Tom Petty RIP – Unexpected Rock & Roll Rebel
Aside from writing four decades of great songs, Tom Petty was also an opponent of the music industry. Shaun Ponsonby considers his legacy both on and off stage.
The news of Tom Petty’s death may not register and strongly in the UK as it will in America. He never hit the top over here as often as he did over there. But the strange thing about Petty is that he enjoyed a level of devotion that would be the envy of most artists.
The reasons why are difficult to pinpoint. At first listen, there isn’t any reason to assume that he was no different from a dozen or so other heartland rockers.
But there was something a little different about Tom.
Coming out of Gainsville, Florida, The Heartbreakers were born out of a group called Mudcrutch, but when they went to sign their promised record deal, the group discovered that they didn’t want the band, they only wanted Tom. They wanted his song. They wanted his voice, always sounding like a sort of autotuned Dylan, but with warmth. It was a voice that was hard to forget.
Mudcrutch basically morphed into The Heartbreakers, with only a couple of line-up changes. They had a strange amalgamation of streetwise punk kids and laid back southern gents – a combination that the American public didn’t immediately take to.
When they released their first record in 1976, it was the UK that picked it up first. Perhaps this makes sense – we were coming out of our prog rock obsessions. Tom Petty was offering short, sharp songs with the mantra “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus”.
Take a listen to the album’s biggest hit, destined to become The Heartbreakers’ anthem for evermore; American Girl always leaves me wanting more. After lead guitarist Mike Campbell’s brilliantly understated solo, I am desperate for another verse. Another chorus. Anything. It remains such a fresh, thrilling three minutes and I often find myself listening to it three or four times in a row, no matter how many times I have heard it.
Future collaborator Dave Stewart has reflected that Tom and The Heartbreakers were one of the few American acts deemed cool enough for the Brits. Their unpretentious outlook fit with the way the tide was turning for British music.
There was also a toughness to Petty that the likes of Bob Seger never truly had, and it extended beyond a stage act.
After the release of The Heartbreakers’ second album You’re Gonna Get It, Petty‘s contract was reassigned to MCA when his previous label was sold to the company. MCA took over rights to Petty‘s published music.
Petty said in Peter Bogdanovich’s epic documentary Running Down a Dream (currently available on Netflix); “We had a clause that said if our contract is sold to anyone else, you have to have our consent. So we went into them and said ‘You’re going to have to let us go’.”
Naturally, MCA told them to get out of their damned office, and that they were not in any financial position to fight a large international corporation in the courts. Petty disagreed. The Heartbreakers embarked on what they called the “Lawsuit Tour” in order to pay for the legal fees, complete with T-shirts on the merch stand that read “Why, MCA?” During the proceedings, Petty also discovered that he had been coerced into signing away his publishing rights – one of many bad deals signed by young artists.
It took some guts for a kid with just two albums, neither of which dented the top 20, to tell a major record company where to go. It just didn’t happen. According to Tom, they tried everything from legalities to outright intimidation, with one guy ranting; “Let me tell you something, kid. You’re gonna forget this, you’re gonna go make your record and shut up”. Petty’s response? “I’ll sell fucking peanuts before I give in to you…You can break me, but you can’t make records”.
This wasn’t a war against one record company. It became a war against the music industry. Petty’s skewered contract is disgustingly standard to the point where getting ripped off when you sign your first contract has become an industry cliché. And yet he prevailed. He was able to void his contract by declaring bankruptcy, and MCA backed down. They negotiated a new deal that allowed him to retain publishing rights and form his own label, with distributed by MCA.
It is a good thing they did. The following album, Damn The Torpedoes, wasn’t only The Heartbreakers’ breakthrough album, only kept off the top spot in the US by Pink Floyd’s The Wall, it is also possibly the band’s finest.
Producer Jimmy Iovine admitted that the only time he ever told any artist that they didn’t need any more songs was working with Tom on Damn The Torpdoes – bearing in mind that he had already worked on Springsteen’s Born To Run, Patti Smith’s Easter and Bat Out Of Hell.
