Tom Petty, as a solo artist and member of several great rock bands, is a bit of an enigma. Here’s a 44-year-old guy who wins an MTV VMA for a song where he plays a guitar and harmonica country ballad, the same year the music industry is blasting 20-somethings like Lisa Loeb and Boyz II Men. Here’s a band considered milquetoast enough for the Super Bowl halftime show in the take-no-chances years following Janet Jackson’s nip slip, yet also the same act whose first hit video spawned Tipper Gore’s 1980s crusade against immorality in music because of its groteque imagery. Here’s a white Southerner who flew the confederate flag in concert, but also played with Billy Preston and Prince, and whose current drummer is black. A guy with 80 million records sold and a list of top-shelf collaborators as long as your arm, but remarkably less critical prestige than the rest of them.
Maybe if you took Willie Nelson, but made him a member of the Monkees, you’d come up with Petty’s blend of country, roots rock, and infectious pop music, and his image-conscious sensibility. Tom Petty’s career is so long and varied (and I am so verbose) that this Spotlight will be split into two parts, running today and tomorrow.
Before forming his biggest act and finding major success, the Gainesville-born Petty was in a band called Mudcrutch. Though its personnel included himself and future Heartbreakers Mike Campbell (guitar) and Benmont Tench (piano), the band broke up. They’ve reformed recently as a Tom Petty vanity act that sounds like a bunch of 60-somethings noodling around in the garage on their old guitars.
1976-1984: Tumult and Victory
Mudcrutch signed a record deal in 1974, and the band moved to Los Angeles that year. After breaking up, Petty, Campbell, and Tench joined up with bassist Ron Blair and dummer Stan Lynch, and formed Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Their 1976 self-titled album failed to chart in the U.S., but found an audience in the UK. “Anything That’s Rock and Roll” was the song from this record that charted across the pond.
I hear some T-Rex and BTO in there, beneath Petty’s struggling vocals. Tom does not have a naturally good signing voice, but he works hard to make it work, and that’s where his trademark nasal whine comes from. After building momentum overseas, the band’s label re-released the singles “American Girl” and “Breakdown” in 1977. The latter was a top 40 hit, and the former became so overplayed that it spawned an urban legend claiming the inspiration was a girl who committed suicide by leaping from a dorm room window at the University of Florida. Bad news, conspiracy theorists: Petty denies this.
More importantly, though, “American Girl” and “Breakdown” were better songs than the others, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had found their sound, somewhere between the Southern Rock of the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Roots Rock of Springsteen, and pop-friendly rockers like Rod Stewart. Their special sauce was jangly guitars, an organ-heavy rhythm section, and Petty’s great vocal hooks sung in his oddball voice.
The band released four albums over the next five years, all of which went gold or platinum, spawning eight singles that charted on the Billboard 100. Additionally, Tom wrote, and the whole band performed on, Stevie Nicks’ “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” which also charted.
Most of those singles are still staples of classic rock-format radio stations, especially after their inclusion on the band’s 1993 Greatest Hits album, which sold 12 million copies or something like that. I’m going to share a few songs that weren’t huge hits, to give you a taste beyond the usual fare.
These records were made at a time of turmoil for Petty and the band. Record label consolidation prompted them to try to get out of their crummy original contract (in which Petty signed away all his songwriters’ royalties) and the drama caused drummer Lynch to quit the band twice. Petty himself filed for bankruptcy, and producer Jimmy Iovine, whom you may have heard of, played a key role in keeping the band together during the Damn the Torpedoes sessions in 1978.
In the end, they emerged victorious, with a new record deal at MCA subsidiary Backstreet. And like many artists before them, the Heartbreakers discovered that struggle breeds great music: Torpedoes has some of their best songs and made it to No. 2 (kept out of the top slot by Pink Floyd’s chart juggernaut The Wall).
The band’s music was always hard to categorize, and that played out in odd ways. They opened for an variety of acts in their early years, from the Doobie Brothers to the Ramones. Petty believes some potential fans thought they were a punk band, because he wore a leather jacket on one album cover. He also blames their now-defunct record label ABC for getting the band written up in 16and Tiger Beat. “We did everything we could to discourage that, worked at making sure we weren’t cute,” he said in an interview from the book counterpart to the 2007 documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream.
1985-1993: The MTV Era
The Heartbreakers kicked off 1985 with Southern Accents, an attempt at a concept album about the South that ended up not. Instead, it was the band’s introduction to controversy and the new world of music that would make them bigger than they had ever imagined.
“Don’t Come Around Here No More,” and specifically its video, is what turned Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers into a global phenomenon. It’s one of three songs on the record co-written by Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, but of course what you remember is the hallucinatory video.
