Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Late Great Tom Petty

There are those music artists whose songs provide the soundtracks to our lives. We first hear them when we are very young. We enjoy their music and may even identify with some of their songs. In some cases their careers will have lasted as long as we have lived. Tom Petty was one of those music artists for me. I was somewhat aware of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers when their first album came out in 1976 (I was 13 at the time), but I would really become a full-fledged fan until I first heard their song "Refugee" in 1980. Their music was straightforward and basic. There were no synthesisers and no frills. It fit no subgenre of rock music. It wasn't power pop, punk rock, or heavy metal. It was just rock 'n' roll. In many ways, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers was much more about "back to basics" than any of the concurrent punk bands (even The Ramones, as much as I love them). It was an approach that appealed to me and to a legion of other fans. It was an approach that would give Tom Petty a career that lasted forty years, produced several hits, and left a lasting impression on rock music.

Sadly, Tom Petty was hospitalised Sunday night after being found unconscious and in the midst of full cardiac arrest. He died last night at 8:40 Pacific Time. He was 66 years old.

Tom Petty was born on October 20 1950 in Gainesville, Florida. He became interested in rock music upon meeting Elvis Presley when he was ten years old. His uncle was working on the set of Follow That Dream (1962), which was shooting in Ocala, Florida. Tom Petty's uncle took him to the set where he met Elvis. Afterwards he was a staunch fan of Mr. Presley. In addition to Elvis, The Beatles would also have an impact on him. In an interview with NPR in 2006, Mr. Petty said that he knew he wanted to be in a band the moment he saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. Among Tom Petty's other influences were The Byrds, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan.

Tom Petty dropped of school when he was 17 to join the band The Sundowners. He later became a member of The Epics, which evolved into the band Mudcrutch. Future Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench were also members of Mudcrutch. Formed in 1970, the band signed with Shelter Records in 1974. Their only single, "Depot Street" was released in 1975. It failed to chart. Mudcrutch then lost its recording contract, although they kept Tom Petty under contract. Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, and Benmont Tench then formed Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers' self-titled debut album was released in December 1976. It peaked at no. 55 on the Billboard album chart and at no. 24 on the British album chart. Their first single, "Breakdown", failed to chart, although their second single, "Anything That's Rock 'n' Roll", peaked at no. 36 in the United Kingdom. Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers' second album, You're Gonna Get It!, saw the band's performance improve on the charts. The album peaked at no. 23 on the Billboard album chart and no. 33 in the United Kingdom. "I Need to Know", the first single from You're Gonna Get It!, nearly made the top forty, peaking at no. 40 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers would see their first major success with the album Damn the Torpedoes in 1979. The album peaked at no. 2 and went platinum. The first single from the album, "Don't Do Me Like That", peaked at no. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was followed by "Refugee", which peaked at no. 15 on the singles chart.

After Damn the Torpedoes, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers would remain a major band for the rest of their career. Their albums Hard Promises, Long After Dark, and Southern Accents all went to the top ten on the Billboard album chart. The late Eighties and the Nineties would see the band with less success, although their albums still hit the top twenty. In fact, the lowest placed album following the release of Damn the Torpedoes was 1987's Let Me Up (I've Had Enough), which peaked at no. 20 on the Billboard album chart. The band rebounded in the Naughts with their albums once more reaching in the top ten. In fact, their last two albums would perform better than nearly any of their albums before. Mojo, released in 2010, peaked at no. 2. Hypnotic Eye became the first and only Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers album to reach no. 1.

The band also had a slough of hit singles.  "You Got Lucky", from Long After Dark, peaked at no. 20. "Don't Come Around Here No More" reached no. 13. Several other singles reached the top forty or, at least, the Hot 100. In 2008 Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers played the Super Bowl Half Time show.

Tom Petty also had projects beyond his work with The Heartbreakers. He was one of the supergroup known as The Travelling Wilburys, which also included Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison. They released their debut album in 1988. The album peaked at no. 3 on the Billboard album chart and produced the hit single "Handle with Care".  Their second album (titled Travelling Wilburys Vol. 3) peaked at no. 11 on the Billboard album chart.

Tom Petty also released three solo albums. The first, Full Moon Fever, was released in 1989.  It produced the hit singles "I Won't Back Down", "Runnin' Down a Dream", and "Free Fallin'". The album itself went to no. 2 on the Billboard album chart. A second solo album, Wildflowers, was released in 1994. The album went to no. 8 on the Billboard album chart and produced the hit single "You Don't Know How It Feels". A third and final solo album, Highway Companion, was released in 2006. It peaked at no. 4 on the album chart.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers were also guests on Stevie Nicks's 1981 single "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around", her 1983 single "I Will Run to You", and Bob Dylan's 1986 single "Band of the Hand". Tom Petty was a guest on Hank Williams Jr.'s 1987 single "Mind Your Own Business" and Roger McGuinn's 1991 single "King of the Hill."

 Tom Petty once said of The Heartbreakers, "We ain't no punk band, we ain't folk rock, jazz rock, or any of that bull****. Just rock, and we don't put no other name on it than that. We'd be stupid if we did."  And there can be no doubt that his quote was accurate. As mentioned earlier, Tom Petty & The Hearbreakers offered up no frills rock 'n' roll. At most there might be a slight psychedelic tinge to some songs, but nothing more. This essentially made their songs timeless. I rather suspect someone who was wholly unfamiliar with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers probably wouldn't be able to identify the decade, let alone the year, many of their songs were released.

Beyond writing very basic, no frills rock songs, Tom Petty was also a great lyricist. His lyrics were as down-to-earth as he seemed to be in real life, and were often sung from the point of view of the underdog. He was one of rock's great storytellers, writing about American girls and their dreams, individuals facing obstacles, men who have lost the women they love, and much more.

In real life Tom Petty seemed as down to earth as the lyrics he wrote. When MCA tried to raise the price of his albums to $9.98 (about $28.16 in today's money) from $8.98, he threatened to titled his next album (which would be titled Hard Promises) The $8.98 Album.

In the many obituaries and tributes to Tom Petty he has been described as a rock legend. There can be no doubt that the description is accurate. Tom Petty's career spanned 40 years. What is more, while other artists' careers might fade after a time, Tom Petty continued to have hit records and sold-out tours to the very end. His influence on rock music was considerable and lasts to this day.

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