Many of the classic songs that we showcase here established Tom Petty as one of America’s prime exponents of urgent, intelligent, contemporary rock’n’roll, both with and without the Heartbreakers. But Petty was far too nuanced a musician to be just a rocker. Our retrospective covers a 38-year span of studio albums with his beloved band, the best of his solo work, and of course his time as a member of perhaps the most impromptu supergroup of them all, the Traveling Wilburys.
Born on October 20, 1950, in Gainesville, Florida, Petty was playing locally from the age of 15. As a teenager, his very character was defined by music, to the exclusion of school studies. “I didn’t go a lot,” he told Creem magazine in 1978. “Once I got in a band, how could I take it seriously? This guy worrying about my hair touching my ears is gonna teach me something? I failed everything.”
This selection of 20 of Petty’s finest reminds us of his sudden and cruelly early passing on October 2, 2017, and underscores what a huge loss he continues to be. On his death, his friend and former bandmate from the Traveling Wilburys, Bob Dylan, said “I thought the world of Tom. He was a great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I’ll never forget him.”
Anything That’s Rock ’n’ Roll / American Girl
Petty served wider notice of his incisive songwriting, sharp-tongued lyrics, and distinctive vocals when he and the Heartbreakers debuted on disc in 1976. But it was in the UK that they received their first chart placings. They had minor British Top 40 hits from that LP with both “Anything That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “American Girl,” giving punk a real run for its money that new wave-fuelled summer. To this day, it’s hard to believe that the anthemic “American Girl” never showed on that US chart at all.
“Refugee” was part of 1979’s memorable third album Damn The Torpedoes, which bears the distinction of being the Heartbreakers’ most-certified US release, at triple platinum. Co-writer Mike Campbell later remembered: “It took us forever to actually cut the track. We just had a hard time getting the feel right. We must have recorded that 100 times. I remember being so frustrated with it one day that – I think this is the only time I ever did this – I just left the studio and went out of town for two days,” he continued. “I just couldn’t take the pressure anymore, but then I came back and when we regrouped we were actually able to get it down on tape.”
Hidden Bluesy Depths
“Breakdown,” from Petty and the Heartbreakers’ self-titled first album in late 1976, was an early sign that they were about far more than foot-to-the-floor rock’n’roll. Its sulky blues tones inspired covers by Suzi Quatro and, on their Wasting Light Tour of 2011, Foo Fighters. Not to mention a reggaed-up rendition by Grace Jones, on 1980’s Warm Leatherette. After Tom and co’s first two UK chart showings, their original “Breakdown” hit the Hot 100 in November.
Years later, on their 12th studio set Mojo, released in 2010, Tom and the boys went back to the bar (or the 12 bars) to deliver some raucous bluesiness in the form of “Good Enough.” As part of their first album together for eight years, the Petty/Campbell co-write was a raunchy reminder of the feistiness that got them noticed in the first place.
Straddling Rock and Pop Radio
Don’t Do Me Like That
There was a tangible aura of controlled aggression about so many Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers songs, an alluring sense of danger that made it cool to choose them as your favorite group. All of that in spite of the fact that their ear for a commercial melody carried them onto both pop and rock radio, when so many rivals had to choose one or the other. “Don’t Do Me Like That” was a song that Petty had had lying around for five years, back to when his early (and later) band Mudcrutch recorded it as a demo in 1974. Revived for Damn The Torpedoes, it became their first US Top 10 single.
You Got Lucky
1982’s Long After Dark contained another song that married the two genres. “You Got Lucky” was a No.1 hit on Billboard’s mainstream rock listing, but also made the Top 20 on the Hot 100. Additionally, it was a sign of the ways in which a quintessential rock band was adapting to the new electronic ingredients in the music of the early 80s, written to a drum loop and with Benmont Tench’s synthesizer lines holding sway over Campbell’s guitars.
Don’t Come Around Here No More
Three songs on 1985’s Southern Accents were written by Petty with a new sparring partner, David A. Stewart of Eurythmics. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” was not necessarily an obvious first single from the set, but its insistent rhythm and mystical undertones, helped by Stewart’s electric sitar and Daniel Rothmuller’s cello, won fans over.
Tom and His Friends
We’ve seen already that Petty found his place at rock’s top table quite early in their reign. He was a friend to fellow artists in many guises. As a producer, his credits included the 1981 set Drop Down and Get Me, for one of the inspirations of his youth, Del Shannon. In 2017, Byrds co-founder Chris Hillman brought him in for the acclaimed Bidin’ My Time, which turned out to be Petty’s last work. It included a version of “Wildflowers.” He and the Heartbreakers even played backing band, to Johnny Cash, no less, for Unchained, the second album in The Man In Black’s American series.
Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around
As a songwriter for outside projects, Tom was notably invaluable for Stevie Nicks. For example, he composed “I Will Run To You” for her 1983 album The Wild Heart, on which the Heartbreakers played. But it was their teaming before that, for Nicks’ 1981 release Bella Donna, that gave both another career high point in the form of “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.”
