He had me ‘almost’ at hello. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers found me on their second album, ‘You’re Gonna Get It’ in ’78. I seem to recall picking it up at Sam Goody. I’ve no distinct memory of what exactly motivated me to make the purchase. It surely wasn’t the generic band-mate album cover photo. Perhaps it was a specific song I’d heard on FM, or more likely, a review I’d read in Cream or Rolling Stone. I just remember being mesmerized, enchanted, and obsessed by this album from the moment I first heard it. Listened to it over and over. The tunes and lyrics permanently imprinted themselves within days.
This was the band I’d unknowingly been waiting for. A band that I could call my own. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers wasn’t music passed down to me by a previous generation. It was mine. My own discovery. The jingle and jangle of guitars was distinct, and it enthralled me. Every song was memorable. Not one throwaway track. The sound was fresh and polished.
Right away I backtracked and bought their debut album, and impossibly, it was even better! To this day, I consider it perhaps the best debut album of all time. Its only rival in my mind is the magnificent first album from The Pretenders in 1980. The reason I say that Petty and the Heatbreakers had me ‘almost’ at hello, is merely because I wasn’t aware of the band when their first album was released two years earlier. Every song on the Heartbreakers debut LP is an absolute, perfect gem.
I’ve been hooked on Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers for decades now. One of the most impressive things to me is that you can scour through Petty’s entire catalogue, and you will not find a bad song. While every song isn’t a masterpiece, none of them suck. Not even The Beatles can say that.
Here is a track off of The Heartbreakers ’76 debut LP — a song called ‘The Wild One, Forever’. It prolly never charted, but is one my favorite Petty songs, and why I formed a personal bond to this band.
‘Breakdown’ is a bluesy number, also from their ’76 debut album. Here in a ’85 live performance, the audience hijacks the song from Petty and sings the first verses to him. Magic! Google YouTube for the original studio version, and you’ll understand why early Petty fans fell so hard for this song.
‘I Need To Know’. This Petty track powers their second LP. This is what the Ramones might’ve sounded like if they could sing and play.
Also from ‘You’re Gonna Get It’, another song that represents a very common Petty theme. Expressing confidence that in the end, you will win ‘the girl’. All you need is faith. Petty’s optimistic love songs resonated with both ‘him’ and ‘her’ .. "Listen to Her Heart"
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers third release ‘Damn The Torpedoes’, broke the band widescale nationally with hits like ‘Refugee’ and ‘Don’t Do Me Like That’. Every track on this LP shines.
‘Shadow of a Doubt’ is a fine example:
1981’s ‘Hard Promises’ is a virtual non-stop parade of hit songs. including ‘The Waiting’, ‘A Woman in Love’, and Letting You Go’. But for me, ‘Insider’ is the albums most overlooked track.
Tom Petty guest-starred on Stevie Nicks solo LP debut ‘Bella Donna’, and that album featured the well-known single ‘Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around’, but much less known is another Petty/Nicks collaboration, the Petty written song ‘Insider’ that was originally released on the ‘Hard Promises’ LP.
This performance is a true duet, with both singers harmonizing throughout the entire song. No trading back and forth of verses, just a pure duet that revealed their very complimentary voices.
In 2006, Stevie Nicks rejoined with Petty onstage for a lovely rendition of this haunting ballad:
1982 saw ‘Long After Dark’ and more hits, and then after a brief hiatus, 1985’s ‘Southern Accents’ with the anthem ‘Rebels’:
In 1989 Petty took a sabbatical from the Heartbreakers and released the solo LP Full Moon Fever. Again, not one disposable track .. but the stand-out was ‘Free Fallin" … Essential Petty:
A walloping, taut, thumping bass drum reverberated through ‘You Don’t Know How It Feels’, a Heartbreaker-less single from the 1994 Petty solo album ‘Wildflowers’:
Recorded during the ‘Wildflower’ sessions, ‘Last Dance for Mary Jane’ was released as part of a Greatest Hits package in 1993. The song has nothing to do with marijuana, contrary to popular belief, and was originally entitled ‘Indiana Girl’. Petty’s song writing skills continue to soar!
Tom Petty had his own unique sound. This brief retrospective only scratches the surface of his prodigious output. The man was a bottomless vessel of well-honed song-craft.
We can only thank him for what he shared in the time he was given, and mourn his passing.
He had a gift .. the ability to seemingly, effortlessly, create songs that we will never forget.