May 022020

Last night, I plowed through a whole shit-ton of extremely unfunny sketch comedy from the SNL rip-off “Fridays,” in order to catch some fine performances by the likes of the Clash (fantastic; their first US TV performance), Graham Parker (good), Pat Benatar (don’t laugh — why is “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” not held in the same esteem as Blondie’s hits from the era?), and others.

But the performance that really made me sit up, notice, and newly appreciate was this one, by a guy I’ve always relegated to the second tier of 1980s/90s rock-for-dudes-who-eventually-traded-their-jeans-in-for-pleated-khakis.

I began to wonder if I’d gotten early Petty all wrong. Was he — at least at one point — the American Lowe/Parker/Costello? Can you show me what I should listen to in order to figure Tom Petty out? Who was this guy?

I look forward to your responses.



  21 Responses to “Please Turn Me On to Tom Petty”

  1. It’s about fucking time!!!! Thank your for finally getting your skinny little behind up here!

    I’m not a Petty fan. More later.

  2. Mach schau, Herr Hrundi!

    One quick note. You and Lady Gergely are on the same page with Benatar. She’s a big Blondie fan as well..

  3. I’m surprised to learn that you’ve struggled with Petty. Others will provide more directed guidance, but I find it interesting that he may be the only character in rock who’s fit for both the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame and the Rock Town Hall Foyer of Fame. He was a killer singles artist and, as much as I love Graham Parker & the Rumour, I think Petty & the Heartbreakers were more successful (not just commercially) at delivering People’s Rock.

  4. BTW, my problem with Benetar, beside hating her tough-chick pose mixed with her 12-octave operatic voice, fit for double-tracking that “YOU’RE THE RIGHT KIND OF WINNER…” line, is that she haunts me as being too close to the “local girls” of Northeast Philly, where I grew up and where I never fit in.

  5. Benatar and Petty touted in the same write up. What is this, an overbite fetish?

    Some Petty songs are OK, maybe even swell, but it all seems second hand. When he picks a good template and knocks it around just right, like this one, it can be really good. But the dull, pat ones like “Refugee” and “I Won’t Back Down” are just a drag.

    Now Pat Benatar, she epitomizes vapid, tasteless early ’80s mainstream rock with a “New Wave” patina. Ugh. She certainly can out sing Debbie Harry, but that shit is terrible.

  6. Full disclosure: I am a massive Bruce Springsteen fan. You know that Bruce fan you can’t stand? Yeah, I’m not him…but I’m damn close. (Also, he probably doesn’t believe he’s him neither, even though he totally is.)

    So I’ve always had ever so slightly conflicted feelings about ol’ Tom. On the one hand, he’s got at least half dozen tunes I absolutely love, and at least another half dozen I really dig. And he seems like a really cool guy. On the other hand, I have run into So Many serious music fans who either actively dislike Springsteen or at least respect but don’t at all care for his music (usually with the caveat that they love the Nebraska album), and yet they all dig Tom Petty.

    Tom Petty has, at least since the early 90s, been Cool in a way that Springsteen hasn’t since the late 70s. I suspect a lot of that–seriously–has to do with his stoner vibe, which makes him more acceptable to really hard rock and even metal fans, as well as fans of 60s rock, and jam bands and even hip-hop fans. Whereas Springsteen is, you know, Springsteen. (Or at least they all THINK that’s what he is.)

    And Petty is or can be REALLY good and the Heartbreakers kick all kinds of ass. On the other hand, he’s also clearly a least one and possibly two notches below Springsteen on every level–as a songwriter, as a performer, even as a singer. Also, Springsteen has several times mentioned his appreciation for Slim Dunlop, whereas Petty ripped off a Paul Westerberg line and got a hit out of it. So you can see: conflicted.

