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Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

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 cemented when he saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. He 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 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 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 production of Jimmy Iovine helped ‘Don’t Do Me Like That’, ‘Refugee’, and Damn The Torpedoes to become 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 tried to update his sound, 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 after 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

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

1976, 7.5/10
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!

1978, 7/10
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

1979, 8.5/10
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 for me, due to both fuller mixes and more nuanced writing. The band are also constantly honing their chops; 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.


Hard Promises

1981, 8.5/10
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, a 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

1982, 8.5/10
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.


Southern Accents

1985, 7/10
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 was 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!

1985
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)

1987, 6/10
I was gob-smacked finding this album in the 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

1989, 8/10
Tom Petty started recording his first solo album before Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 – it 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’s adding a glossier studio sound than 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 casting around 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 tale of 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 2001’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

1991, 8/10
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.

10 Best Tom Petty Songs

The Waiting
Free Fallin’
Don’t Come Around Here No More
Refugee
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

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