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Call Tom Petty the new Springsteen and he’ll cut you!
By Max Bell
New Musical Express — March 15, 1980
The Piccadilly Hotel in Manchester is an anonymous modern structure slipped neatly inside a multi-storey car park — an injection of glass and concrete at the core of a wraparound helter shelter. The ethos behind such a building is entirely American, the accent on efficiency and impersonality.
A desk clerk surveys the lobby with a glazed smile. “You’re welcome,” he parrots awkwardly at every satisfied customer. “You’re welcome.” The expression grates absurdly. I look carefully at the man’s nose, it doesn’t appear to be growing.
Around the bar we have some stars tonight, local boys. The hotel is host to a ceremonial dinner and testimonial booze-up in honour of footballer Joe Corringan. There’s much hearty banter and slapping of manly shoulders as the famous players mingle with their tight knit mafia of show biz personalities and a selection of thick set men in penguin costumes who resemble off-duty policemen. As snippets of conversation drift nearer, it becomes apparent that they are policemen.
A very large gentleman wheezes towards the bar. He identifies himself loudly as Bernard Manning, all purpose TV comedian and personage. Mr. Manning, fresh from the cover of the morning tabloids where his imminent death was gleefully forecast, gathers his cronies around him and guffaws.
“Aye oop lads,” he addresses the bar in general. “Aye oop, bloody press bots have got me bloody dead! Lose seven stone? Seven pounds more like.” The Bar erupts sycophantically. Mr. Manning’s diet is obviously in abeyance. He’s a card.
Across the lobby another party of informally dressed young men amble out the door and get into a large coach. They aren’t footballers though. One of them is very blonde, good looking in an angular, undernourished away — pretty, you might say. The football mafia stare at the intruders and muffled comments pass between them; personal comments and sexual allusions. Fat pink faces distort into a dreadful hallucination and their gaze turns to photographer Anton Corbijn’s metal suitcase. Perhaps he’s from the Daily Mirror, perhaps we’re snooping on their private ‘do’. Anton, who is Dutch, doesn’t have the faintest idea of what’s going on.
Three hours later a crowd of youthful Mancunian citizens are filing out of the Apollo in good humour. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have just finished the second night of their British mini-tour.
It had begun slowly. The audience was quiet, rarely letting polite enthusiasm extend into any celebration. Petty chastised them gently. Where they all on mandies? But by the end of the evening the Heartbreakers have won their reaction — a genuine one. They play four encores, including superbly weighty versions of the Everley’s ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ and Eddie Cochran’s ‘Somethin’ Else.’ The freshness of their attitude coupled with the quality of their … what the hell … musicianship is gratifying rather than surprising.
Tom Petty’s most recent album, ‘Damn the Torpedoes’ is place at No. 2 in the American charts. It may knock Pink Floyd off that wall any day now. He has two singles somewhere in the Top 30 and a third one waiting to join them in the wings.
For now Tom Petty has arrived and all that entails: the cover of Rolling Stone, features in Newsweek, media pressures, what is euphemistically termed ‘heavy’ management.
But it wasn’t always like this. Petty languished out 1974 in the backroom at Shelter Records, a label with a funky backwoods image, a small rosta of idiosyncratic artistes and a homely method of promotion that suited J.J. Cale, sunk Dwight Twilley without trace and upset Petty’s increasingly ambitious programme.
Prior to the Heartbreakers Petty fronted a local Gainesville, Florida band called Mudcrutch, a group he describes as too “peculiar for the time, there was such diversity in the material there was no way we could survive.”
Mudcrutch eventually pared down to the Heartbreakers leving behind an unreleased album and one single ‘Wild Eyes/Depot Street’, the latter being a slight reggae tinged tune guaranteed to attain instant obscurity in 1975.
The first Tom Petty album proper, released in 1976, was a curiously adventurous project for an unknown group, coming at a time when American airwaves were overstocked with complacent metal and pompous soft rock regurgitations.
