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Buyer's Guide: Tom Petty

A contributor to the great American songbook, by crossing and blurring boundaries he can’t be pinned down in any one genre.

Tom Petty has been many things during his 31-year career – but never a sitting target. His gumption rose to the surface defiantly when he withheld his fourth album, Hard Promises, from label MCA, who wanted to put it into the shops at $9.98, a dollar higher than most records retailed for. Petty threatened to rename the record The $8.98 Album, before the men in suits relented. That was in 1981. Four years earlier, only great reviews in the UK had convinced the label to persevere with his debut album Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. The record had been released 12 months earlier, but the US only caught on to Petty with the re-release of previous flop single Breakdown, which proved to be a slow-burner commercially. Age hasn’t blunted the man from Gainesville, Florida, either. In 2002 Petty took the brave step of releasing a record (The Last DJ) which aimed stinging bile at what he saw as the homogenisation of the US’s network of independent radio stations. In interviews, too, he was never backward in coming forward; a music TV channel was blasted for removing ‘’n’roll’ from ‘rock’n’roll’, and promoting the likes of Latin chanteuse Shakira as ‘rock’ artists. He may once have proclaimed himself “incredibly lazy”, but Petty has kept many irons in the fire. Although the majority of the albums that bear his name were recorded with The Heartbreakers (and members usually played on albums credited solely to Petty), he’s also found time for movie and TV work (The Simpsons, King Of The Hill). There was his high-profile stint with the Traveling Wilburys, that also included Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, George Harrison and former ELO stalwart Jeff Lynne. That group released one standout record in Vol 1, which deserves to sit among the best of the records listed here, and the less-focused Vol 3 (the Vol 2 title having been filched by bootleggers.) The association with Lynne was to prove fruitful: Full Moon Fever and Into The Great Wide Open, the two albums the partnership initially yielded, were Petty’s most accessible and, consequently, successful. And in 2006 Petty and Lynne reunited with one of his strongest albums since that pair, the life-affirming road warrior tales of Highway Companion. Petty’s body of work cuts across genres. He’s admired equally by rockers, folkies, clued-up country fans and indie kids (The Replacements were given a hefty leg-up after touring with him). A phenomenal live performer too, his Soundstages DVD is a compulsory companion to the records listed here.

ESSENTIAL Classics

FULL MOON FEVER 

MCA, 1989 

When Jeff Lynne and Petty hooked up in the Traveling Wilburys, it probably didn’t occur to either of them that within the space of two years they’d have added a pair of classic albums to their respective CVs: the Wilburys’ Vol 1 and Full Moon Fever.

There’s been speculation that the songs included here were originally earmarked for the Wilburys’ second record. Whatever, Lynne, as producer, allowed Petty’s Byrds-esque jangly Rickenbacker sound a long leash, and the result was an album full of shimmering tunes: Free Fallin’, I Won’t Back Down and Runnin’ Down A Dream are among the greatest songs of their kind.

DAMN THE TORPEDOES 

MCA, 1979 

It kicks off with what was probably Petty’s finest song to date, the stirring, organ- infused Refugee [a co-write with long-time Heartbreaker Mike Campbell]. On Even The Losers Petty emoted an anthem for every guy who’s just been dumped by his prom queen [‘I showed you stars you never could see/It couldn’t have been that easy to forget about me’], while the perky, piano-punctuated Don’t Do Me Like That had a similar theme, minus the redemptive tone.

As befitted an artist struggling for success in the post-punk era, there are new-wave flecks and touches of Tom Waits-esque semi-spoken delivery, but ...Torpedoes is a quintessential American rock record.

SUPERIOR The Ones That Helped Cement His Reputation

TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS 

Warner Bros, 1976

As the western world prepared to go incendiary over punk, Petty stepped out of the shadows with a stripped-back record that combined the best bits of the mid-70s musical melting pot.

Driven by understated guitar chimes and Benmont Tench’s organ swirls, its impact may not have been instant, but the early-Springsteen backing vocals of Breakdown and call-to-arms battle cry Anything That’s Rock ’N’ Roll helped make certain it would become an enduring classic. The record’s best-known anthem is American Girl – the guitar riff of which was later filched in its entirety by The Strokes [for Last Nite].

HIGHWAY COMPANION 

American, 2006 

Jeff Lynne returned as producer for what many critics viewed as Petty’s best record in years. Lynne’s temptation to over-elaborate is largely resisted, and the lyrical themes see Petty travelling wilfully through the side alleys of America, coming over as a lonesome troubadour, windshield splattered with mosquitoes. It’s a genuinely homespun collection, lovingly crafted and speckled with heart-tugging chord progressions, particularly evident on Square One, a prayer for redemption which excels as a simple, folksy ballad, and the joyous hoedown of Big Weekend. Only perfectionists would quibble about Lynne’s distinctive but one-dimensional harmony vocals.

THE LAST DJ

Warner Bros, 2002

You can only imagine the reaction among the ‘high-ups’ at label Warner Brothers when Petty And The Heartbreakers turned in a record rammed with invective against their very methods.

