JAM Magazine Main Features

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Untitled Document

January 1983

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers See Daylight Long After Dark

By Eric Minton

"Tom Petty is the reluctant guitar hero who pursues his music out of desire to please an audience and even more importantly, to please himself.”

After court battles, a long tour, a trying recording session and a second long tour, the constant drive of being one of rock's most popular, yet embattled musician’s, had begun to wear on Tom Petty. Being a rock and roll star is supposed to be fun. But that premise has sometimes been hard to keep for Petty.
The Gainesville, Florida native has had enough hard times in his six-year career to rival the mighty Beatles when it comes to controversy. Though the artist has shown amazing dedication to his craft and audience, both in the studio and on tour, there comes a moment when even Petty must retreat from the limelight.
In 1979, the band was dragged into a legal dispute when ABC Records, Shelter's distributor, was sold to MCA Records. Petty refused to simply be transferred to another record label without his consent. He held fast to his principles, which led to his filing for bankruptcy, as a tactic against MCA. After their legal dispute was settled, the Heartbreakers released their third album Damn the Torpedoes through MCA's Backstreet label. The album rapidly went platinum. It included "Don't Do Me Like That" the group's first Top Ten single, and "Refugee" both breakout singles for the band in this country.
On the band’s sophomore release for Backstreet, Petty stood his ground against his new label when it came to releasing Hard Promises. The record was delayed while Petty and his distributor, MCA Records, argued about the list price. The LP was slated to be the next release with the new list price of $9.98, following Steely Dan's Gaucho and the Xanadu soundtrack featuring Olivia Newton-John and Electric Light Orchestra. The list price was a dollar more than the usual list price of $8.98. Petty voiced his objections to the price hike in the press and the issue became a popular cause among music fans. Non-delivery of the album, or naming it Eight Ninety-Eight were options Petty considered, but eventually MCA decided against the price increase.
Despite Petty’s triumphant stand, Hard Promises collapsed on the charts despite a monster hit single, “The Waiting”. Touring to support the album came amidst a slow economy beset by high inflation and unemployment that kept people away from his shows. Petty cut his tour short and retreated to his home in Los Angeles. There, he laid low for a while, staying out of the headlines.
The artist finally went back to his home studio and quietly went to work composing music in his home studio that would launch a comeback of sorts. The new album, released in November 1982 featured the smash hit single “You Got Lucky”, and introduced new bassist, Howie Epstein, whose background vocals added another dimension to the band’s overall sound. The tour will hit the Southwest next month.
Tom Petty is the reluctant guitar hero who pursues his music out of desire to please an audience and even more importantly, to please himself. And since he his sidekick, Mike Campbell, actually is an overlooked guitar maestro himself, it’s easy to see why Petty is very much troubled by any acclaim he receives regarding the instrument. In the early ‘70s, spurred on by the Southern rock style pioneered by the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Outlaws and the Marshall Tucker Band, music has been this lanky musician’s calling card.
With his talent, Petty was able to join different bands in his hometown of Gainesville where he often performed on the Southern rock circuit with bands like The Sundowners, The Epics and finally Mudcrutch, which featured future Heartbreaker Mike Campbell on guitar and keyboardist Benmont Tench. In 1974, Mudcrutch signed with Leon Russell’s Shelter Records and eventually relocated to Southern California. The band released one single, "Depot Street," in 1975, which failed to chart and the group disbanded. That’s when the group morphed into what would become Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. The band released a self-titled album in the fall of ’76 that would include the eventual hits, “Breakdown” and “American Girl”.
The Heartbreakers second album You're Gonna Get It! marked the band's first gold album and featured the hits, "I Need to Know" and "Listen To Her Heart". The group at this time included Campbell on guitar, Stan Lynch on drums and vocals, Benmont Tench on keyboards and vocals and Ron Blair on bass. Trouble then came knocking on the band’s door.
Petty felt cheated on his original contract and renegotiated the pact in a stormy meeting with ABC records. After his critically acclaimed, but moderate selling second album, You're Gonna Get It! was released, ABC folded and MCA Records took over. Petty balked at going to the label and Petty sued the label for breach of contract. During the court battle, the singer filed for bankruptcy. In the midst of the court appearances, the Heartbreakers attempted to record an album, but tension in the group was such, it led to a split, with Lynch leaving the band. He reluctantly returned and MCA renegotiated a new deal with the band.