The songs that had struck a particular chord with Iovine were Here Comes My Girl and Refugee. The latter remained one of the band’s greatest hits, and even as recently as their huge, sold out Hyde Park gig this year, it served as one of the final songs of the set. Iovine stated in 2006 of Refugee; “Up until about five years ago, if I heard it on the radio I would still call [Tom]. I would call him and say ‘This fucking thing sounds amazing on the radio, doesn’t it?’” Here Comes My Girl, meanwhile saw Petty take inspiration from the Shangri-Las and Blondie, narrating the verses rather than singing, leading up to a glorious Byrds-like chorus.
You would think that once that score had been settled, he would happily continue making records for years to come. But just a couple of years later Petty raged another war on the industry.
After the success of Damn The Torpedoes, there was great anticipation for 1981’s follow-up, Hard Promises. Though not as strong as the previous release, it still contained some of Petty’s finest songs, most notably The Waiting. It is also the first time the band worked with Stevie Nicks on Insider, which they would repeat on Nicks’ debut solo album Bella Donna as the album’s lead single, launching her as a solo star (Nicks told Rolling Stone in 2014; “Had Tom Petty called me up one day and said, ‘If you want to leave Fleetwood Mac to be in the Heartbreakers, there’s a place for you’, I might very well have done it. Anytime. Today! Because it’s my favourite band.”)
One of Petty’s crew members was perusing a music store one day when they noticed a poster; “New Tom Petty – $9.98”. The label told them that they were going to use Hard Promises to raise the price on vinyl. “They were using our popularity to increase profit across the board,” Petty said. “They were going to raise the list price on records in general on our backs…Once the press got involved it became a kind of stand-off where neither one of us would give in. They finally blinked, and they said ‘Well, we’ll sneak the price up with someone else later on’. But, you know, it was many a year before the price did go up, and I was kinda proud of that!”
Petty’s popularity among his heroes and peers wasn’t limited to Stevie Nicks. He produced a successful comeback record for Del Shannon. He and The Heartbreakers toured as a double-headliner with Bob Dylan in which they also acted as Dylan’s backing band. He wrote Roy Orbison’s comeback single, the international hit You Got It. Johnny Cash used Tom and The Heartbreakers as his band on 1996’s Unchained.
Hilariously, footage has emerged of Petty working on former Byrds’ man Roger McGuinn’s comeback album Back From Rio, in which record company executives are attempting to force McGuinn to record a song for the album that Petty deemed beneath McGuinn.
“The song was terrible,” Petty remembered. “It wasn’t a song he wrote, and I was very suspicious as to why he was being encouraged to record material like this.”
The footage is glorious if you can find it. Petty sits in the studio, reading the lyrics in front of a tepid looking McGuinn and uncomfortable looking executives. “’God I love you, God I need you, This time I’ve got both feet on the ground’. I could smoke a joint and come up with three better lines than that, and so could you. This is the man who sang Turn! Turn! Turn! Let’s go get him a fucking song. This is a great man, who has done great things…I know you’re not trying to fuck him around, but you are if you’re making him do this song… Are you getting a kickback on this? This is a bad song. Don’t bullshit me…This is just perpetrating the depths of shit that we’re in with pop music.”
McGuinn didn’t record the song.
Obviously, the greatest example of Petty’s standing comes in the form of the Traveling Wilburys. The supergroup to end all supergroups, largely devoid of the excessive trappings that often plague supergroups. The Wilburys was spearheaded by George Harrison, who needed a b-side for his latest single. He got together with a group of friends and they jammed together on a song that would become Handle With Care. It just so happens that those friends were Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty.
What makes the first Wilburys record so enjoyable is their own enjoyment of it. They have no reason to do this, they just enjoy each other’s company and thought they would have a laugh working together, and it shows. Petty himself exclaimed that his favourite part of the project was that he was able to “watch his favourite writers, write”. He was sitting in a room with his heroes – Dylan, Orbison and an actual bona fide Beatle. Footage from the writing sessions show how laid back it was. It is also a thrill to hear a lighter side of Dylan, especially the Springsteen parody/homage Tweeter and the Monkey Man.
The death of Orbison soon after the album’s release meant that the Wilburys were never able to perform selections from the album, although Petty began performing a couple of the tunes on tour in the last years of his life.