Petty’s most famous partnership outside of the Heartbreakers was under the lighthearted alter ego of Charlie T. Wilbury Jr. It came into being when he got together with Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and Jeff Lynne to set the industry on its ear and create the Traveling Wilburys. Across two original albums, the group had an almost indecent amount of irreverent fun that reminded them, and us, of what music had meant to them in their youth. From Traveling Wilburys Vol.1, released in 1988, one of the highlights is Tom sharing lead vocals, as if in a dream, with the Big “O” himself, on the irresistible “Last Night.”
Cool Dry Place
When the Wilburys reconvened for a second album in 1990, sadly reduced to a quartet after Orbison’s death, they nevertheless recaptured their original spirit on a follow-up set with the devilishly confusing title Traveling Wilburys Vol.3. Tom took two solo lead vocals, including on the wry narrative of “Cool Dry Place.”
Top Of The Bill
I Won’t Back Down
Soon after the first Wilburys disc, Petty arrived at a new staging post, with the 1989 release of his first album in his own name. Full Moon Fever would be one of his greatest commercial triumphs. In a way, it continued the Wilbury party, being co-produced by Lynne, who also co-wrote most of it with Tom, and featuring appearances by Harrison and Orbison. The record included trademarks widely held to be among the best Tom Petty songs, and was introduced by the lead single “I Won’t Back Down.”
Runnin’ Down A Dream
Petty later told Rolling Stone: “We did Full Moon Fever for the sheer fun of it. We never sweated it. It was the most enjoyable record I’ve ever worked on.” You can hear it, too. On the album’s second single “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” he even namechecked another of the heroes he had been able to work with, Del Shannon, with the line “Me and Del were singin’ ‘Little Runaway.’” Tragically, little more than nine months after the album’s release, Shannon committed suicide, aged just 55.
No Petty song climbed as high, charted as long or took his unique talent to more people than “Free Fallin’.” An anthem of independence from the day it came out, its spirit has been invoked time and again, on screens big and small in Jerry Maguire and The Sopranos and by Petty and the Heartbreakers themselves, at 2008’s Super Bowl XLII Halftime Show.
You Don’t Know How It Feels
Petty was, very much like Keith Richards, essentially most at home as a band man, a member of a group who are greater than the sum of their parts. But he went on to fill the solo role, technically at least, on two further albums, including 1994’s Wildflowers, which he co-produced with fellow Heartbreaker Mike Campbell and the ever in-demand Rick Rubin. The lead song “You Don’t Know How It Feels” was a rock radio No.1 and its promo won Best Male Video at the following year’s MTV Awards.
1996 brought a studio reunion with Lynne, as they and Campbell oversaw Tom’s third and final album in his own name, Highway Companion, from which the leadoff single was “Saving Grace.” For Uncut, the full-length was an “instant classic.” The Guardian wrote, with sad prescience, that if it proved to be his last solo album, “he has delivered one of rock’s most eloquent goodbyes.”
The Quintessential American
Into The Great Wide Open
A recurring characteristic of Petty’s work is that he truly represents the American everyman. Even as a highly successful and well-rewarded rock star, he retained a realness that made him a man of the people, a representation of the United States as many wished them to be. When the Heartbreakers reassembled in 1991 for Into the Great Wide Open, perhaps there was even an element of his younger self in its title story song, as he sang “Into the great wide open, under them skies of blue/Out in the great wide open, a rebel without a clue.”
Learning To Fly
The first single from that set was a masterpiece of simple expression, both in terms of its four-chord structure and its cards-on-the-table declaration of someone learning to fly, on a personal quest but without any wings (“I’ve started out for God-knows-where, I guess I‘ll know when I get there”). Rock radio adored it, keeping the song at No.1 in that format for six weeks.
The Last DJ
Petty was often the prism through which one could sense an erosion of old American values, of a certain decency ebbing away. So it was again on 2002’s The Last DJ, his 11th studio album with the Heartbreakers. It signaled the return of original bassist Ron Blair to replace the ailing Howie Epstein, who sadly died the following year. Its songs told a tale of “capitalism gone amok,” as E! Online put it. For Billboard, it had Petty “slyly balancing bitter references to modern-day payola, shifty execs, and even the struggles of artists over 40 with wistful imagery of rock’n’roll dreams.”
An Unknowing Farewell
American Dream Plan B
Such a constant was Petty in our collective rock consciousness that we couldn’t have dreamed that 2014’s Hypnotic Eye would be his, and the Heartbreakers, last album. Their 13th studio record was appropriately celebrated, becoming their only US No.1 and, in some ways, bringing them full circle back to the steely rock’n’roll of their first two LPs. The reviews glowed. Entertainment Weekly spoke of its “knowing urgency,” American Songwriter called it “a bastion of consistent excellence.” “American Dream Plan B” was both its first single, and a track from the 2019 compendium The Best of Everything.
Many of these vintage pieces of American rock culture were on proud display in Petty’s performances with the Heartbreakers on their extensive 40th anniversary national and international tour of 2017. That ended at the Hollywood Bowl, a week before his death, as they went out, appropriately, the way they came in, playing “American Girl.” His voice may have been stilled, but his musical legacy will live long.
Buy or stream Tom Petty’s career-spanning The Best Of Everything box set.