    Meanwhile, Pat Benatar. I was about 12 the first time I saw her and her hot pixie-like appearance made me feel all kinds of tingly. (Peter Jackson should have given her a cameo as an elf-maid, and they wouldn’t even have need to alter her appearance.)
    And then I got older and had little to no use for that kind of empty hard rock I’d adored as a junior high and high school student.
    And then I got, well, old, and decided that, hell with it, maybe some of that stuff was empty, but dammit, some of it wasn’t, and even the empty stuff was made with all the passion in the world by those musicians who cared so deeply, so desperately about their art, even if it turns out they had nothing more to say than “I’m horny and wanna bang.” (And, really, isn’t that what makes the world go round and always has?) I may not even again need to hear the overwhelming majority of the stuff I spent so many hundreds of hours listening to when I was in high school, but I’m not quite so dismissive of it as I once was neither. (Not QUITE.)

    And you know what? Pat Benatar had one hell of a voice. And although that matters less to me than almost anything else when I’m listening to music, she didn’t just have an amazing range, dammit, she had some authentic rock and roll grit when she wanted to. And she was pretty groundbreaking, putting up with so much shit from her record company, who just wanted her to show T&A when she wanted it to be focused on the music. And “Promises in the Dark” and “Love Is a Battlefield” are legit bangers and there are very few singles ever which kick more pop ass than “Little Too Late.” So…yeah, mark me down as a Pat Benatar fan.

  7. Geo brings up a good point for a potential Rock Crimes investigation: the appropriation of the New Wave that was in play back then.

    Benetar: Serious offender!
    The Cars and Petty: Necessary misdemeanors?
    XTC: Andy Partridge freely admits to them jumping on the punk/New Wave bandwagon, as did other older UK musicians from the time. Crime or just living for the city?

  8. Scott (the greatest of them all), you are on fire. I still don’t like Benetar, but the Peter Jackson reference and your embracing of that hard rock you grew up with kick ass. Bravo.

  9. Damn, and I almost mentioned that it’s a short road from “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” dumb and cheesey, to “Love is a Battlefield”, execrable.

  10. Happiness Stan

    I’m a lot more forgiving of the appropriation of punk/new wave than I was at the time. Petty was touted as punk over here and the spotty music nerds who cared about it more than we should have all day up and exclaimed the 70s equivalent of wtf. I liked American Girl, I even bought it when it dropped out of the charts and our local record shop put it in the 20p box, I’ve still got it. Likewise the Cars. Both of them only had intermittent success over here, and I can take them or leave them, as I can with Springsteen. I could imagine having a great conversation with the guy, but I’ve never listened to any of his albums, or even thought about doing so. The stuff I’ve heard, the popular stuff they play on the radio, is okay. I get that he’s wildly popular, maybe my subconscious is telling me he doesn’t need me on board as well.

    There’s still a surly snotty teenager living in my head that looks at artists like Tom Petty and The Cars and transfers the blame for the way their record companies marketed them into them as individuals. If Springsteen had come along a year later he’d have been marketed as new wave as well.

    It’s very unfair, but it created a barrier for me between myself and music I’d possibly love if I could just get over myself. A lot of artists probably missed out on making it huge for no other reason than they didn’t live up to being touted as new wave when it was obvious to anyone looking that they were nothing of the sort. The Stiff roster were a load of ageing pub rockers, with Lene Lovich and Rachel Sweet thrown in for good measure, but the label itself had so much attitude that they collectively got away with it. And, obviously, Costello, Dury, Nick Lowe and Wreckless Eric had the talent to roll with it.

    I don’t think I’ve heard Pat Benatar other than Love is a Battlefield, she didn’t really do much over here. Same with Toni Basil, she was marketed as new wave over here and she was in Easy Rider for goodness sake.

    It also happened very quickly in reverse, for bands who started out as the real thing but distanced themselves before making it big. By the time Blondie made it big they were definitely not punk, or even new wave in my opinion, they got away with it by having great songs and Debbie Harry, and not necessarily in that order.

    Adam Ant went from being original badass punk to The Archies. As an aside, he played the theatre I work at recently, it was the first time I’d seen him and it was an absolutely brilliant show, although he’s completely off the wall paranoid and the security was just insane.

    Likewise, I could never take Billy Idol seriously, even when he was in Generation X, or bands like the Lurkers, it was pretty obvious even then who actually meant it, like the Pistols, Clash, Damned, Jam, Slits, Banshees, and the ones who really wanted to be Marc Bolan and ride around in limos.