Petty also made a number of solo albums without The Heartbreakers in name, despite them mostly being featured on the records. It is hard to know exactly why some were released as Heartbreakers records and others were not. The solo monster hit Full Moon Fever – which returned Petty to the UK charts – certainly sounds more like a Heartbreakers album than follow-up Into The Great Wide Open, which was released under the band’s name.
The former was also full of hit singles; I Won’t Back Down (in the video, the band featured Harrison and Ringo Starr, making it three quarters of a Beatles reunion), Runnin’ Down a Dream, Yer So Bad, A Face In The Crowd and of course Free Fallin’. The latter was serviceable, but other than a smattering of highlights, most notably the soaring Learning To Fly (which was admittedly superior on stage, devoid of Jeff Lynne’s bombastic production), the formula proved hard to repeat.
So Petty mixed it up. Going solo-but-not-solo again, he hooked up with Rick Rubin and produced the low key Wildflowers. The album only reached number 36 in the UK, after a run of top ten albums. But artistically it trounced everything else that came in Full Moon Fever’s wake, and is probably Petty’s last truly great album, easily joining the ranks of the snotty kid on Damn The Torpedoes and the pop songwriter on Full Moon Fever. The undoubted highlight is You Don’t Know How It Feels, a chilled out stoners anthem that is begging to be played in a park on a summers night. “Let’s get to the point, let’s roll another joint”.
Petty had one more industry fight left in him. 2002’s The Last DJ proved controversial, as Tom attacked the music industry, the radio industry and everything else that stood in his way. It would be easy to see the record as an old man complaining that things aren’t as good as they used to be. But actually a lot of what he says on the title track is hard to argue with. One song is called Money Became King, while the title track bemoans;
“As we celebrate mediocrity
The boys upstairs want to see
How much you’ll pay for what you used to get for free”
In explaining the record, Petty said; “It’s a moral play. How far is too far? I used to draw the line here, and now I draw it over there. Why? Rock stars were being invented on game shows”.
It wasn’t played on the radio. The playlisters deemed it an attack on them. The record company didn’t get behind it, as they believed Petty was attacking them. Ditto for the music press. Needless to say, it wasn’t a popular record. Mainly for the right reasons.
For all intents and purposes, you could say that Petty had all but retired. He toured regularly in America, but rarely abroad and never overly long jaunts. He recorded when he hit on something that excited him, such as 2010’s blues inspired Mojo. Out of the blue, he also reformed his pre-Heartbreakers band Mudcrutch for a couple of albums, and present a man in his golden years just having some fun while he can.
Thankfully, Petty’s final album with The Heartbreakers in 2014 was a return to form, and by far his best record since Wildflowers. It found the band rocking again, almost as if they made they started over – this is pretty much the album those kids in the 70s might have made today. Not only did they enter the UK top ten for the first time since 1993’s Greatest Hits album, but they topped the US album chart for the first time ever.
Planet Slop took a trip down to London for Petty’s Hyde Park show back in the summer. It was his only UK show. Trips over here became less frequent, but on his 40th Anniversary Tour, he opted to return to the country that first gave him a chance. It was his only show outside the US.
It felt like a special night. The sun was beating down, the park was packed. “Honourary Heartbreaker” Stevie Nicks was on hand to perform Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around, rare to see them do it together. Like the E Street Band, The Heartbreakers have had minimal line-up changes in their 40 year history, so there is a family feeling on stage, and they have come to reflect their audience.
Watching the show, there was no sign that it might be the last time we see Petty. He seemed fit, healthy and happy, lapping up every moment on stage. As the show drew to a close, he announced “We’ll have to come back more often”. That he will never get the chance is, well, heartbreaking.
What separated Petty from the pack was his attitude. He wrote great songs. Pure songs. And he knew it. He wasn’t lying down for anybody, and he was going to do it his way. For the most part, that seems to have been the case.
I liked Tom Petty before I learned all this. I loved him after. He was a laid back outlaw. You wouldn’t necessarily know his strength from his music, but for one phrase; “I won’t back down.”
- Lead image: artist’s Facebook page