Tom Petty was never the biggest rock star on the planet, nor the coolest, nor the most influential, but it is careers like his that keep rock & roll music alive and vibrant. Petty never had a record that made the world stop, but neither did he have a downturn like many members of rock aristocracy. His was a remarkable career full of great songs, which made him be respected by all the greats, who always felt as if he was one of their own; and what is even more difficult, practically noone hated him. From Guitars Exchange we remember ‘the one from Florida’, on the day he should have turned 70, to review our favorite songs from his career.
Despite having the ‘career of a long-distance runner’, it didn't take Petty much time to deliver the most important of his songs. American Girl is a crash course in rock & roll, because from its beginning you can trace its history, from Bo Diddley's beat to the Byrds' jangle - and see its future; not in vain did the Strokes use it to build their Last Nite. The incredible thing is that the song went unnoticed in its country of origin and it had to be the British who realized that there was treasure here. We can't overlook the great work of Petty's right-hand man throughout his career, the great Mike Campbell, with his legendary Fender Broadcaster, which combines perfectly with Petty's 1964 Stratocaster Sunburst.
Petty's first solo album, Full Moon Fever, was the biggest hit of his career, driven by the strength of the debut single; the marvel called Free Fallin'. But the curious thing is that when the singer presented this album to the company it was rejected, because they couldn’t see a song that looked like it might be a hit. I think those executives must have been deaf not to realize the enormous potential of a song that smelled like an anthem from its iconic beginning, played by the ever-faithful Campbell (even though the Heartbreakers didn't play here) on his 12-string Rickenbacker 360. The funny thing is that despite being Petty's most remembered song (the singer himself acknowledged that there wasn't a single day when someone didn't hum a part of it, or that he heard it somewhere) the singer took less than 30 minutes to complete it.
Stop Draggin' My Heart Around
To set the scene, the Heartbreakers were in the process of recording Hard Promises with Jimmy Iovine in 1981. Meanwhile Mike Campbell had composed the music for this song and Petty had put lyrics on it, the band recorded it and he was planning to put it on his album, but Iovine was recording Stevie Nicks' Bella Donna at the same time and he was convinced that the lyrics were a better fit for a woman, so he asked Petty to let her give it a go. The Fleetwood Mac singer turned it into a duet and in the end it was decided that it would appear on Nicks' album, for which it became one of her biggest hits. But the song is pure Heartbreakers, from the marked drums of Stan Lynch, through the sinuous guitar of Campbell, to the irresistible chorus. Luckily, Stevie Nicks appeared at London's Hyde Park on July 27, 2017, at Petty's last live performance, to perform this song live.
After two great albums with very good reviews, but not very good sales, Petty was getting tired of being “the future of rock & roll"; what he wanted was to be its present. And that is what he achieved with Damn The Torpedoes, and in particular with Refugee, the song that served as his second single. Here was the ‘end of the story’ that related Petty to the New Wave and Punk; this was pure classic rock & roll. Mike Campbell, who composed the music, brings the house down with a Telecaster hooked up to a Marshall, and Petty brings out the best in himself as a vocalist, in one of the seminal songs of his career.
There has been much talk of Bob Dylan's influence on Petty but the great musical influence for Petty and the Heartbreakers has always been the Byrds. Many of their best songs are reminiscent of the authors of Younger Than Yesterday, such as the beginning of this song, with that riff that seems to come from McGuinn's Rickenbacker, with Petty and Campbell with their respective models of the brand, and Petty delivering one of the best tunes of his career. The Waiting became the presentation single of the album with which they opened in a remarkable way the 80's, Hard Promises.
Mary Jane's Last Dance
1993 was a pivotal year in Petty's career as he was recording the essential Wildflowers with Rick Rubin, separating from his wife, and had just signed to a new label. However, as compensation to his old label, it was decided to release a compilation of greatest hits for which he had to record a couple of new songs. Petty was really pissed off about this, so he asked his new producer, Rubin, to choose from the rejects from Full Moon Fever. Rubin was very interested in this song in particular, and Petty gathered the Heartbreakers, including drummer Stan Lynch, who was a band member with whom he was in conflict, and who had not been invited to the Wildflower sessions. The curious thing is that one of the best songs of his career came out of this situation; a song that served as a farewell to the first formation of the Heartbreakers. Lynch was finally fired and Petty tried to replace him a year later with Dave Grohl himself. The fact is that the song became a success anyway and led to that Greatest Hits becoming the best-selling album of Petty's career. Probably the lurid video of the song, with Kim Basinger playing a corpse, and Petty playing a disturbing undertaker, helped its success but the song's well-known riff was already a hit in itself, and you could ask the Red Hot Chili Peppers about it...
Listen to Her Heart
Further proof of the long shadow of the Byrds in Petty's music, an imprint that the singer never denied, going so far as to cover the song Feel A Whole Lot Better, the song that first comes to mind when you listen to this marvel that was one of the two singles on the band's second album, You're Gonna Get It! released in 1978. One of the most interesting things about the song is that the lyrics are about Ike Turner trying to hit on Petty's wife; something that is pretty disturbing knowing what Tina's ex husband was like.
You Don't Know How It Feels
Wildflower is, along with Damn the Torpedoes, my favorite Petty album. At a time, in 1994, when most of the great figures of classic rock, from Dylan to Springsteen, were looked upon with suspicion by the new generation of grunge and alternative fans, Petty was sailing through his most productive and successful stage, being looked upon with respect by everyone. That is understandable if you have things like You Don't Know How It Feels in your pocket, which was the last time a Petty single snuck into the American top 20. On this song the harmonica and the playful melody take us to Dylan’s Rainy Day Woman, precisely the song that Petty and the Heartbreakers played during Dylan's 30th anniversary concert in 1992. Another thing they shared was their celebration of marijuana, that "so let's get to the point, let's roll another joint" being the most celebrated part of all their concerts.
I Won't Back Down
This was another of the anthems that appeared on Full Moon Fever, the album produced by Jeff Lynne in 1988. Petty was not very sure about the song but everyone around him told him how good it was, including his colleague in the Travelling Wilburys, George Harrison, who here accompanies him on the acoustic guitar and with some vocal harmonies. He wasn't the only Beatle who accompanied him as in the video you can see Ringo playing the drums. Years later Johnny Cash would demonstrate the enormous power of this song with a simple and powerful version in which he would be accompanied by Petty himself.
A Higher Place
I want to finish with a more personal choice. I have already said that Wildflower is one of my favorite works of Petty’s career, which is understandable if we take into account that inside it we find gems like the already mentioned You Don't Know How It Feels, the title song, the rocker You Wreck Me, the intense It's Good To Be King and the guitar-driven Honey Bee; but I have always had a weakness for A Higher Place, a song that was rarely performed live, despite being chosen as the fourth single of the album. I think it is one of their most brilliant melodies, with a psychedelic sound that again reminds me of the Byrds, and a solo that is very influenced by that from Eight Miles High. It is a perfect song to listen to in the winter, because it automatically transports you to the summer…