    XTC were good enough to get away with it, like Blondie were. Their 3D EP was pretty way out at the time, I think Andy Partridge is being slightly perverse or suffering impostor syndrome if he’s suggesting they would ever have had any choice about being lumped in with that scene at the time. Likewise Devo, who seemed to want to be the missing link between Kraftwerk and the Monkees, and did a great job of it, but wouldn’t have done anything here without the new wave umbrella.

    Petty always seemed like a nice bloke who recorded a a few good singles. Where he scores for me is the first Traveling Wilburys album, which would be one of my ten to take to a desert island. There’s no dead wood there at all, so the guy must have had something.

  11. RTH is on fire! Scott, geo, Happiness Stan… A few months ago I was in a management training course and at dinner that night, the trainer, a thoroughly engaging Brit, challenged us to 20 Questions over which rock star was a schoolmate. Turns out it was a boy named Billy Broad, the years later who would be known as Idol. He said their teacher used to call him Billy Idle, for his propensity to daydream in class and not turn in homework.

  12. 2000 Man

    Pat Benatar is a hard pass for me. Kid Leo when he was on WMMS used to call her “Miss Reet Petite” and that just made me hate her more.

    Tom Petty is definitely second tier. I could never figure out why he needed a career with The Heartbreakers and a solo career, where he just did the same thing he was already doing anyway. I think his first three albums are really all you would ever need, and you could do just fine with only Damn the Torpedoes if you wanted. The first album is good when it’s good but the low spots are completely forgettable. The second album has one good side, the rest wasn’t good enough to be the forgettable stuff on the first album. Damn the Torpedoes is terrific, though. I have no idea where that came from, but it’s a certifiably great record.

    I always thought Petty’s super power was being the “new” guy when I was in high school that the old original classic rock gang could find common ground with us kids. Because he fit in so well with stations playing nothing new since 1975, he was able to attract old farts as well as kids. Then again, The Doors were selling more records in 1978 than they had when they were a functioning unit so Petty didn’t exactly need to be an original to seem like a top tier guy.

  13. Petty is not for me. I’ve read countless interviews about how influenced he was by the sixites’ greats, but I never hear it on the records. No sixties buff would dare have sounds that bad on their own records. Everything is super clean, like right off the shelves Sam Ash clean, and the drum sounds are the absolute worst. The pre-Lynne records have a drum sound not too far off from that godawful Max Weinberg /cannon boom of Springsteen’s Born in the USA, and all the Lynne records have a sound even worse that, which I didn’t think would be possible. Petty proved me wrong.

    As far as the actual songs are concerned, they’re mediocre at best, and even the 2 best of the mediocre are ruined by bad sounds, and even worse bad decision making. “American Girl” has that “let’s put that thing Mike and I were screwing around with because we were bored waiting for the rest of the guys to show up” break which ends whatever magic may have been there, and “Listen to her Heart” might have been decent filler had it not been produced by someone who thought the Huey Lewis and the News kicked.

    That said, “Here Comes My Girl” is a winner. I’ll give him that one.

    The best thing I can say about him is that he sells, which is great. And it’s especially great for me because I have no interest whatsoever in putting his albums on my shelves. Even though they’re totally disposable, they sell like hotcakes.

  14. “Tom Petty is definitely second tier. I could never figure out why he needed a career with The Heartbreakers and a solo career, where he just did the same thing he was already doing anyway.”

    Yeah, there doesn’t seem to be a significant sonic difference. And what’s extra weird about his solo career is that not only is Mike Campbell every bit as integral to them as he is to the Heartbreakers stuff–if anything, maybe even more so–but the other Heartbreakers make appearances on them! Admittedly, they’re generally cameos, rather than being on every song, but still. I guess you could argue that shows loyalty or something? But it still seems weird.

    The one exception: outstanding drummer Stan Lynch. Maybe the solo albums were just an attempt to get away from Lynch (before he got finally got fired).

  15. trigmogigmo

    Tom Petty

    I have a deep appreciation of Tom Petty! I’ve got my own nits to pick with the band, the albums, and mach schau skills, but they are so outweighed by the endless list of gems that they are trivia in the grand scheme of things.

