LP, mostly recorded at Wiltern Theatre in L.A. during a 1985 tour. It features covers of 1950s and 1960s chestnuts from The Byrds, The Animals, the Searchers, The Isley Brothers, while Stevie Nicks provides vocals on ‘Insider’ and ‘Needles and Pins’.
Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough)
I was gobsmacked finding this album in second-hand racks – in pre-internet days, my guide to Petty’s discography was the track-listing of 1993’s Greatest Hits. None of these songs were included were included on Greatest Hits, so I wasn’t aware of its existence. After the over-laboured Southern Accents, Let Me Up was recorded live in studio. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t sound live – the heavy reverb on the drums dominates the mix and smothers the usual Heartbreakers interplay.
The best songs are when Mike Campbell’s bluesy guitar dominates – lead track ‘Jammin’ Me’ was written by Petty, Campbell, and Bob Dylan, and it’s a quickfire round of pop culture references. The lovely ‘Runaway Trains’ could have been a pretty acoustic ballad, but it’s given a mid-tempo rock arrangement with Campbell’s arpeggiating guitar. ‘All Mixed Up’ and the title track are also solid rockers – as with the other songs mentioned so far, Campbell’s given a writing credit. The acoustic ‘It’ll All Work Out’ stands out from the remaining tracks, serviceable bluesy rockers with an awful drum sound.
Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) is Petty’s weakest studio album of the 20th century, but it’s still enjoyable. Even on its lesser tracks, Petty’s likeable and tuneful.
Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 – Traveling Wilburys
1988, not reviewed
Billed as Junior Wilbury, Tom Petty was part of the supergroup with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne. The supergroup made light-hearted music, but the attention helped to reignite Dylan’s career. Most of the Wilburys appeared on Petty’s next album, most significantly Jeff Lynne who would produce the next two Petty albums. The group made a second, less well-received, record in 1990, without Orbison who passed away in late 1988.
Full Moon Fever – Tom Petty
Tom Petty started working on his first solo album before recording Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1. Full Moon Fever was mostly recorded in Mike Campbell’s garage studio with a core band of Petty, Campbell, Jeff Lynne (often on bass) and drummer Phil Jones. It’s noticeably more relaxed than Petty’s earlier work – he’s using a lower register and often the songs feature more acoustic guitar. At the same time, Lynne adds a glossier studio sound than Petty had utilised before. Most of the other Wilburys and Heartbreakers appear, although Bob Dylan and Stan Lynch are both absent.
The low-key and relaxed nature of Full Moon Fever is both a blessing and a curse. When it works, it’s clear that it’s the new direction that Petty had been searching for over the past two records, but at the same time the lesser material feels especially trivial. But the best songs are among Petty’s finest – in particular, ‘Free Fallin” shimmers with its simple guitar riff and typical tale of an L.A. loser. George Harrison and Howie Epstein add backing vocals to the climactic chorus of ‘I Won’t Back Down’, while the punchy rocker ‘Runnin’ Down A Dream’ is also a Petty standard. ‘Love Is A Long Road’ and the simple ‘Alright For Now’ are also excellent. At the same time, if you already have a compilation like 2000’s Anthology, Full Moon Fever is already well covered and you’re better off exploring another record like Hard Promises or Echo first.
Full Moon Fever feels slight in places, but it successfully reinvented Petty, setting the stage for another ten artistically successful years as a recording artist.
Into the Great Wide Open
Petty continued with Lynne as a producer and instrumentalist for his follow-up to Full Moon Fever, but The Heartbreakers returned as his backing band. Into the Great Wide Open is like a fuller sounding Full Moon Fever, without the standout tracks like ‘Free Fallin”, but also without the throwaways like ‘A Mind With A Heart of Its Own’. Petty nicked the “rebel without a clue” line for the title track from Paul Westerberg, after The Replacements opened for him.
Most of these tracks are lovely, mid-tempo compositions, built around glossy acoustic guitars. ‘Learning To Fly’ is the best known, but songs like ‘King’s Highway’ and ‘Two Gunslingers’ could have served as singles too. Roger McGuinn sings backing vocals on ‘All The Wrong Reasons’, where the lilting folk-rock melody recalls The Byrds. The title track is notable for Petty’s attempts to jam triple rhymes into the verses, ending up with some endearingly cringeworthy couplets that rhyme “mingle, jingle, and single”. The tracks that try to break out of the glossy folk-rock formula, like ‘Makin’ Some Noise’ and ‘Out In The Cold’, aren’t quite as successful, but some diversity is welcome.
Into the Great Wide Open is a worthy successor to Full Moon Fever, approaching Lynne’s radio-friendly sound from a slightly different angle.
