Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It was a little long for the marquees. And when that first album showed up at radio stations at the tail end of 1976, it made no impression. It took months before radio stations even listened to it. Who was this upstart in black leather sneering at us from the front of the album? It looked like Punk Rock.
At commercial radio stations in 1977, punk rock was a plague to be avoided. Stylistically, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were caught in a trough between the prog rock epics of Yes and ELP and the emerging punk rock scenes of NY and L.A. The first single was a ballad called “Breakdown,” but the music with a the most pertinent message was “Anything That’s Rock n Roll.”
“Everybody’s got to know, anything that’s rock and roll’s fine.”
With his long blond hair and Rickenbacker slung over his shoulder, Tom Petty looked like a rock star long before he was one.
With the tight Chuck Berry jams of Mike Campbell, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had, in their first venture, offered the perfect rock and roll record. This is the album with “American Girl” and “Strangered in the Night.” It was nothing fancy because fancy is for opera singers.
The label seeking to capture the live magic of this band issued an “Official Bootleg” recorded live at Paul’s Mall in Boston that included a mind-blowing 9 minute rave-up entitled “Dog On The Run.” And the live version of “Fooled Again” featured Tom Petty vocals taken beyond the limit over the excoriating slide guitar of Mike Campbell.
Long before Tom Petty achieved superstar status, he stood up to record labels that must have felt, ‘who does he think he is?’
On his second album, Petty sang, “So you think you’re gonna take her away with your money and your cocaine.”
The record label thought the drug reference was not in anybody’s best interest. Can you change the lyrics to “with your money and your champagne?” they wondered. Tom said he could not. The girl in his song wasn’t leaving anybody for a glass of bubbly.
Tom Petty packed Wrigley Field this summer in a light rain. His first song was “Rockin’ Around With You” from that first album. It was a song for the die-hards, the stalwarts, the fans that remembered where he came from.
And as Tom Petty unspooled songs from his 40 years with the Heartbreakers, we marveled at how many of these songs are part of our cultural landscape.
When a woman is hearing “American Girl” in Silence of the Lambs, when Jerry Maguire is tuned to “Free Fallin,'” those characters have something in common. They are not singing along.
They are screaming along. When rock and roll moves us to abandon all pretense, all decorum and let go, the music has done its job. But we also know Tom Petty for the delicacy of a song like “Wildflowers.”
On that misty summer night, we said farewell to Tom Petty as he leaned into the microphone and sang,
“God it’s so painful
Something that’s so close
And still so far out of reach.”