    Let’s get the nits out of the way. The last couple of albums are too loaded with somewhat aimless jams that don’t do much for me. (Of course, had they been on early albums, I’d probably have had them drilled into my head, breeding familiarity which is just not there for later stuff.) Petty doesn’t have what you’d call a “great” voice, but it really works great for this music, for this band, and it is distinctive and emotive; as he got older his vocal style changed as you might expect, and it lost something up top, compensated for by using a lower range and a more nasally tone, which is lost energy. Finally, when I see live performances of the band, I don’t think Petty was the most natural rock-and-roll icon; he seems just a tad awkward, his rock-and-roll presence slightly forced. I think their albums were like 50/50 — far from perfection — but the third or whatever that hit the mark hit the mark like a fucking missile.

    The first album is rough around the edges, and very short, but is loaded. “Breakdown” is sublime — this is your intro to young Mike Campbell. “The Wild One” is haunting. “Strangered In The Night” — scorching guitar solo, and interestingly, the same guitar riff as in Dwight Twilley’s “I’m On Fire”. Guess what: Twilley sings backup for Petty; Petty sings backup for Twilley. We’re not done. Last song on side 2: “American Girl”. That song is glorious from every angle. That song alone earns you a position of respect in the Hall, if you ask me, which you did.

    The second album is similarly hit-and-miss, but strong. The first three songs — “When The Time Comes”, “You’re Gonna Get It”, “Hurt” — are so powerfully and tightly produced. Everything clicks. Campbell’s solo on “You’re Gonna Get It” is perfect. Add to that the side B openers — “I Need to Know” clocking in at under two and a half minutes of pure intravenous power pop bliss, and “Listen to Her Heart” full of suspended chords in the vein of “American Girl” and the sound of 12-string guitars without actually using one — and you have half a perfect album.

    The third album should have been the end of the usual 3-album contract, but record company went bust and was sold, Petty was pissed and successfully sued to get out of his contract. The story is that the chaos and drama led Petty to come up with a triumphant album. It was hugely successful. However, I find it to be less solid than the previous (or next) album! I’ll credit it for three-and-a-half on-the-mark standouts. The openers “Refugee”, “Here Comes My Girl”, and “Even the Losers” are great ones. The live version of the latter is even better with the first verses done solo with 12-string electric, the full band coming in strong for the guitar solo and the rest. I’ll give “Don’t Do Me Like That” a half-point because it’s enjoyable, but short and lightweight. I’ve read that there was a clash in the studio between producer Jimmy Iovine and drummer Stan Lynch about the drums; one thing I notice on the record is a lot of maraca/shaker/tambourine percussion on the faster tempo songs, that detracts from the “rock”-ness and which I presume Iovine felt necessary to bring additional energy into those tracks. With that said about “Damn the Torpedoes”, there are two missing components. One is a great Byrds-ie song called “Surrender” that had been around since the first album, but never made it onto an album. Yet another version was recorded during the “Torpedoes” sessions but didn’t make it onto that album either; the version presented on the extended reissue feels slightly unfinished, like it’s missing a few parts and was abandoned. There’s yet another version on the “Anthology” greatest hits disc I think, and it is the real thing. The other thing missing from “Torpedoes” is “Stop Dragging My Heart Around”. Petty had written two duets for Nicks, “Insider” being for her album, and “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” for his. Decisions about tracks working best for each Iovine-produced album ended up handing the one to the Nicks solo album, and the other to the fourth Petty album. (The recording on her album is far better than the demo / working version on the bonus tracks for “Torpedoes”.)

    I write slowly. I feel like I should continue with my budget critic thoughts about the rest of Petty’s discography. But I’ll stop for now. But stopping here, consider that we are only scratching the surface, dipping our toes into 4 years out of 20+ for real, and even 35 years of new albums, and not even getting to great songs that would follow among the ups and downs. “The Waiting”, “A Woman In Love”, “You Got Lucky”, “Change of Heart”, “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, “It’ll All Work Out”, “Learning to Fly”, “Into the Great Wide Open”, “Makin’ Some Noise”, “Walls”, “Climb That Hill”, “Hope You Never”, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”, “Room At the Top”, “Swingin’”, “Free Fallin’”, “I Won’t Back Down”, “Runnin’ Down a Dream”, “You Don’t Know How It Feels”, “You Wreck Me”, “Cabin Down Below”. Lots to say. A great band’s “greatest hits” ought to fill out 10 songs of perfection. You shouldn’t need to stretch for the 10. The band’s “Greatest Hits” is a good place to start, because it has 17 tracks squeezed in, they are perfection, and that is just through 1993.