I mean, when I think “concept album about the U.S. South,” I think “a Brit playing an electric sitar.”
This video blew up MTV, and in 1985, blowing up MTV meant a huge boost to your record sales. The fledgling cable channel was basically a nationwide radio station, and artists like the Heartbreakers, who were willing to make videos with daring visuals, became the network’s darlings.
Unfortunately, those visuals can make or break you, and when Tipper Gore’s six-year-old daughter saw the Heartbreakers eating Alice in Wonderland like a Costco sheet cake, Gore decided Something Must Be Done About All This Immoral Music. (Apparently, Tipper never tried telling her kid, “That’s just pretend.”) The senator’s wife founded the Parents Music Resource Center, Congress held circus-like hearings that made Dee Snider look eloquent, and all the good records got slapped with ever-lampoonable warning labels.
In case that wasn’t enough, Petty came up with another, less-cool idea for the Southern Accents tour: hang a confederate battle flag on stage when performing the song “Rebels.” At the time, Petty said, the flag seemed like the right prop for the character voicing the song: a contemporary Southern good ol’ boy, not unlike the heroes of other hit songs, such as “Ramblin’ Man” or “Jack and Diane.” The difference is that this one links his lifestyle to historical events, like when the “blue-bellied devils” called Southerners rebels and burned their cornfields.
There’s a brave ignorance in those lyrics, I suppose, since they elide any effort to merely imply or speak in code about lingering resentment in a large swath of the country. Petty says the character reflects what he saw growing up, where the stars-and-bars was “the wallpaper of the South.” Also bear in mind, this record came out the same year that a hit television show about good ol’ boys driving around in a battle flag-bearing car called the General Lee wrapped its seventh season.
Either way, Petty grew to regret using the flag in his shows when he saw fans showing up in confederate-flag bandanas and the like. In a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone, Petty says he wishes he’d never used the flag, he supports South Carolina’s decision to remove it from their statehouse flagpoles, and that Southerners who display the flag might not necessarily be racist, but are definitely “stupid” for not comprehending why it’s a hurtful symbol. That might sound like someone comfortably disowning his once-profitable bad behavior years later when it no longer matters, but I also recall seeing an MTV News story from that era where Tom tells the reporter that he doesn’t want fans to bring the flag to his shows.
1987’s Let Me Up, I’ve Had Enough is generally forgotten, because it was sandwiched between two huge hit albums. Most of the songs are easy to skip, and some of them sound like warm-ups for the upcoming Full Moon Fever. But “Jammin’ Me” was a hit, and Bob Dylan co-wrote it.
After this, Tom decided to cut a solo record, so that he could have still more freedom to work with other artists as collaborators. That includes the Heartbreakers; all of them except drummer Lynch appear on this record. But other big-name guests include George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Del Shannon, and Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra, who also co-produced. It was Lynne who transformed Petty’s sound, from that of a solid rock band with great songwriting to a studio-polished, pop-rock act. The songs are frankensteined together from who knows how many punch-ins and overdubs, and every audio track is compressed to within an inch of its life.
Full Moon Fever is easily the biggest record in the Petty pantheon; it spawned numerous hits, continued to blow up MTV, and made him and the band more famous than ever. Yet, the Heartbreakers were mixed on its success, since most of them hated recording it, due to Lynne’s production and the songs’ different styles. Plus, it wasn’t even their album. Drummer Lynch, ever grumpy, compared playing the record’s hits in concerts to being in a cover band.
Fortunately, all of the tracks are great, so we can check out the songs that weren’t radio hits and still be entertained.
It was in the middle of the Full Moon Fever sessions that the Traveling Wilburys were born. The story is painfully comic: Harrison was having dinner in L.A. with Lynne and Orbison, where he casually mentioned he had to record a B-side for a new single. The trio decided to do it that night—but where to record? Well, Dylan has a studio in his house, let’s call him. On the way over, George stopped by Petty’s house to pick up a guitar, and the next thing you know, you’ve got a supergroup on your hands. The band members had silly fake names, a bogus backstory, and a dysfunctional album chronology (Vol. 1 was followed by Vol. 3), but they also sold millions of records and won some Grammys or something, so goofing off in the studio can pay dividends, I guess.
By this point, Petty was a major star. He no longer had to fight with his label over getting stuck in Tiger Beat magazine or wonder if his next record would be a hit. So when he got the band back together for Into the Great Wide Open, Petty brushed off the grumbling about Lynne’s continuing role as producer. And the record label probably didn’t want to pay for Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway to be in the title track music video, but at this point, no one was saying “no” to Tom Petty.
Tune in tomorrow for Part Two of this Spotlight, which focuses on the last phase of Petty’s career, which I call “Bearded and Cranky.”