Petty was a very good singles artist, and with nine studio albums to draw from this 1993 hits album is more consistently satisfying than any of his studio records. New song ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’ is top-drawer Petty, although the cover of Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something in the Air’ is the least essential song. The two new songs were the last to feature Stan Lynch before he left the band. Oddly there’s nothing from Let Me Up – ‘Jammin’ Me’ could have fit – and it would have made sense to include the 1981 Stevie Nicks duet ‘Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around’. Despite some quibbles Greatest Hits is a very effective showcase for Petty’s consistent songwriting.
Wildflowers – Tom Petty
1999’s Echo is often considered as Petty’s divorce album, but 1994’s Wildflowers provides clear signals of impending relationship breakdown. Recorded with producer Rick Rubin, Wildflowers features all of the Heartbreakers if incoming drummer Steve Ferrone is included, but is billed as a solo album. It does make sense as a solo record – it’s less of a band record than most of Petty’s oeuvre, instead presenting emotional and stripped-back songs. Ringo Starr drums on’ To Find a Friend’, while Beach Boy Carl Wilson sings harmony on ‘Honey Bee’. The two sides of the LP edition are labelled nos 12 and 35 in homage to Bob Dylan’s ‘Rainy Day Woman’.
Wildflowers was originally planned as a double album, but it was cut down to a single. Some outtakes later appeared on the 1996 album/soundtrack She’s The One, while a further collection titled Wildflowers & All the Rest is scheduled for release shortly. Wildflowers is still an hour long, and arguably suffers a little from CD bloat, but it captures Petty’s most fertile songwriting period and stands as his best studio record.
Like Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Wildflowers considers a relationship from multiple angles – there’s despair on ‘Don’t Fade on Me’ (“Today you are too tired to even leave your bed”) and release on ‘Time to Move On’ and the pretty title track. The singles are very strong, continuing the Petty renaissance that started with Full Moon Fever – ‘You Don’t Know How It Feels’ snuck some harmonica and a marijuana reference into the US top 20, while ‘You Wreck Me’ is an energetic rocker. There are lots of great deep cuts – ‘Hard On Me’ is lost in the shuffle here, but it’s tuneful and pretty, while ‘Crawling Back To You’ is cryptic and unsettling.
A rock artist releasing their best album almost twenty years into their recording career is unusual, but Wildflowers captures a productive season for Petty as a songwriter.
Songs and Music from the Motion Picture “She’s the One”
Petty was asked by Ed Burns to contribute a song for his new movie, co-starring Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Aniston, and named for the Springsteen song. Petty wrote a bunch of new songs, and also included some Wildflowers leftovers, resulting in a full album of material. She’s The One mostly plays like a studio album, although the presence of instrumentals from the film and cover songs make it feel less tightly constructed than a regular album. Curt Bisquera is the primary drummer, although future Heartbreaker Steve Ferrone also plays on some tracks.
She’s The One is uneven, but the opener is strong – Lindsey Buckingham’s distinctive backing vocals elevate the punchy rocker ‘Walls (Circus)’. ‘Climb That Hill’ is a menacing rocker, while Petty also pounds through Lucinda Williams’ ‘Change The Locks’. Songs like ‘California’ and the garage rocker ‘Zero From Outer Space’ are lighthearted, a welcome change of pace given that She’s The One was released between Petty’s two most somber albums, Wildflowers and Echo. Ringo Starr and Carl Wilson are back for the resignation of ‘Hung Up and Overdue’
She’s The One feels slight and disjointed, but like everything that Petty had done up until this point it’s eminently enjoyable.
If Wildflowers was Petty’s preliminary divorce album, Echo is his actual divorce album. Petty went through a period of depression and addiction after the end of his twenty year marriage, but the songs are tuneful and memorable. Like Wildflowers, Echo was produced by Rick Rubin, but as an official Heartbreakers album it’s more rock-oriented than its sister record. It’s the last Petty record to feature Howie Epstein – he missed the cover shot and was later dismissed from the band due to addiction issues.
Even though the mood of Echo is often sombre, Petty’s still writing great tunes. ‘Room at the Top’ is a terrific opener, with some stinging Campbell guitar, while ‘Lonesome Sundown’ is a surprising melody. Rockers like ‘Swingin” and ‘Billy The Kid’ are impressively vital from Petty on his twelfth record.
The emotional heart of the record is on the title track, which doesn’t outstay its welcome even at six and a half minutes. Petty’s debt to Dylan is more obvious than ever – his vocal on the title track, backed by Tench’s organ, channels mid-1960s Dylan, while ‘Free Girl Now’ echoes Dylan’s title ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’. Mike Campbell is the sole writer and lead singer on ‘I Don’t Wanna Fight’.
Echo is the last strong Petty album – after this, his ability to write memorable tunes dissipated – but it’s a very worthwhile late career album.