The band toured Britain during the height of the new wave explosion and were bemused to find themselves labelled in a similar category. It was a backhanded compliment that recognized Petty’s talents for offering something new by bracketing him with the punks, even though his own tastes veered more towards the classic period of LA rock, stopping off to pay homage to Bob Dylan, Neil Young and the mid-’60s influx of Atlantic soul and Stax R&B staples, his acknowledged favourites.
A second album, ‘You’re Gonna Get It’ received a more muted response, too much more of the same thing.
Throughout last year Petty and the band were involved in a celebrated law suit with their current company MCA. There were no tours, an album recorded with Jimmy Iovine was put on ice by the American High Courts and the singer declared himself bankrupt.
And now, ironically, Tom Petty finds himself in the position of being a hugely successful commodity, a face, living up to the expectations imposed on the likes of Bruce Springsteen.
He’s managed by Elliot Roberts, who handles chores and buys the stamps for The Eagles, among others. The album responsible for all this, ‘Damn the Torpedoes’, has hoisted him above The Cars, Cheap Trick, The Knack. MCA couldn’t be happier, Tom is their boy now — even if he is signed to a subsidiary label, Backstreet, overseen by the youngest tycoon in the business, Danny Bramson, a 27-year-old whose first album has sold over one and a half million copies.
Tom Petty sits in his seventh floor hotel room overlooking Knightsbridge and smiles to himself. He is a very happy man indeed.
Any advance warnings as to his tempestuous personality seem far fetched now, alone together in a room. Petty drinks coca cola and I drink his Jack Daniels. He’s on the wagon these says, having recently had his tonsils removed, a nasty goodbye to useless nodules when you’re 28.
“I came here a bit before Doc’s orders,” Petty drawls pleasantly. “Hospitals are dreadful places. I had three months of a really painful throat. I couldn’t smoke cigarettes, have a joint, nothing. I haven’t been that clear-headed for years. Some of my closest friends say it improved my character a great deal.”
He chuckles and reaches for a Benson. “I can’t live like a boy scout. As Mark Twain said when they told him to give up cigarettes or die, life ain’t worth living without ’em.”
The consequences of the operation offered Petty an ultimatum which he hasn’t quite heeded — there was a danger that more live singing would affect his voice permanently and the British tour was severely truncated.
“I’d prefer to do the extended tour because I like playing here — it’s more of a challenge. In America we’ve gone from small venues to large halls overnight. Here they don’t know the album. I get more satsifaction out of winning an audience round.”
In Birmngham and Manchester the Heartbreakers were almost starting off from scratch. Rows of seats at the rear remained empty and it wasn’t until halfway through the show that the fans livened up. Petty insists that the set is designed that way anyways.
“I don’t like bands with one sound that they play all the way through. I like textures, it makes people appreciate the slower stuff. It’s not a rumbunctious pace, it would be so easy to come out and rock and cause a riot. That’s too simple. We’re toying with the idea of playing more country songs now. Not Californian country rock which became a bad word, it means drivel now.”
Like The Eagles?
“Well…..they’re good at what they do, I think they’re a good band.” This doesn’t quite ring true. “Oh, they’re the kings of that genre, we’re managed by the same people. They don’t mean anything to someone in England though, that’s fair. It’s the same with The Beach Boys, they moved me but they don’t have a lot to say to a kid in London… why am I defending the Eagles?”
I ask Petty if he has taken stock from the aftermath of the new bands. It’s apparent that he isn’t particularly interested in the colourful areas between experimentation and challenge. He professes a liking for Devo “in doses” and The Clash album in its entirety. His tastes are orthodox but his reasoning is honest.
“I’m out of touch really. One of the bad things about this so-called success is if you go to see somebody you can get bothered to the point where you don’t enjoy it… it’s an ordeal. I try not to take it too seriously. I didn’t expect it to be quite as manic, the people running after your car and crawling through your windows. It isn’t so bad; it’s what I always wanted too, I guess. They don’t want to hurt you.
“But if I go to a club there’s so many music company types, so many LA scene makers, they can spoil your private life. If I see a new band I find it hard to be objectively involved; it’s impossible to go somewhere and make up your own mind.”