The Last DJ, as a concept, comprehensively dismantled the industry’s promotion of mediocrity, image and manufactured fluff. The title track bemoans the loss of independent radio, while Joe, sung from the viewpoint of a record company CEO, contains the lyric: ‘Bring me a girl/They’re always the best/You put ’em on stage/And you have ’em undress.’ It’s dedicated to “everyone who loves music just a little bit more than money”. And three cheers for that.

WILDFLOWERS

Warner Bros, 1994

Three years after ...Great Wide Open, the fickle hand of fashion had moved on, seemingly leaving Petty with far less pressure to create another commercially successful follow-up. Jeff Lynne, too, was absent, and Rick Rubin was in the producer’s chair.

Full of the sparseness that characterises the best work of both producer and performer, it’s his second ‘solo’ album. Overall Petty sounds looser, less hurried and more fun. Never one to take the pressures of fame well, on It’s Good To Be King he could almost be reflecting on the enjoyable, but ephemeral, mainstream plaudits his previous two albums (and the Greatest Hits record) enjoyed. You Wreck Me, meanwhile, is a good old- fashioned rock’n’roll singalong.

GOOD Worth Exploring

SHE’S THE ONE

Warner Bros, 1996

When writer/director Edward Burns asked Petty to provide the music for his 1996 rom-com She’s The One (starring Jennifer Aniston and Cameron Diaz), he found Petty in acerbic, guitar-heavy form. ‘Some days are diamonds, some days are rocks,’ he opined on opening track and lead-off single Walls (Circus).

Although recorded with The Heartbreakers, there was only one co-write, plus a rare pair of cover versions in Lucinda Williams’ defiant Change The Locks and (Petty likes to keep his finger on the musical pulse) a reading of Beck’s Asshole.

To dismiss this record from your Petty-perusing as ‘just a soundtrack album’ would be to miss him when he’s close to the top of his game.

INTO THE GREAT WIDE OPEN 

MCA, 1991 

The impact of this second instalment from the ‘Jeff Lynne Years’ suffered mainly from coming as less of a surprise than its predecessor, Full Moon Fever. That said, Learning To Fly and King’s Highway are two of the strongest songs Petty has recorded, all glorious, chiming guitars and euphoric choruses. The title track’s refrain (influenced by his friendship with George Harrison via both being in the Wilburys, perhaps) strongly evokes The Beatles.

Overall, though, Lynne’s production adds too much gloss to the mix, to the detriment of the songs; frequently with Petty, the bits where nothing’s happening are as important as when the band’s a-rockin’.

HARD PROMISES

MCA, 1981

In some ways a companion piece to its predecessor Damn The Torpedoes, and another album that opens with a track that would become a staple and fans’ favourite for years. On this occasion it was The Waiting – an attempt by a feckless lover to convince his ‘baby’ that he’s a changed man.

There’s a fresh maturity to the lyrics. The narrative mystery of Something Big is the tale of a loner who checks into a low-rent hotel for a night of who-knows-what; Old Kings Road details the head-spinning confusion of an all-American boy transplanted into London. Amid all that there’s the straight-up love song A Thing About You. Fleetwood Mac’s fairy princess Stevie Nicks pops up on vocals, too.

AVOID

ECHO

Warner Bros, 1999

It’s a bit like criticising a ruby among a bag of diamonds just for being the wrong colour of gem, but Echo’s downbeat timbre is a bit too much like Petty-by-numbers in places.

The last in a trilogy of Petty albums produced by Rick Rubin, it’s certainly a serviceable chunk of adult rock. But what it lacks is the killer track [or three] that demand you play it again straight away. Some disconcerting Jagger-esque vocal mannerisms don’t help, and overall it’s a somewhat unmemorable listen.

With so much quality in Tom Petty’s back catalogue its unlikely that Echo will be an album that most people will pull off the shelf ahead of many of his others.

ESSENTIAL PLAYLIST

LOUISIANA RAIN

Damn The Torpedoes

YOU WRECK ME

Wildflowers

THE WAITING

Hard Promises

I WON’T BACK DOWN 

Full Moon Fever

RUNNIN’ DOWN A DREAM 

Full Moon Fever

HONEY BEE

Wildflowers

BREAKDOWN

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers

REBELS

Southern Accents

REFUGEE

Damn The Torpedoes

HOPE YOU NEVER

She’s The One

THE LAST DJ

The Last DJ

LEARNING TO FLY

Into The Great Wide Open

MARY JANE’S LAST DANCE 

Greatest Hits

LOVE IS A LONG ROAD 

Full Moon Fever

A WOMAN IN LOVE

Hard Promises

TURN THIS CAR AROUND 

Highway Companion

CHANGE OF HEART

Long After Dark

CLIMB THAT HILL

She’s The One

SAVING GRACE

Highway Companion

DON’T COME AROUND HERE NO MORE 

Southern Accents

DON'T COME AROUND HERE NO MORE

PETTY FACTOIDS

  • He was taken on the set of the Elvis Presley movie Follow That Dream in 1961. His uncle was working on the film.

  • Don Felder was one of his guitar teachers.

  • Petty's early 70s band Mudcrutch released the single Depot Street in 1975, before splitting up the same year.

  • He appears in the 2002 Simpsons episode How I Spent My Summer Vacation.

  • Petty has won three Grammys, one each with The Traveling Wilburys, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and as a solo artist.

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