New Petty Album Signals Return To Basic Rock
By Jon Pareles
The New York Times — April 20, 1987
It’s back to basics for Tom Petty, the Florida-born, Los Angeles-based rocker who has been making best-selling albums for a decade. The last album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Southern Accents,” took two years to record; “Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough)” (MCA Records), which will be released today, took a month of basic sessions and another of polishing. The result is Mr. Petty’s most casual, rowdy, ornery record so far. It has the professionalism of the Heartbreakers’ other albums without the worked-over sound of most Los Angeles studio products. And its straightforward rock – kin to Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones – is the band’s closest equivalent yet to the down-home pride in Mr. Petty’s lyrics.
Next month, the Heartbreakers begin a tour of arenas that will arrive at Madison Square Garden on July 8; they are headlining a triple bill featuring two more guitar-driven rock bands, the Georgia Satellites and the Del Fuegos. Clearly, the Heartbreakers are reclaiming their bar-band roots.
“The album was the simplest thing I could have done,” Mr. Petty said last week when he was in town editing the video clip for “Jammin’ Me,” a song written by Mr. Petty, the Heartbreakers’ guitarist Mike Campbell and Bob Dylan. The bulk of “Let Me Up” was recorded last spring, when the Heartbreakers were between continents on a tour they shared with Mr. Dylan. During the one-month break, Mr. Dylan had originally planned to make an album of his own. When he decided he wasn’t ready, the Heartbreakers decided to use the scheduled studio time.
‘We Were Having a Ball’
“It was after-hours stuff,” Mr. Petty said. “We were trying to write songs, basically, and we’d arrange them into sets as if we were playing at a bar – five 45-minute sets a night. There was always a feeling of, ‘If this isn’t any good, so what? It’s not as if it was a real record or anything.’ We were having a ball. Eventually, we realized it was getting to be a record, but by then we were already three weeks deep. I didn’t listen to the tape during the rest of the Dylan tour, but when I got back it sounded good.”
“Most of the records I hear now, I know I’m not going to hear a mistake,” Mr. Petty said. “It never seems like it’s riding along and it might go off. The real magic of rock music is that it sounds so free, which is why most good bands sound better when they’re warming up. We almost had to trick ourselves to get that feeling on tape.”
The Heartbreakers have reigned on FM radio, and sold millions of albums, with a conservative, almost reactionary brand of rock. Since the beginning, Heartbreakers songs have consolidated 1960’s styles – from the Stones, Dylan, the Byrds and the Doors – with the Southern rock of the 1970’s, topping them with Mr. Petty’s lyrics about stubborn underdogs who don’t take kindly to snobbery. In “Think About Me,” the narrator complains, “Your boyfriend’s got a big red car/Got a compact disk, got a VCR.”
Songs of Lovable Losers
Some of Mr. Petty’s characters are misunderstood, some mistreated; there’s also a streak of raw vindictiveness, often directed toward unwilling women. Mr. Petty captures his characters’ resentment without necessarily endorsing it; he sings in an assortment of shouts, snarls and moans that aren’t all sympathetic.
The 11 songs on “Let Me Up” are populated with Mr. Petty’s latest wounded but feisty characters -most of them rejected, lower-class, would-be lovers trying to salvage their pride. “I watch that fortune wheel but never get to spin it,” Mr. Petty sings in “My Life/Your World,” “You made me promises, I don’t think you meant it.”
“I still picture myself more in that class than any other,” Mr. Petty said. “It’s too deep in me to change, even though I’m a million miles away from that in the way I live now. I’ll always identify with that, because that’s the way I was raised and I grew up that way – and it’s not just Southern people. There are guys in New Jersey that are just like the guys down south. It’s a sense of the family unity and your loyalty to it.”
Between albums, Mr. Petty has been showing up on the country charts – singing a duet with Hank Williams Jr. and supplying a No. 1 country hit, “Never Be You,” to Rosanne Cash. “I didn’t ‘go country,’ ” Mr. Petty said. “Country music is the first music I ever heard. Southern kids tend to look at it as dad’s and mom’s music, that square stuff. But later on, you realize it’s the same thing. Blues and Southern soul -they’re all kind of the same thing, you just angle the beat a little.”
Although Mr. Petty recently played a bit part in a forthcoming Alan Rudolph film, he doesn’t plan to diversify his career. “I’m not any good at being a personality,” he said. “I just see myself as a musician. A lot of people complain. They say this life is just going into the studio and going on tour. I don’t know, but that sounds pretty good to me.”