If you’re a generation or two older than me, I guess that you’re used to saying goodbye to your musical heroes. Whether that’s Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry or Roy Orbison, then you’ll be familiar with the feeling that somebody who’s music has enthralled and entertained you for many years is no longer with us. The death of somebody famous doesn’t come close to losing a family member or friend of course, but you are aware that something has changed nonetheless. When it’s a famous musician or singer, it does come with the consolation that you’ve got all those wonderful records that have seen you through good times and bad over the years.
On 2nd October this year, American rock legend Tom Petty died, aged 66. Legend is an overused word in many fields, musical and otherwise, but you won’t find many who’d argue with the use of this label in Tom Petty’s case. His music is often grouped together with other American singers who rose to prominence in the 1970s, setting their everyday concerns and social commentary to rock music that was both entertaining and insightful in equal measures; Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp being the other major notable exponents of what was termed heartland rock. More often than not, Petty’s music spoke of typical boy-girl relationships and was often straightforward and unfussy – but none the worse for it.
The debut album by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers landed in 1976, just as punk was sweeping the musical landscape. Whilst their music has its roots in 1950s rock & roll and 1960s rock, their jangly three-minute tunes paid just enough homage to the past, whilst exhibiting a tough streak that made them acceptable to the punk crowd. Their third album, 1979’s Damn The Torpedoes, is arguably the band’s masterpiece; a set of songs that refines the sound of their first two albums, that thanks to the production of Jimmy Iovine, still sounds great when compared to albums made decades later.
The appeal of Tom Petty’s music is not just in his brilliant songwriting, but is in part thanks to the quality of his bandmates; guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboard player Benmont Tench regularly added memorable touches to Petty’s best songs. The Heartbreakers recorded four albums before Howie Epstein replaced bassist Ron Blair in 1982. The core line-up then remained in place until drummer Stan Lynch quit in 1994, and just before Epstein’s death in 2003, Blair re-joined the band. This sense of continuity is one of the features that made Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers such a special band.
In 2007, director Peter Bogdanovich made what is, for me, the best music documentary of all time; Runnin’ Down A Dream is an in-depth four-hour look at the career of Tom Petty. Starting from his Florida roots, the film tells the tale of Tom’s rise to prominence, featuring a stack of interviews with the man himself, his bandmates, producers, managers, road crew and fellow artists. There are, of course, many highlights; the live performance clips, the stories behind the songs and albums, how his videos made such an impact on MTV in the early 80s, the fallouts, his battles against the big record companies and various other events in his life. I could fill a whole blog explaining why I love this documentary so much, but just let me pick out a few highlights.
First up, the legal battle that Tom and the band had with their record company during the making of Damn The Torpedoes. The original recording contract that Tom Petty signed years earlier was automatically transferred to MCA when they bought his distributor in 1979. Fueled with righteous anger that such a move could happen without his say-so, Petty continued to record his album, getting his guitar tech to hide the tapes every night so that if he was questioned by lawyers, he could honestly tell them that he didn’t know where they were. Despite the fears of his bandmates and production team that the career-defining music they were recording might never see the light of day, Petty was prepared to risk everything in the stand-off with the execs. He eventually filed for bankruptcy to make his contract with MCA null and void, and thankfully, the music-buying public finally did get to hear his masterpiece.
Having been through several years of legal wrangles and finally escaped with his reputation and recording career intact, you’d think that Tom Petty would be happy to keep his head down and stick to recording great music. Think again. He was further enraged when in 1981, his record company tried to use his next album, Hard Promises, as a way of pushing through higher record prices. MCA planned to include Tom Petty in their “superstar pricing” range; which meant selling his album at $1.00 more than the standard record price. Yet again, Tom stood his ground and MCA backed down.
In addition to his albums with The Heartbreakers, Tom Petty found time to record three solo albums during his career and even released a couple of albums with supergroup The Travelling Wilburys. By the time that the Wilburys were formed, Tom Petty was twelve years into a recording career that had seen him become one of the most popular, well-known and well-respected artists of his time. Part of me wonders how Tom felt about only being the fourth most famous member of the Travelling Wilburys; featuring as it did, rock and roll legend Roy Orbison, Beatle George Harrison and Bob Dylan! ELO frontman Jeff Lynne completed the quintet. But he loved his experience with the Wilburys; that much is obvious when you listen to his interviews on the subject and watch the videos of their recording sessions.
Petty picked fellow-Wilbury Jeff Lynne to produce his first solo album in 1989. Full Moon Fever is my favourite Tom Petty album, packed as it is with one brilliant song after another, including the mesmeric “Free Fallin’”, one of his most memorable songs. The opening acoustic chords and anthemic chorus never fail to make the hairs on your arm stand on end, nearly thirty years after its original release. Despite its status as a solo album, Full Moon Fever features contributions from fellow Heartbreakers Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench and Howie Epstein. As with all of Tom Petty albums, solo or otherwise, Campbell’s contribution is significant – he even co-wrote some of the tracks.
It’s fascinating to listen to the thoughts of Petty, Campbell and Tench in the Runnin’ Down A Dream documentary. Like producer Jeff Lynne, Petty and Campbell were fascinated with the craft of making a record; Petty asserts that nobody cares how a record is made, but that they only care what the finished product sounds like. They were happy to go along with Lynne’s approach of recording many different pieces, and then layering them together to build up a full sound. Benmont Tench was less enthusiastic; he laments the fact that he was told to turn up, play his piece and then leave, instead of recording the track as a full band playing in the studio. I tend to sympathise and agree with his view, but given the astounding quality of the songs on Full Moon Fever, there’s no doubting the fact that Lynne’s approach has its merits.
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers have released two albums this decade – 2010’s blues-influenced Mojo, and in 2014, the back-to-basics Hypnotic Eye. These albums show a songwriter and band still at the height of their powers; they certainly don’t sound like a bunch of washed-up has-beens, and whilst it’s a shame that we won’t get any more albums, this comment sounds a little churlish given the depth and quality of their recorded output over the past 40 years.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise when I say that Tom Petty is one of my favourite artists, and there’s no doubt that I’ll be playing his music for the rest of my life. He was a brilliant songwriter with the ability to craft memorable songs that had great hooks, jangly intros and codas, superb musicianship and sing-along choruses. RIP Tom, and thanks for the music.
I’d like to finish this article with a personal Tom Petty Top 10.
- The Waiting *
- Free Fallin’
- Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It)
- Jammin’ Me
- First Flash Of Freedom
- Love Is A Long Road
- Runnin’ Down A Dream
- It’s Good To Be King
- You Tell Me