Upon release of their debut effort, and amid a brief UK tour that saw the UK press tag them as both “punk” and “new wave”, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers made a sizeable splash on their debut effort.
Listening to this album today, though, one surely notices the band’s stylistic connection to what has come to be known as “power pop” (think Dwight Twilley, 20/20 or Great Buildings). Considering he was close friends with Dwight Twilley and Phil Seymour (both members of the very-much power pop Dwight Twilley Band, also signed to the same label as Petty at the time), that makes perfect sense. What ultimately set them apart from their “power pop” brethren, though, was their varied musical palette. For example, the album opens with the coffee-jitter angst of “Rockin’ Around With You” and transitions perfectly into the laid back rock-blues groove of “Breakdown”.
Unlike many of their peers at the time, who had maybe one or two stand-out tracks, what also set Petty & Co. apart was the fact that they wrote good songs. Consistently.
While most notable for the inclusion of semi-hits “I Need To Know” and “Listen to Her Heart”, the band’s second album is a solid effort throughout, with not a single dud among the album’s ten tracks. Still, in my humble opinion, this album doesn’t quite match the heights of their debut effort. In other words, while there are certainly ten cool tunes, there isn’t anything of the calibre of “Breakdown” or “American Girl”.
In hindsight, listening to this album today is like listening to a different band than the one that became chart-topping rockers only a few years later. The potential was there, but they were still growing into themselves.
Despite having struck gold on their two prior efforts, Petty & Co. were still very much struggling to stay afloat financially thanks to a horrible deal signed with Shelter Records, which was then sold to MCA. Petty went into bankruptcy fighting to get out of the deal, but eventually settled with MCA and they, in turn, inked him to their newfound Backstreet imprint. With new producer Jimmy Iovine at the helm, all of the key elements finally fell into place. The result is a masterpiece that sounds just as fresh and noteworthy as it did almost thirty years ago. It is difficult to deny the immediacy of “Refugee” and “Don’t Do Me Like That”, or to marvel at the striking simplicity of the spoken-word verses that preface the home-run chorus of “Even The Losers”. As an album that stands as arguably their best effort, Damn The Torpedoes is nothing if not a document of a band firing on all cylinders.
Say what you will about Petty’s prolific pace – having already penned enough stellar tracks for a greatest hits album – “Hard Promises” begins what I call Petty’s two-and-out period. In other words, from “Hard Promises” on, each new TP album seems to have two really great songs and the remainder of tracks aren’t necessarily ever bad, per se, but they’re certainly a step or two down from the two songs each album seems to be built around. “The Waiting”, of course, seems to be the unanimous high-point, and, for me “A Woman In Love” completes the pair. Without those cuts, you may note this album’s striking resemblance to the mid-tempo vibe that populates much of “You’re Gonna Get It”.
The winning pair on this album is easily “Change Of Heart” and “You Got Lucky”, a song that ushered synthesizers (much to keyboardist Benmont Tench’s chagrin) into the Heartbreakers sound. If anything, Long After Dark is a very underrated album as it doesn’t come up in a lot of conversations when the subject turns to Petty’s best work. That’s a shame because, song-for-song, this album is the most varied effort Petty & Co. have ever put together and there isn’t a single misstep to be found. Sure, “A Wasted Life” ends the album on a bit of whimper, and the cheesy hand claps on “We Stand A Chance” seem to show a band trying their best to remain relevant in the 80’s (when they needn’t have worried at all).
The release of “Southern Accents” marked the longest gap between albums (almost three years) and, truth be told, much of “Southern Accents” sounds either half-baked or mired in a too-trendy-for-its-own good production (compliments of Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart) that has not held up very well at all. If ever there was a Heartbreakers record that sounded like the result of a band with too much time and money (well-deserved, of course) on their hands, “Southern Accents” is it. Granted, it starts out promisingly enough with the rootsy rock of “Rebels” (which we all knew would sound great in concert), then nosedives into Huey Lewis territory on “It Ain’t Nothin’ To Me” and “Make It Better”. If much of this album sounds slapped together, its probably be because it took three months alone to record “Don’t Come Round Here No More”. While the effort and extravagance seems to have been well worth it (the song became a Top 20 smash, after all), no living soul who was around when the song was originally released can listen to the song these days without thinking “Alice In Wonderland”…or, perhaps more accurately, “I sure could go for some cake”. The title cut is a dead ringer for Bob Seger’s “Against The Wind”…and “Spike” stands as one of the bigger duds to ever grace a TP record, ’nuff said.
