Tom Petty presents a solo album
By Bill DeYoung
Gainesville Sun — April 26, 1989
Twelve months and four million Traveling Wilburys after it was first announced, Tom Petty’s solo album has arrived.
Called “Full Moon Fever,” the album is the Petty’s first without the Heartbreakers, the band of buddies he’s been playing with since they left their native Gainesville together in the early ’70s. Its bare-bones acoustic sound is a far cry from the Heartbreakers’ hammering hard rock.
And it comes half a year after “Traveling Wilburys,” Petty’s historic union with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison.
In a telephone interview, Petty explains that Lynne, his songwriting collaborator and producer on “Full Moon Fever,” was the fuel that propelled his solo project. They were just friends, he insists, making music together. It wasn’t work.
“It was just a real pleasure to make this record,” Petty says. “There was never a day that was tense, or pressured, or anything. It was just kinda ‘us out in the garage having fun.'”
Lynne, the pop visionary behind the Electric Light Orchestra’s string of hits in the ’70s, had been introduced to Petty in England in late ’87. The two hit it off, and when Lynne came to Los Angeles over Christmas, he and Petty started spending time together, and writing songs.
“It always seemed like we came from the same background, really,” Petty says of the British-born Lynne. “We always got along. We were friends first and collaborators second. And we’re about the same age and we like all the same music. We got along instantly.”
The first song they worked on was a bouncy, music-hall number called “Yer So Bad.” Petty played Lynne the unfinished a few chord changes, and a new partnership was born. They liked sitting across from each other, strumming acoustic guitars and making up lyrics. Thereafter, they came up with almost a song a day.
“I was under the impression that Jeff was leaving any day, so I said ‘It would be great to get these on tape or something.'”
Petty’s in-house studio had burned to the ground the year before, so the nearest acceptable facility was as Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell’s houss — out in the garage. With the addition of Campbell on guitar and drummer Phil Jones, a real “garage band’ was born. They started recording like mad, with Lynne producing, assisted by the two erstwhile Heartbreakers.
“I didn’t picture it as ‘the Heartbreakers’ because they weren’t around,” Petty recalls, “they were all working on other records. I said Mike, ‘well, it ain’t the band, is it?’ He said no, it’s not.”
But it sounded awfully good. “So rather than call everybody in to re-cut the songs as the Heartbreakers, I just called them up and said ‘I’m making a solo record.’
“It was just taken for granted it wasn’t a Heartbreakers record. I wasn’t really hung up on what kind of record I was making. I was just enjoying what I was doing.”
In the past, Petty had only briefly considered a solo project, without the band he’d made all his records with since debuting in 1976. “I’d never really taken it seriously. I probably won’t do one again. It was more or less just something that was happening before there was time to really think about it.
“And once it had happened, I was having too much fun. I thought well, 13 years, I think I can make a record on my own if I want.”
All in all, they recorded nine songs that spring, all with an incessant acoustic guitar at the core. From the easy, loping “I Won’t Back Down” to the Bo Diddley-esque “A Mind With a Heart of Its Own,” the album only skirts the tough territory long staked out by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.
Nor is it much like Electric Light Orchestra, whos synthesized rhythms and thick, layered vocals have always been closely identified with Jeff Lynne.
“There’s a lot more to Jeff than ELO,” Petty explains. “I feel sorry for Jeff, in some ways, because that’s all anyone seems to associate him with.
“But that’s been 10 years ago. Good artists usually keep growing. ELO was one phase of his work, the Wilburys was another, and this is another. He’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever encountered in the studio.
“Even if I didn’t work with him, he’d still be my good pal.”
Appearances are sometimes deceiving on “Full Moon Fever.” During “Depending On You,” one of three tracks Petty wrote by himself, the vocal work on the chorus seems to bear Lynne’s indelible ELO stamp.
“I’m still laughing at when people talk about the ‘Jeff Lynne background vocals,'” Petty says, “because a lot of times it’s just me. On the harmony part of ‘Depending on You,’ that’s me and me.
“I learned a lot about singing harmony from Jeff. He’s really a brilliant harmony singer. And he has an incredible knack for arrangement.”
There’s an exhilarating car song, “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” and a compelling tale of life and love in L.A., “Free Fallin’.”
And a tender lullaby, “Alright For Now,” which Petty says he wrote and recorded very quickly. “I wrote it very late at night, when I was just about to fall asleep. It’s just one of those where you get lucky, you’re just playing your guitar and a song comes in.”
The album’s biggest surprise is a note-for-note rendition of the Byrds’ “Feel a Whole Lot Better.” With its ringing 12-string guitars, it sounds eerily like the ’60s band that the Heartbreakers have always been (reverently) compared to. Even the lead guitar solo (played by Campbell) is identical to the Byrds’ 1965 version.
“It’s so faithful because I wouldn’t find any other way the song sounded right to me,” Petty explains. “I guess that’s probably from playing it all my life, down in bars in Gainesville. Mike knew that lead line by heart.”
Petty figures his critics will take him to task for covering the Byrds so closely. “There’s no real excuse for behavior like that,” he laughs. “I just said, well, it’s my solo record, I’ll do whatever I want. I never could’ve gotten away with doing it with the Heartbreakers.
“My daughter thought I wrote it. And I played it for (Byrds leader Roger) McGuinn and he said, ‘Is that us?'”
In April ’88, the announcement was made that “Songs From the Garage,” Tom Petty’s first solo outing, would be issued soon. A cover photo was shot, and all that remained was for two or three additional songs to be committed to tape.
But Petty and Lynne were sidetracked — and the album was destined to sit on a shelf for nearly a year.
During the sessions at Campbell’s house, friends began dropping over, including Harrison (Lynne had produced his successful “Cloud Nine” album in ’87) and Orbison, who was planning to record with Lynne once the Petty project was finished.
Harrison, Lynne and Petty were soon dining together, hanging out together … and writing together. The trio turned into a quintet with the addition of Orbison and Bob Dylan, whom they all knew well.
Sitting around one day, Harrison challenged the others to help him complete a new song, “Handle With Care.”
They finished it up, and enjoyed collaborating so much they wrote nine more songs as a group. Calling themselves the Traveling Wilburys, they proceeded to record the songs.