A Heartbreaker From Way Back
By George Smith and Amy Longsdorf
The Morning Call — August 25, 1989
It’s 1976 and an unknown band called The Heartbreakers is touring in support of Canadian metal trio, Rush, at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby. The Canucks are selling out halls all over the United States because of a pompous LP of science fiction piffle known as “2112.”
The Heartbreakers, on the other hand, led by a diminutive singer named Tom Petty, are tossing these audiences 40-minute sets of taut rock ‘n’ roll including nods to The Byrds, The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, and The Everly Brothers. Surprisingly, they survive the tour without being lynched.
Thirteen years have gone by and Rush are now successful purveyors of rock Muzak; the Canadians still sell OK, but no one cares. Not so The Heartbreakers, or more specifically, Petty. His first solo LP on MCA, “Full Moon Fever,” has been lodged in the Billboard Top 10 for most of the summer. Petty and his bandmates pull into the Allentown Fairgrounds on Wednesday night with The Replacements, beginning the Allentown Fair’s slate of big-name acts. Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty follow the next night.
The singles from Petty’s solo album – “Free Fallin’,” “I Won’t Back Down” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” – are all over the radio and audiences along the tour have been almost hysterical. And perhaps, that’s how it should be.
After all, Petty and band have turned out successful album after successful album (only 1978’s spare “You’re Gonna Get It” rated less than four stars from Rolling Stone magazine – it scored a mere three) despite the collapse of their first label (Shelter), subsequent declaration of bankruptcy by Petty, and the singer’s own badly broken hand resulting from a losing bout with a studio wall during the recording of 1985’s “Southern Accents.”
Mike Campbell, the Heartbreakers’ lead guitarist, reflected on those ancient dates with Rush and his career with Petty during a recent telephone interview from New York.
“Yes, I remember that. We had never even heard of Rush and were amazed that they could fill a room and sell that many tickets.
“We’ve had a lot of luck along the way, being able to stay together as a band in the face of everything. That’s rare.”
Indeed it is. The Heartbreakers have consisted of Petty, Campbell, drummer Stan Lynch and keyboardist Benmont Tench since their formative days in Los Angeles. Only bassist Ron Blair became a casualty (to the rigors of touring), being replaced by Howard Epstein in 1985.
Campbell reminisced about his first contact with Petty in the early ’70s when they were living in their native Florida. “Tom was in this country rock band from Gainesville called Mudcrutch. I joined when the band lost their singer, who was also a guitarist. At the time, Tom played bass.
“He had written a couple of songs, so we made him the lead singer. Benmont joined a couple of years later and the band moved to L.A., where it folded.
“We kept working at it, sending tapes to everyone and getting the usual form-letter rejections. Eventually, Denny Cordell of Shelter Records expressed interest. He got us to come to Tulsa for some demo work and that’s how it got started.”
“Full Moon Fever” is something of a departure for those used to past Heartbreaker albums. For one, it sounds raw, with Petty’s vocals sticking way out in the mix. Second, it’s very much a guitarist’s record, with great attention to tone and lines which support the song.
“Yeah, well, it was done in my house,” Campbell states. “When we do a band album it’s a five-way beast; on this album it was different. We kept the drums sounding small . . . sort of a garage trip.
“My studio is just in a back bedroom of my house. It was just like, ‘Let’s go to Mike’s studio and see what happens.’ The loud vocal was Jeff Lynne’s idea. He thought that since Tom sounds like he sings with marbles in his mouth, maybe we should lay off the reverb. It’s been a surprise to those really familiar with our material. For once they can hear all the lyrics.”
Those attending Wednesday night’s show will witness a finely paced set which builds from the ringing Rickenbacker guitars of “American Girl” and “Free Fallin’ ” to the hard-charging rave-up finale of “Runnin’ Down A Dream.” (Don’t forget to check Campbell’s extended wah-wah intro to “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”)
Fans also may notice a stand manned by Greenpeace, the worldwide environmental organization. If they don’t, Petty will draw their attention to it as he did at his Aug. 15 show in Philadelphia. Petty told the crowd that although he didn’t know how to save the planet in the coming decade, everyone should give it a shot and that Greenpeace wouldn’t be a bad place to go for suggestions on the “how to’s.” Petty has a provision in his contract which stipulates that the use of plastic and Styrofoam cups backstage be strictly prohibited.
Petty’s efforts on behalf of Greenpeace were thwarted the night after the Philadelphia show, however. Greenpeace’s stand was prohibited at a venue Petty was playing in Jones Beach, N.Y., ostensibly because the venue was controlled by the state park association, which doesn’t allow special-interest groups on the premises.
Columnist Marilyn Beck reported that subsequently New Jersey’s Garden State Arts Center attempted a similar ban. Not to be taken by surprise twice, Petty went to the wall for his cause and threatened cancellation of the scheduled show. Not unexpectedly, the concert went off without a hitch. And the Greenpeace material stayed.
Initially, Allentown Fair officials were concerned that the Greenpeace booth would generate excessive litter. They also noted that groups who seek to promote causes have to pay for space. However, fair spokeswoman Bonnie Brosious said after a Wednesday afternoon meeting, fair officials agreed to allow the Greenpeace stall as long as pamphlets are not distributed throughout the grandstand.
When asked about the Greenpeace endorsement, Campbell maintained that it’s not just Petty’s personal jihad. “I think that the future of the world isn’t something you can ignore. It (the endorsement) was Tom’s idea, but we all sat down and said, ‘What can we do?’ We have to try to raise an awareness and this seemed like it would be most effective.”