Generally he admits that there is a change in America for the better. “America’s come a long way. I’m proud of America. If I’m gonna wave the ole US banner I admire Cheap Trick and Neil Young for being loonier than anyone else. The main thing is you can go to towns which were dead three years ago, places like St. Louis, and there’re hundreds of new bands all writing their own songs and all finding some kind of audience. That never happened before, unless you played Top 40. Now there’s all these new audiences, that’s healthy.
“Don’t ask me what the music of the ’80s will be though, just more of everything.”
In Tom Petty’s book it’s evident that anything that’s rock and roll is fine and his comparatively recent success dictates a spirit of diplomacy. In 1976 Tom Petty straddled the divide between old and new with a knowing sneer. He was the up and coming gunslinger, he was going to be different his way. If most of his songs were about girls, the ins and outs of sexual relationships, rock and roll mythology, then his manner of presentation was assured to the point of arrogance.
His stage talk was deliberately incoherent and sullen, his vocabulary was straight off-the-bat baseball parlance (“This is a song that I wrote about dis girl” or “This one’s about your general screw-up”). He shared Bruce Springsteen’s love for the romantic image and the street cool sass, always hip enough to stay close to the street but not dump enough to get stuck on it.
“Well, we were the first American band who weren’t punk who were doing that stuff, three minute songs that weren’t mush.
“Now the first album doesn’t sound as weird as all. I said a lot of things then that I regret, I was always shooting my mouth off. I was a big fan of a lot of that though, I’ve always supported the lunatic fringe because that’s where it’s all gonna come from. When we were here people always approached us as punk and we’d say ‘No, we’re a rock ‘n roll band. We didn’t fit that category’. Then all we heard was punk this, punk that, and we said ‘Fuck punk!
“We decided to let our hair grow ’til it’s down to here and they’re starting to call us punks in America. It was absurd, these stupid labels. That’s the time when they don’t even know what a punk is in America and one day I just said to a guy, as a joke, ‘if you call me a punk again I’m gonna cut ya.’ They took it seriously and printed it, big headlines, ‘Call Tom Petty a punk and he’ll cut you’. So now I get kids comin’ up and asking me why I’m so down on new wave and I have to tell ’em — ‘Fuck, I invented the new wave here for all you know.’ I’ve always wanted that cleared up ‘cos of the animosity it caused.
“The truth is that I’m glad we were here in ’77, I used to laugh myself sick at The Sex Pistols’ antics. Every day you could buy a paper and there was something outrageous going on.”
Prior to the release of ‘Torpedoes’ Petty’s artistic life was shrouded in despair and depression. Any chance he had to capitalise on constant touring and a highly accessible image was threatened with extinction by a series of deadly law suits.
“Our first album didn’t break until a year after we came here. We’d re-negotiated a contract that said if Shelter was sold we’d the right to leave. That happened. Shelter was sold by ABC to MCA in one of those huge mergers that are happening every day. We assumed that we were then free and MCA said we weren’t.
“Well, being kinda stubborn I agreed to deliver an album but wouldn’t take any money from them. I spent my own money making it and it was a very expensive record to make. Partly because of the law suits it took ten months. Then in the middle of recording MCA sued me, Shelter sued me, my publishing company sued me and so did a few smaller people. MCA’s a big dog for an individual to fight. I had nine lawyers contesting each case. While that’s happening I’ve got constant offers from other record companies that would make me blush to tell you here.
“It reached the stage where it was almost funny. If I sing a song do I own it? Me, the band and Jimmy Iovine (producer) were midway through and the US Marshalls were coming to the studio to steal the tapes, confiscate everything. We had to hide all the boxes, smuggle things in and out. I had to go on the stand and evade issues like, ‘Where are the tapes? What songs have you written? Recite the lyrics.’
“I refused to do that. All they could do was beat me up mentally until I did it their way.