With court battles concluded and a new contract in hand, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released their landmark recording, Damn the Torpedoes. The band went on tour and Petty promptly lost his voice. He spent three weeks in a hospital after a tonsillectomy. The quiet Tom Petty would soon be vocal again when he found out that MCA planned to release the group's new album at a $9.98 list price. As mentioned previously, Petty balked and won another skirmish with MCA.
After releasing the critically-acclaimed and platinum-selling Hard Promises, Petty did a duet with Stevie Nicks for her debut album. Called "Stop Dragging My Heart Around", it was a Top Ten hit. Then the economy melted down hitting consumers in the pocketbook. “The Waiting” would continue for another day.
You sometimes wonder if Petty needs conflict in his life in order to write music. His vocals echo that of Bob Dylan and they’re intertwined with blues-based music subtly arranged with tender touches of keyboards, guitar and a solid rhythm backbone. The lyrics are full of dark images and invoke visions of a man in pain, engaged in a seemingly futile fight against romantic misfortune and society.
Although Petty insists his songs have no significant meaning, there’s no doubt he is an introspective artist whose lyrics reflect his strong emotional viewpoints. There may be a sense of pain in the words he pens, but the fight is never a futile one. In the song, "Even the Losers" from Damn the Torpedoes, he sings: "Even the losers / Keep a little bit of pride / They get lucky sometime."
On "Insider" from the Hard Promises recording, he writes, "I'm an insider, I've been burned by fire / And I've had to live with some hard promises / I've crawled through the briars / I'm an insider." When you read the lyrics to "A One Story Town" off the just released Long After Dark, Petty tells us, "I'm for standin' up / I'm for breakin' free / I don't want fate handed down to me."
It is the resilient nature of this artist to overcome the odds, along with his undying respect for his audience, has created an unbreakable bond between this artist and his fans. On his last tour, Petty and the Heartbreakers played a full two hours and seemed to enjoy every minute they were onstage. He smiled while he sang, during the instrumental segments of the show, and even laughed between songs. He maintained a pleasant rapport with the audience, no matter how small or insignificant it seemed, mindful the crowds attending his shows were there to enjoy the music and forgot their problems, even for the briefest of times.
The Heartbreakers are a tight unit, so well-balanced that what few mistakes they make, if any, are rarely noticeable. The orchestrated lighting accompanying the music is crisp and effectively reflects the mood of the various songs performed throughout the show. The Heartbreakers, accompanied by percussionist Phil Jones on tour, are a direct reflection of their leader. They exude energy and joy while deftly playing their instruments with the precision of a surgeon. Campbell is usually the only musician on stage that doesn’t exude excitement on stage. Instead he saves his intensity for the highly energized guitar solos that usually receive a standing ovation.
Though Tom Petty shows are meticulously laid out, there’s always room for spontaneity. At one concert stop, after boss man Tom introduced Stan Lynch to the crowd, the drummer said he felt like playing a little “Louie, Louie” and the band promptly belted the rock standard out to the delight of those in attendance. During an encore at another show, following a quick band meeting on stage, Petty turned to the audience and said, "We're going to do a few older songs because we just feel like doing it." The Heartbreakers then launched into "Tobacco Road" and "Wild Thing."
Who knows what’s going to happen with the release of Long After Dark. It almost seems as though Petty needs controversy over an album to make it significant. There’s none on this album, though it does include what’s sure to go down as a Petty classic, “You Got Lucky.” The new album, released to coincide with the Christmas shopping season, is a rather straight-forward, somewhat primitive album when put in context with what the Heartbreakers have accomplished musically so far. It lacks much of the fire of You're Gonna Get It! The cutting edge sound of Damn The Torpedoes is also missing. The emotional fire of Hard Promises is also missing. Regardless, the tour will be another “don’t miss” moment for fans.
Tom Petty doesn't see himself as a heavy in the rock industry with all the controversy that has surrounded him in the past. He fights for what he believes in, and for that, he has commanded the greatest respect from peers and fans alike. No matter how you look at it, Tom Petty is a hero to his fans, a thorn in the side to his record company, and a rock icon for the ages. It’s going to be fascinating to see how history judges this true rock and roll rebel.