A New Album by Petty and the Heartbreakers
By Robert Palmer
The New York Times — March 25, 1985
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have been keeping a low profile for a band whose two most recent albums sold several million copies each. Mr. Petty, thin as a rail, with a haystack of blond hair and a slurred Southern drawl, hasn’t been heard from since the end of the Heartbreakers’ last tour, two and a half years ago. Reports that the group is on the verge of breaking up have been widely circulated.
According to Mr. Petty, the reports were unfounded. In a recent interview, he said he is rehearsing with the Heartbreakers for a national tour that is scheduled to begin in June. And later this week, MCA is releasing “Southern Accents,” the first new album by Mr. Petty and the Heartbreakers since 1981. It is the most adventurous and musically accomplished album of the band’s career – and potentially just as commercial as its predecessors.
“After that last tour, I just wanted to push the chair away from the table for a while,” Mr. Petty said. “It had been recording, then touring, more recording, more touring, for something like seven years, and I just felt burnt . So there was a year when I wrote some songs but mostly just hung around, while the guys in the band were busy doing other things. Then I took another four months or so to build a studio in my house. It’s always taken us a long time to make records, and sometimes it’s hard to let your mind flow freely when you know it’s costing $200 an hour, and you have to leave at midnight because somebody else has the studio booked.”
Started Playing in Florida
Mr. Petty and the members of the Heartbreakers began playing together in the early 1970’s in northern Florida, where they all grew up. Mudcrutch, their original group, disbanded after they had relocated to Los Angeles, but in 1975 they reassembled, as Tom Petty (who had signed a recording contract with the Shelter label) and the Heartbreakers.
Between 1976 and 1979, they made three increasingly confident albums, the last of which, “Damn the Torpedoes,” hit No. 2 on the Billboard charts and sold more than 2 1/2 million copies. That album captured the Heartbreakers sound in full flowering: chiming guitar harmonics from Mr. Petty and the lead guitarist Mike Campbell, subtly undulating piano and organ by Benmont Tench, and the precise, driving rhythms of Ron Blair, bass, and Stan Lynch, drums. With the exception of Howie Epstein, who replaced Mr. Blair in 1981, the lineup, and the band’s ringing, richly layered sound, remained unchanged. It was polished to a glossy sheen on the 1981 album “Hard Promises.”
The Heartbreakers had created one of the most distinctive sounds in rock, but Mr. Petty was afraid they were painting themselves into a corner. “I came back from that last tour feeling that we needed to push the music on into some new areas,” he said. “I didn’t want to just sit down, write 10 more love songs, and say, ‘O.K., here’s the next album.’ That seems to be how most albums get made these days. There just aren’t enough people, especially in what they call the ‘mainstream’ of rock, who’ll take the chance of changing, even in the vaguest sort of way.
“You keep hearing the same drum sound, the same guitar sound, the same high-voiced singing on so many bands’ albums. I was beginning to feel that people were expecting more of our sound from us, and I didn’t want people to like us just for one particular sound, I wanted them to like us for being us . So I figured it was time to move on, to take some risks and come up with something new.”
Some Surprising Twists
The new album begins with “Rebels,” a stirring song that doesn’t stray far from the sound of “Damn the Torpedoes” and “Hard Promises.” But from there, the disk takes some surprising twists and turns. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” is pure psychedelia, raga-rock with a dark, droning sound and the tinkling of an electric sitar. “Make It Better” is strutting soul music, with Memphis-style horns and gospelish vocal harmonies. “Southern Accents,” the album’s title tune, is mostly acoustic, with a rural flavor, until the majesty of a string arrangement by Jack Nitzche swells up under the piano and dobro.
“We spent a lot of time in the South on our last tour, and I started feeling real Southern again,” Mr. Petty noted. “So I started thinking about using various Southern musics and building the album around a Southern theme. We were raised among ’em; I guess we owed ’em one album at least.”
Mr. Petty wrote three of the album’s songs with David A. Stewart, the multi-instrumentalist who creates the music for the popular British band Eurythmics. “I met him when they were playing in L.A., and we really hit it off,” Mr. Petty said. “By the end of that first day we’d written a couple of songs together. I was recording at home, so he just moved in, stayed a couple of weeks, and really helped open us up in a lot of ways. He has this ‘let’s try anything’ air about him; once I was satisfied that the songs were good, we tried doing ’em all kinds of different ways. We’d spend seven or eight days just mixing one song, or trying different instrumentations. And it worked.”
Albums that have been as long- awaited and eagerly anticipated as “Southern Accents” don’t always live up to expectations. Sometimes they have been polished and tinkered with for so long they lose the sense of spontaneity that is such an important part of rock-and-roll. But “Southern Accents” was worth every minute. “When we were making our other albums, we were kind of a closed shop,” Mr. Petty recalled. “There weren’t many guests or outside influences. But this time, all the guys had been playing with other people and bringing those experiences back to our sessions, other people were around contributing ideas. And it was a real good feeling. I don’t think you’re going to be hearing much more about us being supposed to break up.”