“Eventually I convinced the judge to let me go on a Californian tour so I could make some money. The MCA lawyers were telling the judge I couldn’t do it because I’d incur all these debts and I couldn’t show any security. So I said to the judge, ‘But judge there is no security in rock ‘n roll’, and he laughed and let me do it.”
The resulting dates — the ‘Law Suit Tour’ (also known to posterity as the ‘Why MCA Tour?’) — culminated in two sold out shows in the Universal Amphitheatre, a large hall owned by MCA; an irony not lost on Petty. The booking agent and boss of the theatre was one Danny Bramson who intervened between artist and company.
So was Petty satisfied with the outcome of his litigation?
“They didn’t realize how serious I was. I spent half a million dollars of my own money, sold everything I had to get what was rightfully ours. It saved the group morale-wise because I never believed the record would make it.”
In America Petty maintains he has little or nothing to do with the company men, preferring to let Bramson, Roberts and his English partner, Tony Dimitriades, represent Heartbreakers’ interests. This managerial independance left British MCA somewhat in the dark with their new golden boy, and the fact that they didn’t provide any tour support for the band’s five British dates did nothing to cement the relationship.
Petty’s attitude towards the media is ambivalent, in line with the increased responsibilities that accompany mega-stardom.
There had been frantic last minute negotiations between relevant parties to finalise this particular interview, and while the star of the show accepted the questioning in good humor I got the distinct impression that future media encounters would be charted out on a long term graph. Bruce Springsteen doesn’t talk to newspapers, neither does Neil Young, nor Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan — and a man who stands every chance of joining and perhaps even surpassing all those luminaries isn’t going to be spreading himself thin ever again.
It’s obvious from talking to Petty that success demands a formal organisation to support it. In the past the band were “striken with dreadful laziness, never used to be able to rehearse or take any time in the studio”. Not any more. The production partnership of Petty and Iovine will be repeated in the summer and the two have a habit of calling each other daily to chart out the future.
Iovine has been in demand as a producer for several years now, numbering John Lennon (‘Walls And Bridges’), Patti Smith (‘Because the Night’) and Bruce Springsteeen amongst his clients but none of them is as potentially explosive as Petty is now.
The Heartbreakers’ attention to detail encompasses a live show that sprawls majestically over nearly two hours — usually they’re ready to quit before the audience. The set gives every impression of being spontaneous and loose, but is actually arranged to be the complete opposite. Where in the past Petty denied any involvement in theatrics and choreography he is now in full command of every nuance. His own vocal performance is a staggering combination of The Byrds-like country delivery that is usually associated with his material, but it takes in a complete gamut of cross-references to the classic singers — Jagger, Bowie, Van Morrison, even Redding and Pickett.
Drummer Stan Lynch and keyboards rock Benmont Tench excel on harmonies. When Petty and Lynch duetted on John Sebastian’s ‘Stories We Could Tell’ the results would have nonplussed all those who hitherto refused to take the band seriously — The Everley Brothers didn’t come into it.
The band’s renditions of Soloman Burke’s ‘Cry To Me’ and the Isley Brothers’ ‘Shout’ are equally convincing, non-originals being integrated amongst Petty’s own songs to give the act a sense of power and authority.
The only aspects of Petty’s show that rankle now, and the elements that prevent him from aspiring to greatness are the slightly silly raps that the singer uses in between numbers. They work for one night but become predictable after three. That and guitarist Mike Campbell’s occasional stage runs which do nothing to increase the dignity of the group. Campbell just looks too nervous to carry off the role of dangerous performer and Petty’s natural upstaging unsettles their balance as a rhythm and lead team par excellence.
It’s clear that despite talk about group democracy this is Petty’s show.
“The others all have cliques of fans who come to see them but I’d stand out if I was the bassist, being blond and all. I think they’re happy just to get the money. Benmont gets a much better shot on this last album.
“We’ve always been cast in the twelve string sound; those Byrds comparisons. I know we sound like them at times, and God knows I’ve tried not to, but I get a bit tired of hearing them now. I don’t think Roger McGuinn can do all the things people say he can. We’re entirely different musicians really. Of course I’d be interested to see how he did ‘Here Comes My Girl’.
