About music: America, make way for Tom Petty
By James Kinsella
Plattsburgh Press-Republican — Thursday, June 18, 1981
PLATTSBURGH — About nine years ago, Grand Funk Railroad had a hit with “We’re An American Band.” As an American band, Grand Funk supposedly did wonderful things that those nasty foreign rockers could never do.
Tom Pety and the Heartbreakers, who have just released the album Hard Promises, are also an American band, But unlike Grand Funk, who vainly sough the legitimacy of such a label, Petty and the Heartbreakers not only are an American band. They could well be the best American band.
Petty and his cohorts play exciting rock and roll as easily as other people breathe. Ther music is truly classy, a rare blend of Byrds-like guitar, soaring melodies and bedrock chording. T.P. has become a rock hero in his own right, a big-nosed, blond romantic whose lyrics can surge with humor as well as pain.
Hard Promises probably is the most “complete” Heartbreakers album. Although they released two earlier albums on ABC, these don’t seem to plumb the depths as does Promises. Damn the Torpedoes, released in the fall of 1979, was a rock landmark but a curiously incomplete one, with side two noticeably lagging behind the exuberant rocking of side one.
While Petty and his gang seemed like legitimate contenders for the American rock title from the time that “Breakdown” pierced the national Top 40 charts, they also came off as a slightly flighty bunch. Part of the reason seemed their new-found fame, and their reaction to it.
The rest seemed attributable to growing legal problems between the band, their manager and their lavel. Perhaps one reason why Torpedoes is uneven is the torment and despair the hassles caused Petty, who was ready not to release the album if the fight came down to that. “I think it’s amazing we made a record at all during that time,” he told Dave Marsh in Musician magazine.
Torpedoes eventually was released, to popular and critical acclaim. On Hard Promises, Petty comes through with both surer vocals — apparently the result of an agonizing bout with tonsilitis — and more mature lyrics.
The most striking thing about Promises, though, is the confidence that permeates the album. It’s difficult to think of a rock group that’s as assured and relaxed as these guys are on this album. Yet Promises never slouches. Petty’s rock is just right.
“The Waiting” is the kind of sterling AM single that pop listeners have come to expect from the band. There is no distance at all between Petty and his audience when he sings, “You take it on faith, you take it to the heart.” Like the best pop writers, Petty — here singing about the hard promises that fill our lives — ignores the chaff and gets down to universals.
“A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me)” is a classic rock song, an anguished first-person tale of broken love that alternates between a stark, haunting loneliness and an explosive refrain. A simple but imaginative instrumental break takes the song over the top.
Some Petty is a required taste, and songs like “Night Watchman” and “Something Big” amply fill that role. But other songs on Hard Promises seemed marked for AM success, especially “Letting You Go.” Then there are tunes like “Kings Road” and “A Thing About You,” cuts that explode right off the vinyl.
Petty’s new maturity is aptly demonstrated on “You Can Still Change Your Mind” and “The Insider,” the latter a lovely duet with Stevie Nicks. T.P.s leaving behind all the cliches for straightforward, unpretentious soul. When he and Nicks sing, “I’m the broken-hearted fool who’s never quite enough,” you know he shares your bad times as well as your good ones.
Bruce Springsteen, for all his considerable virtues and talents, often seems weighted down with his legend. With no assigned duty to carry the rock torch, Petty and the Heartbreakers seem on Hard Promises seem freer and fresher than anyone else in America, including, at times, the Boss.
If there is such a thing as American rock and roll, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are its current quintessence. Hard Promises is a triumph from the cream of American bands.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Hard Promises. Backstreet Records BSR 5160
This record was provided by Record Town in the Pyramid Mall.