Anthology: Through the Years
Anthology covers the same period of time as 1993’s Greatest Hits but explored it more thoroughly over the course of two discs. There’s room for more gems like ‘Straight Into Darkness’, ‘Change of Heart’, and ‘Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around’. There are two previously unreleased songs – ‘Waiting For Tonight’ is an enjoyable Full Moon Fever outtake – with the stepping bassline and female backing vocals it’s as close to pop as Petty ever got – while ‘Surrender’ is a new recording of a song that had been kicking around since 1976.
The Last DJ
Petty was consistently enjoyable in the 20th century – some records were stronger than others, but there was a core of great tunes on each one. On 2002’s The Last DJ, his knack for writing robust and hummable tunes has vanished. Much of The Last DJ attacks the greed of the music industry. It’s not unreasonable territory for Petty, given the wrangles over early records like Damn the Torpedoes and Hard Promises. In tandem with the lack of tunes, however, it instantly ages Petty from reliable rocker to grumpy old man. Howie Epstein had been dismissed, but Ron Blair hadn’t yet returned to replace his replacement, so Petty and Campbell handle the bass parts.
Most problematic is ‘Joe’, a bluesy diatribe that’s impassioned but doesn’t works as a song outside the concept of The Last DJ. The other songs aren’t really stellar either – the heart of the title track is in the right place, but it’s not a memorable tune. The strings in ‘Dreamville’ feel like they’re covering for a lethargic and melodically uninspired song, while Lindsey Buckingham’s backing vocals can’t save the charmless and silly ‘The Man Who Loved Women’.
Even though Petty remains a loveable underdog, and the tasteful playing of Campbell and Tench remains a major asset, The Last DJ lacks what every previous Petty album had – tunes.
Highway Companion is Petty’s third, and last, solo album. It has a similar setup to Full Moon Fever, with all of the parts played by Petty, Jeff Lynne and Mike Campbell. Like The Last DJ, it’s not endowed with strong vocal melodies, but doing the different approach helps conceal this. The stripped down arrangements place more focus on lyrics, well written and often themed around road trips. Even though Tench isn’t present, the keyboard parts often recall his work – Petty plays electric piano on ‘Night Driver’ and Lynne plays organ on ‘Down South’.
Highway Companion is clearly nostalgic – Petty quotes Gene Clark (“she don’t care about time”) in the opening line to ‘Damaged By Love’. ‘Down South’ lifts the melody from Dylan’s ‘If Not For You’, although the lyrics are entertaining; “Pretend I’m Samuel Clemens/Wear seersucker and white linens”. ‘Jack’ sounds like a a rip from 1960s psychedelic garage-rock collection Nuggets, while ‘Flirting With Time’ wastes a pretty verse on a generic chorus. Bonus track ‘Home’ outshines anything on the album proper – the keening harmony vocals and busy bass line make
Highway Companion is more enjoyable than The Last DJ, but it’s still short on compelling songs.
Mojo consists of rock songs recorded live in the studio. It could have been titled Mike Campbell Cuts Loose – on fourteen previous Petty albums Campbell’s guitar playing is notable for its tasteful economy, but here he’s unleashed on songs that recall classic rock giants like the Allmans and The Yardbirds. At an hour long, Mojo is bloated, especially with its reliance on the blues, but the best moments are more inspired than Petty’s previous records.
The reliance on the blues can become tedious, but the heavy rocker ‘I Should Have Known It’ is very visceral. When Petty ventures outside the blues, the results are often strong – he mumbles his way through ‘Something Good Coming’, but it’s a lovely tune. Even better, ‘First Flash of Freedom’ clocks in at nearly seven minutes with some epic riffing. Surprisingly ‘The Trip to Pirate’s Cove’ hints at prog-rock with its winding verses and slinky keyboard work.
Mojo is overlong, but for the first time in a decade there are songs that stand proudly among Petty’s best work.
Petty’s final studio album was his first number one record. While Hypnotic Eye chart topping status was enabled by the fracturing of the music industry, it’s a surprisingly good record, clearly Petty’s best of the 21st century. Hypnotic Eye takes the best elements of Mojo – Campbell’s unleashed guitar and the bluesy rawness – and refines them into a tight and varied 45 minute album.
Because Hypnotic Eye is less reliant on blues, the bluesy stuff hits harder than on Mojo. ‘American Dream Plan B’ is a raw and effective opener, while ‘All You Can Carry’ is a tough opener. ‘Fault Lines’ is emotionally affecting, Petty admitting that he has a few of his own, while ‘Red River’ is the kind of tuneful and punchy power-pop song that I’d thought Petty was no longer was capable of writing that this point. Closer ‘Shadow People’ works as Petty’s last studio song, a tuneful and bluesy rocker that ends with a little acoustic coda.
Hypnotic Eye is a fitting final record for Petty, a satisfying return to form.
10 Best Tom Petty Songs
Don’t Come Around Here No More
Straight Into Darkness
You Don’t Know How It Feels
Change of Heart
Even the Losers
I Won’t Back Down
Room at the Top