Released less than a year after “Southern Accents”, this live double-album seems to exist only to prove that Petty & Co. haven’t sold their souls to the 80’s synth-pop Satan. While its great to hear the band get back to basics, I have never been able to get very excited about the song selection (as they rely too heavily on cover songs – “Shout!”, no thanks), or the horn section! “So You Wanna Be A Rock n Roll Star” is such an obvious choice for a cover selection that it fails to provide any real surprises, as TP sticks very closely to the tried-and-true Byrds version. “Needles & Pins” works much better and, while I still favor the Ramones’ version, the song is remarkable simply because it is always great to hear Petty & Stevie Nicks share vocal duties (as they also do on “Insider”). For a band with enough well-known material of their own to fill a double-album, the handful of questionable covers found herein ultimately make this a rather forgettable effort, which is a shame because it could have been a real juggernaut.
By and large, Let Me Up is a return to the band-oriented feel that had existed prior to the overly-produced Southern Accents. While I have found the production on some cuts to be a tad slick (“The Damage You’ve Done” for example), it is refreshing to hear the band playing as a finely-honed unit once-again. “My Life/Your World” stands as the only stodgy misstep, seemingly an outtake from the Southern Accents sessions.
Still, Let Me Up has never quite sat right with me and I am hard-pressed to explain why. All I can do is imagine how different a career Petty would have had if these songs had comprised Damn The Torpedoes. As hard as it is to admit, very few songs found on Let Me Up are on-par with the best of the Damn The Torpedoes material. “Ain’t Love Strange” does harken back to that sound, but it is far from a standout track.
Thus, to this day, Let Me Up is an album that does not resonate with a majority of Petty’s audience. In addition, this album also weakened his standing with his record label. Thus, when he turned in Full Moon Fever, it was rejected outright.
Believe it or not, MCA Records originally refused to release Full Moon Fever when Petty turned in the masters, saying they didn’t hear a single.
It wasn’t until a regime change at the label, combined with Petty’s success as a Traveling Wilbury, that the label took another listen and, this time, they heard the sound of cash registers ringing.
For Full Moon Fever, Petty teamed up with ELO frontman Jeff Lynne, who was on a roll at the time (having recently produced CD’s by George Harrison, Brian Wilson, and Randy Newman), and recorded an album for which he will always be remembered. Tracks like “I Won’t Back Down” and “Free Fallin'” have come to be accepted as unofficial American anthems, it seems, striking a chord with fans and non-fans alike. It was an absolute stroke of brilliance for Petty to decide to team up with Lynne and, while the move ultimately alienated him from his own band, it has continued to pay dividends. (Editors note: Petty’s recent commercial slump has now been met with yet another Jeff Lynne-produced album, Highway Companion, in hopes that lightning will strike twice)
These tracks are taken from a 1993 concert – the last tour to feature the classic Heartbreakers line-up of Petty, Mike Campbell, Howie Epstein (R.I.P.), Benmont Tench, and Stan Lynch. The band was playing for a hometown audience in Gainesville, Florida, pulling out a glorious, career-spanning set list that included all the hits and fan favorites.
Personally speaking, I was floored by the 8-minute version of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”, as well as versions of “Refugee”, “American Girl” and “Listen To Her Heart” that outshines any officially-released live version. Of course, Dylan fans won’t want to miss Petty’s reading of “Rainy Day Woman No. 12 and 35”.
Love Is A Long Road
Into The Great Wide Open
Listen To Her Heart
I Won’t Back Down
Psychotic Reaction (sung by Stan Lynch)
Something In The Air
Mary Jane’s Last Dance
Ballad Of Easy Rider
Yer So Bad
Runnin’ Down A Dream
Learning To Fly
Rainy Day Woman No. 12 and 35