“But he phoned me last year to ask if I had any songs for him and I couldn’t come up with one that was suitable.”
One of the smartest things Petty ever did was to appear on the ‘No Nukes’ benefit on the same night as Springsteen. It was good for his credibility and it increased his potential drawing power on the East Coast.
“While we were in limbo with the lawsuits I’d read all these articles in the Los Angeles Time about radiation creeping in. I’m not a very political guy but I’m getting a bit worried. At least let the Russians bomb us, it would be so embarrassing to blow ourselves up.
“Mike (Campbell) and I discussed playing one of those benefits because we thought we’d draw a completely different crowd to the people Jackson Browne and Graham Nash get, the Woodstock types. When Bruce phoned me to play with him — and he doesn’t usually have other groups on his bill — we decided to do it. We don’t preach or send out leaflets. I haven’t heard the album anyway, it doesn’t look very interesting, I saw the show and that was enough.
“I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things. I used to say ‘Fuck the whales’, but now I think we ought to save them too. Why not?”
It’s possible to view this softening process with some cynicism, as part of the homogenised image that tends to accompany stardom, but Petty had no guarantee that ‘Damn the Torpedoes’ would catch fire.
“If those people had kept on suing me I was going to be on a soup line. I’ve never got into that channel about what is life? This time I had a few sleepless nights. The only thing I owned were my songs. I wanted to write anthems for underdogs, songs like ‘Even The Losers’ and ‘Refugee’… the theme of the album wasn’t self-conscious but when I put it together afterwards I could see it was about standing up for your rights, the ones that everyone has which can’t be fucked with or taken away. Rather than get really graphic, ‘They took me down to the court today and grilled me for eight hours’, I wanted to keep the common denominator of them as love songs with other connotations.
“They aren’t necessarily boy-girl songs, but also I don’t think the kids want to hear a record about the evils of the music business; that would be boring as hell. The songs I always dug were the old R&B ones, I liked the innuendoes. The old people thought they was just kissing but you knew they were fucking each other’s brains out. When Johnnie Taylor did ‘Who’s Making Love To Your Old Lady While She’s Been Out Making Love’ that spoiled it for me ‘cos that was a hit and afterwards all the black cats were just gonna say it.
“I am romantic, an old sap. All my values came out of the TV tube from the age of five. My whole love of the guitar came from seeing cowboys like Gene Autry when they all had guns and guitars. It looked like the hippest thing. If you didn’t have TV and movies where would your idea of romance come from? Books, probably, but I’m not a great reader.”
If Petty is adamant in his opinion that rock and roll is the great healer, the embalming fluid that negates the value of education, politics and the liberal arts then he is only offering his own view.
“Linda Ronstadt called me up to support Jerry Brown but I couldn’t do all that stuff, I’d feel silly, I think if you can take people away from their problems for two hours that’s as likely to enlighten them as any political thing. I don’t trust any politician. Period.”
Meanwhile he’s adept at accepting the bows and the plaudits while keeping one step ahead of the pundits and their slings and arrows. He takes his job seriously but is unconvincingly modest. He calls his songs “disposable” yet he risked bankruptcy for them. He says that songwriting is just fun — “I refuse to think of it as work” — but his game plan looks like very hard work indeed.
As for his philosophy, his attitude to the demands of his current life-style, that springs from an expression of naivety based on solid self-assurance.
“I’ve proved everything to myself. One of my favourite Dylan lines is ‘I’ve got nothing to live up to’, and that’s what I feel. I don’t have to prove it to anyone else.”
Being in the public eye, being successful, being good looking, embracing rock and roll as a life force — all these are traits that idealists will use to undermine him.
It won’t make any difference.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers don’t have any time to be complacent and if he refuses to accept the role of spokesman on non-related (as he thinks) topics does that make him a reactionary or a bad person?
To some people it does. But then some people think Bob Dylan would make a good President, that John Lydon should be Prime Minister, that Beethoven should have been a town councillor.
