His ‘no frills’ music is a big hit
By Pete Bishop
The Deseret News — April 20, 1983
PITTSBURGH — You might say that “meat and potatoes” is Tom Petty’s bread and butter.
Petty and his band, the Heartbreakers, have built up a following by playing music straight, without the pyrotechnics of so many other groups.
You don’t see costumes, props or fireworks when the Heartbreakers tour concert halls, as they are doing now. You don’t hear 10-minute songs or self-indulgent solos. You don’t hear them on their records, either.
Why the basic approach rather than the “artistic” excesses for which rock performers are notorious?
“Why not?” Petty says. “We never thought about it much, we just do it. We’re sort of a meat-and-potatoes band. If we want a solo, we just play one. That’s just the way we are.”
As for the lack of a stage extravaganza, “I probably spend as much money as anyone else with all the lighting and people we carry (35 people all told — and only six, including guest percussionist Phil Jones, in the band), but it would be far too embarrassing for us. We don’t need that.
“I think we’re good. That’s probably the key to anyone’s success. Without sounding immodest, we work very hard at it. More than anything else, we have a good bunch of fans who’ve supported us all these years.”
At first, that support was almost exclusively due to word of mouth. But late in ’79 came the album “Damn the Torpedoes,” which sneaked past much better-known artists as Kenny Rogers, Michael Jackson and Jefferson Starship to spend 13 weeks in the top five the next year, and was kept from heading the charts only by Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”
That and songs such as “The Waiting,” “Refugee,” “Here Comes My Girl,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” and the current “You Got Lucky” established Petty and the Heartbreakers as album-rock station favorites. And when Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks wanted a man to sing with her on “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” on her solo album, “Bella Donna,” Petty was the gent she chose.
Paradoxically, Petty says he and his band don’t concentrate on singles and that their albums are “complete works.” He claims he’s a songwriter first and a musician second. That, the Florida native says, is how he and the Heartbreakers escaped the “Southern boogie band” rut.
Song ideas are “everywhere, anywhere. I wish there was a formula, but it’s unfortunate there’s not. When I’m asked that question I get a little dumbfounded. I put out the antennae, and it just comes.
“‘Refugee’ came quick; ‘The Waiting’ I labored on for two weeks. It took a long time to get the idea completely there, but if the germ is strong you hang with it.”
Maybe of his songs are unhappy ones. Dead romance and escaping from where it died are familiar themes. Even good romance often is colored with the possibility of failure.
It’s easier, Petty says, to write about problems and conflict, “but that’s not the reason I do it. I try to deal in reality, and reality isn’t always cheerful. I don’t think I’m a morbid person, but I’m not walking on air all the time.
“You can feel happy after you’ve gone through a struggle. I write about things most people have gone through. Those songs are the better ones to be. Those are the songs that tend to last.”
On “The Same Old You,” a number on his current album, “Long After Dark,” he sings to the woman he remembers wearing “David Bowie hair and your platform shoes” back in ’72.