    I smile at the idea that for a greatest hits album, the record company says, “oh, you also need a new song for it so that completists will have to buy it”. And you quickly throw down another true greatest hit that is also perfection. I wonder, who else has accomplished that?

    Relating to HVB’s other thread about AC/DC and Bon Scott’s lyrics: I find Petty’s lyrics to be somewhat hard to pin down. But they sound just right and convey emotion and feeling, no doubt about it. I think he is careful to leave plenty of room for the listener to fill in their own details.

  16. diskojoe

    All I have of Tom Petty is that Greatest Hits CD, which I see all over the place. Is there another compiliation that has the best of his later stuff & his “deep cuts”?

    I remember reading an article about him that compared him to Del Shannon, which seems to right to me.

  17. mockcarr

    I think of Petty more as a craftsman rather than artist. That’s why you can listen to his mostly simply constructed songs and not be very impressed. It leaves a lot open to interpretation and fleshing out from his band I think, though he clearly has the ego to direct things. I’m surprised that he hasn’t had more hit versions of his songs from other singers, since the limitations of his voice are kind of obvious. Is there another popular male rock composer/singer who’s written his biggest hit from the female perspective as in American Girl?

  18. Tom Petty has been overplayed to the extent that I’m torn between my early fandom (hearing Breakdown for the first time on the radio in 77 is a very sharp memory) to the Full Moon Fever/Traveling Wilburys years where I just kind of wrote him off. My favorite Petty album from the later years is Highway Companion — some outstanding stuff that you haven’t heard a million times.

  19. BigSteve

    The reason Petty is more than just another rootsy singer-songwriter is the Heartbreakers. What a great band! Also, as a southerner who started out playing a variation on Southern Rock, he’s got an idiosyncratic twist to add to his Anglophilia.

  20. I’m on board with trigmogigmo.

    When we did that “Who would you hire poll” all those years ago, my main reasons for choosing Petty was this: You seldom get an A plus from the guy but you do get as pretty amazing stream of B plus material, especially for the first 5 albums. Do you ignore Some Girls just because it isn’t Exile? Armed Forces isn’t worth a listen because it isn’t Get Happy?

    Also, I’m definitely a song guy rather than an album guy so Petty works for me. I think side one of Long After Dark is perfect, especially You Got Lucky and the album opener One Story Town. If they just limited his Greatest Hits to the first five albums, Kings Highway, and a few tracks from Wildflowers, it would be much better than one that tries to shoehorn in stuff like Free Fallin and Great Wide Open (although I saw him a few months before he died and even though they played the most pedestrian, down the middle set imaginable, they still somehow made it much more engaging and entertaining than it should have been).

    Perhaps the demarcation is when he started hanging out with English producers like Dave Stewart and Jeff Lynne. I listened to that Soda Jerker podcast that someone here recommended and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. In is interview, Jeff Lynne comes across and the Nicest Guy In the Music Business. And I like some ELO singles. But man, do I hate his production style.

  21. Welcome back HVB!

    Petty was one of a handful of artists that I was always psyched to hear a double-shot or rock block instead the typical Led Zep or Pink Floyd blocks. I own only 1 TP single and no lp’s so I am only a casual fan with most of my listening of him to learn the TP covers I do with “Narband. And “the people” enjoy those songs! TP is definitely an artist that is hard to outright dislike.

    I agree with Mockcarr that he is a craftsmen who the “powers that be” of Rock & Roll Inc anointed as the torchbearer to the post-Beatles mid-70’s rock scene. TBH, in 1976 his first album must have been a refreshing change of pace for mainstream AOR music (I was still listening to the death-rattle of AM pop).

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