While on a routine errand to buy a baseball mitt, Tom Petty pulled up to a stoplight and glanced over at the car waiting next to him. The other driver was uber producer Jeff Lynne. It was 1987 and Petty had been listening to George Harrison’s triumphant Cloud Nine, which Lynne had produced. So impressed was he by the sound and the songwriting of Harrison’s record that Petty had the former ELO frontman pull over in order to compliment him. Then he uttered the words that would change Petty’s life and kickstart the second phase of his career: “How’d you like to work on some songs together?”
At the time, Petty was in rebuilding mode. He and his storied band, the Heartbreakers, had just completed a world tour behind their album, Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough). The Florida native was worn out from the constant battles with MCA, his record company, the tension within the band (in particular between Petty and drummer Stan Lynch), and just the grind of being on the road for most of the ’80s. Making matters worse, just before the tour an arsonist had burned Petty’s home to the ground. Literally, he was at a crossroads. The chance meeting with Lynne led to Petty co-writing Roy Orbison’s comeback single, “You Got It,” as well as the formation of the Traveling Wilburys, a laid back supergroup that included Petty, Harrison, Orbison, Lynne, and Petty’s old touring mate, Bob Dylan. Soon thereafter Petty and Lynne commenced on the landmark record, Full Moon Fever, Petty’s first solo recording without the Heartbreakers.
With Full Moon Fever, Petty had hoped to explore the pop sound he had always loved but never quite achieved with his band. With the input of Heartbreakers guitarist, Mike Campbell, Petty and Lynne crafted twelve pop/rock classics that would make up Petty’s most successful album ever. It would produce seven singles, three of which were top 40 hits and remain staples on rock radio 20 years later. With summertime just around the corner, I guarantee you can listen to any rock radio station in the next 48 hours and you’ll likely hear “I Won’t Back Down,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” or the beautiful “Free Fallin’” at least once.
Opening with the guitar strumming of “Free Fallin’” (a song MCA didn’t think had hit potential) Full Moon Fever begins with a breezy, California sound that feels like sunshine mixed with a touch of melancholy. Immediately you hear Lynne’s influence on Petty’s music, from the lush mix of instruments, to the tin can sound of Phil Jone’s snare (thankfully, Petty and Campbell, who co-produced the album, reined in many of Lynne’s trademarks). “Free Fallin’” is immediately followed by “I Won’t Back Down,” the album’s first single and still one of Petty’s best songs. In the first two numbers Petty sings with richness that he rarely showed on previous albums. The Dylan-esque southern twang Petty was renowned for is limited and what you get is something more akin to Petty’s idol, ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn.
Besides the three smash singles that compile side one, the emotional highlight of the first five songs is “A Face in the Crowd,” a poignant love song that’s ambiguous enough to imply that it’s about a breakup, but dreamy enough to give you the sense that it’s about a mature, adult loved full of complications. After “Runnin’ Down a Dream” (which could have used some of Lynch’s raucous drumming to give it a bit more garage feel), side one ends. If you were like me and you purchased the cd, the next thing you heard was some barnyard animals and Petty’s nasally voice. “Hello CD listeners,” he greets us and proceeds to explain that this is the point in which people listening to records or cassettes have to stand up, or sit down, to flip the side. This jokey interlude is pure indication that Petty was having the time of his life recording Full Moon Fever. From there, he tears through a near note for note cover of the Byrds “Feel a Whole Lot Better,” which sounds fresh and comfortable. In fact, all of the music on Full Moon Fever is relaxed, fun, and missing all of the tension that percolates from Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough).
After the joyous “The Apartment Song,” (a song that dates back to the mid ’80s Southern Accents period) comes the gentle, touching lullaby, “Alright for Now,” with a vocal and melody so sweet and sincere, you can feel the influence of Harrison and Orbison on every note. If there is a misstep, it’s the zany closing song, “Zombie Zoo,” which is overrun with Lynne’s studio wizardry. Still, the song is a madcap capper to what were some of the most enjoyable recording sessions of Petty’s career. It’s that sense of a good time that resonates throughout Full Moon Fever and makes the record so appealing. It’s also why the record was such an enormous success. Coupled with the sensational craftsmanship and songwriting, there is no question why this record is a classic.
The summer of 1989 belonged to Tom Petty. Not only did he have a mutiplatinum album, hit singles and sold out concerts, but with Full Moon Fever he reached a new generation of music fans, weary of hair metal and the preprogrammed drum tracks that played underneath every slick pop song on the record charts. He was no longer someone kids parents listened to, but an artist they could call their own.
One final note, with record companies constantly mining their archives to remaster albums, it shocks me that Full Moon Fever has yet to receive a remastering. Several of the key songs have been cleaned for greatest hits cd’s and the excellent Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers box set, Playback, yet the full album is still in it’s original, limited sound quality form. I don’t know who is dragging their feet on putting out a new edition of the record, Petty or MCA, but someone needs to get on the ball. Tom Petty fans deserve better; music fans in general deserve better.