By Daniel Margrain
It wasn’t cool to like Tom Petty in the late 1970s. British music critics couldn’t quite pigeonhole him and his band, the Heartbreakers. Among the others of his peers they couldn’t put into a box who emerged from the cultural wasteland of the mid -1970s and who made a name for themselves this side of the Atlantic, included The Patti Smith Group and The Pretenders.
As was the case with these artists, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers transcended the narrow confines of the punk and new wave movements from which the likes of The Ramones, Sex Pistols and Clash belonged. Thus Petty and his band were to punk and the new wave what Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band were to the Delta Blues. For a start, Petty was a far more accomplished musician than many of his more fashionable peers. His music struck the balance between harmony and melody that was simultaneously catchy, visceral and solemn. Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers were a class act.
The group provided the bridge between the formulaic hard rock radio friendly groups of the 1970s, the West Coast Hippy vibe of The Buffalo Springfield, the quintessential American roots music of Creedence Clearwater Revival and the US pop-rock of the new wave. Many of the bands – The Cars, The Knack and The Runaways etc – that emerged out of the latter scene were invariably inferior musicians who produced weak songs.
By contrast, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers stood out among many of their contemporaries. Unlike the British punks, they were not sloppy but serious musicians who crafted their songs in such a way as to exude emotion and intensity whilst also managing to marry the spirit and attitude of somebody like a ‘Highway 61 Revisted- era Bob Dylan.
Tom Petty was at heart a folk-rock musician – a great songwriter – who produced a succession of brilliant melodies. But he was also an artist who wore his heart on his sleeve and he expressed his angst with a quirky sense of genuine raw emotion. Like Patti Smith and David Byrne, when Petty had something to say, you had better listen. A visceral punk aesthetic was nearly always below the surface of the folk-rock rhythm of the The Heartbreakers music.
The groups first three albums – the debut, ‘Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ (1976), ‘You’re Gonna Get It’ (1978) and ‘Damn The Torpedoes’ (1979) – were masterpieces that have stood the test of time. With the former, Petty is respectful, not only of the music and traditions that influenced him, but seemed determined to want to educate a generation of young punks that a dehumanizing attitude on its own is essentially an exercise in futility if its devoid of authenticity.
Bruce Springsteen, another artist of the period who bridged many genres from different eras, also preached a similar message. Petty, Springsteen and Patti Smith were there to remind those who would care to listen that alienation is rooted in something more profound than merely the slogan. Neil Young understands this too, so does Bob Dylan and so did Lou Reed.
While in a song like ‘American Girl’, Petty deliberately played on crude US stereotypes with humour and pathos, on others like ‘Breakdown’, ‘Luna’ and ‘Fooled Again’, he paints an atmosphere much darker that’s a cross between the work of the band, Television and the ruminations of Neil Young at his most cerebral and psychedelic. The punks at the time didn’t get the message but they, not Petty, were the ones who were the losers.
Petty’s follow-up, ‘You’re Gonna Get It’, maintains the winning formula of the first and is perhaps even smarter than its predecessor. Although the electric jingle-jangle style of the Byrds and the visceral garage-blues of say, The Yardbirds, is evident throughout the record, there is enough modern variation on established themes and originality in the terms of the delivery of the message for the group to avoid being labelled as mere imitators of their heroes.
At the time of the release of ‘Damn The Torpedoes’, Petty was riding a wave of popularity and artistic credibility that was comparable to Springsteen’s which further alienated the punks. Petty’s third masterpiece was an illustration of how he was able to transcend the claim by some that he was a one trick pony.
With songs that are a series of powerful melodramas, particularly ‘Refugee’, his work took on an aura of sophistication that was both classic-sounding and elegantly produced. Still grounded in the sixties, the songs are nevertheless modernist masterpieces – delicate, serene and dreamy. Petty was to produce a succession of other great albums – Southern Accents (1985) and Full Moon Fever (1989) among them, but they couldn’t quite match the supreme quality of his earlier works.
One of Petty’s most memorable and intimate live shows was when he and his band performed at the Bridge School in 1994. It was the last time the original lineup played together. ‘Freefallin’ from Full Moon River is arguably the greatest live version of the song ever performed. The group delivered a particularly delicate and emotional rendering of the song. The lyrics, “I’m gonna free fall out into nothin’
Gonna leave this world for awhile” have of course, taken on an added poignancy since Petty’s death.
Petty wasn’t an innovator but an impeccable craftsman, who like Springsteen, Young and Dylan, chronicled the internal struggles of what it is to be human in a way that the punks could not. I never got to see Tom Petty live and was annoyed to have missed his concert at Hyde Park in the summer. Sadly, their won’t be another opportunity. I’m gutted at the news of his passing.
I rely on the generosity of my readers. I don’t make any money from my work and I’m not funded. If you’ve enjoyed reading this or another posting, please consider making a donation, no matter how small. You can help continue my research and write independently..… Thanks!