No, the rock and roll that Tom Petty stands for is hopelessly naive, terminally young, won’t change a thing. That’s its charm. And when he encored at Hammersmith with the familiar Bobby Fuller number ‘I Fought The Law (And The Law Won)’ you had to admire his cool cheek.
Tom Petty fought the law and the law lost. That was really something.
Last of the great rock ‘n’ roll romantics
By Paul Du Noyer
New Musical Express — March 1980
Tom Petty And Heartbreakers | The Fabulous Poodles | Hammersmith Odeon
Tom Petty’s rock ‘n’ roll is streamlined and clean, and it’s pure and professional, and it’s powerful and smooth, refined and exact, and on paper it starts to look like everything dislikeable in the modern American mainstream of music — which is as boring as it’s orthodox and as disposable as it’s self-satisfied.
Tom Petty is anything but boring and disposable; he transcends all limitations of type and category to deliver work that’s superb on any terms.
Just when I was getting to think of competence and class as virtually dirty words, synonymous with stagnation and complaceny, that’s when The Heartbreakers hit Hammersmith and I got reminded of how things don’t have to be that way always.
“I tell ya, this ain’t go ego trip. We just feel like playin’,” laughed the man with the perfect haircut, leading his band into one of the innumerable encores which made up the last half-hour of a long, long set. It all started with an opening trilogy of “Shadow Of A Doubt (A Complex Kid,” “Anything That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll,” and “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It),” all examples of the effortless excellence they were to revel in throughout, followed up with “Here Comes My Girl” and “Even The Losers.”
Petty and his men — Mike Campbell on guitar, Benmont Tench on keyboards, Ron Blair on bass and Stan Lynch on drums — play with a melodic sensitivity that in no way detracts from the punchy directness of the material, but combines with it to make a gorgeously exciting sound, almost casual but always right. I could do without the mouldy old repertoire of guitar hero poses, and if The Heartbreakers didn’t smile so much they would look awfully dull — but other than that the show really couldn’t be much better.
I suppose what makes them special above all is the distinctive mix of elegance with energy, demonstrated to glorious effect in the exceptionally fine “Refugee” (now a single, I believe) and the hard driving, lovingly constructed songs after it: “Listen To Her Heart,” “American Girl,” “Breakdown,” and “Too Much Ain’t Enough.” Petty’s lyrics, though often a shade derivative, are never less than intelligent; mostly they mark him out as the last of the great rock ‘n’ roll romantics.
Blues and country roots are in evidence everywhere — the former, notably, in the slow and satisfying “Cry To Me,” the latter in a pleasantly light “Stories We Could Tell” that featured Fabulous Poodle Bob Valentino on fiddle, and Petty himself on acoustic. The extensive encore section afforded more opportunities for fooling around, like the old Lulu — sorry, Isleys — beltin’ “Shout” as well as “Somethin’ Else,” the Eddie Cochran — sorry, Sid Vicious — standard.
And a very good time was had my all, not least, it always seemed, by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers themselves. “Century City” eventually closed proceedings, and so began the reluctant shuffle exit-wards.
At that moment, surely very few present could have been thinking back into this evening’s commencement — a well-received but decidedly performance from support act the “Fab Poos” firmly blasted back into irrelevance by all that was to follow.
I wish someone could explain the joke to me. Just what is so funny, lovable, enjoyable, or otherwise in the slightest worthwhile about four grown men dressing stupid and playing bad rock ‘n’ roll pastiches, all in the service of trite, sub-adolescent humour? The Fabulous Poodles invariably end up looking more cliched than the cliches they purport to parody.
Despite the potential offered by Valentino’s useful violin contributions, and indeed the musical resources of the group as a whole, they prefer to play safe with cosy and coy explorations of well-worn themes (teen dreams, Hollywood dreams) and clumsy send-ups of their betters, worst being the silly-old-bluesman intro to the pathetic “Tit Photographer’s Blues.”
Had I a goat, then this would assuredly get it.