Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

  • Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
  • Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (Shelter) 1976 
  • You're Gonna Get It! (Shelter) 1978 
  • Damn the Torpedos (Backstreet/MCA) 1979 
  • Hard Promises (Backstreet/MCA) 1981 
  • Long After Dark (Backstreet/MCA) 1982 

Florida’s Tom Petty is one of the few American rockers to achieve lasting commercial stardom despite being (incorrectly) mistaken for a new waver at the outset. Hardly a wild-eyed punk, Petty has had a career almost the stuff of rock legend; Bob Seger is a close parallel. Having flopped with an early outfit called Mudcrutch, Petty is a veteran of the bar circuit, chalking up countless miles as a singer/guitarist while clinging to a dream of eventual success in the big leagues. By the time “Breakdown” became a hit single from his first LP, Petty and his adopted Heartbreakers (no relation to Richard Hell and Johnny Thunders’ band) were far from being rebellious teens — Petty was a seasoned pro, with a trunkload of winsome, melodic rock numbers and solid performing skills.

Despite some serious bad times — including acrimonious legal wrangles that almost stopped him cold — Petty’s records have been startling in their consistency. You can drop a needle anywhere on any of his LPs and be assured of what you’ll find. Not surprisingly, Petty and his band have been rewarded with full-fledged superstar status on turntables and radio stations the length and breadth of the USA.

The self-titled first album introduced Petty’s nasal vocals and Byrds-like heartland pop/rock sound via numbers like “Anything That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “Breakdown” and the brilliant “American Girl,” which was also — confusingly — recorded (in a style that can only be described as “Saturday Night Live theme music”) by Roger McGuinn. The similarity in vocal styles led many to assume incorrectly that the better-known McGuinn had written the song; in fact it’s one of Petty’s best. (But watch the psychotronic classic Dementia 13 for the source of the opening lyric.) Although tentative, a fine debut.

You’re Gonna Get It! is more of the same, only better, completely circumventing the usual sophomore problems of material shortage with solid tunes like “Listen to Her Heart,” “I Need to Know” and “Magnolia.” The occasional resemblance to the Byrds is still uncanny, but Petty and company bring along enough character to prevent them from seeming redundant.

Damn the Torpedos, delayed by near-terminal lawsuits over contracts and bankruptcies, gains strength from co-production by Petty and Jimmy lovine and is probably the best album of the bunch, with a more individualized sound and songs like “Here Comes My Girl,” “Even the Losers,” “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Refugee.” Despite a tendency to overdramatize the mundane (like the spoken section on “Refugee”), the all-American golden boy fills the LP with memorable singles that don’t mean much, but sound convincing nonetheless.

The novelty of Hard Promises was strictly behind the scenes, as the honest populist Petty fought with his record company to keep the price of the record down. The disc itself, again co-produced with lovine, has fewer classic Petty tracks although “The Waiting” recaptures the Byrds sound flawlessly, and “Kings Road” lyrically and musically demonstrates Petty’s closeness to (and distance from) new wave Britain.

With a new bassist marking the first lineup change in the Heartbreakers, Long After Dark gently pushes the band’s sound into some previously uncharted waters, with interestingly different keyboard and guitar work joining the characteristic stylings. Overall, it’s still a Tom Petty record, and the hits just keep on coming!

[Ira Robbins]