Weekly commentary on rock and pop: Tom Petty is obsessed
By Jim Sullivan
Bangor Daily News – August 14, 1978
Tom Petty has an obsession with rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not just a glamorous occupation; it’s virtually the only life the 26-year-old leader of the heartbreakers has known. He started playing in Florida when he was 15 and moved to California five years ago with the attitude, “If I’m going to starve, there’s no reason to go somewhere cold.”
But Petty didn’t starve. He signed a contract with Shelter Records as a solo artist in 1976. But Petty says, “I didn’t like the sound of the session musicians. Didn’t excite me very much, I just work better in a band. So when I ran into these guys (we were old friends) we played together and made up our minds.” They started recording two days after forming the band; Petty equates it with falling into a pool. That album, underpromoted by ABC (Shelter’s distributor), languished until ABC changed managerial direction.
A triumphant three month British tour, where they headlined over Nils Lofgren, and ABC’s new promotional thrust brought the Heartbreakers to national attention. “Breakdown” became a Top 40 hit, and suddenly a year after the release of the album, people discovered the Heartbreakers.
It was not until a year and a half after the release of the first album that its followup, YOU’RE GONNA GET IT! appeared. The band is now on tour, promoting that record and they did a stint in Bangor July 21, where Petty shared some of his views.
Petty is not an imposing figure. He does not exude “rock star,” but he has an unassumingly charisimatic personality. On stage he is both tender and tough; most of his songs are about the girl entanglements of which life is made of. And though Petty often sings of hurt and rejection, the buoywant, melodic texture and flow leads the listener away from bitterness into a belief that “hey, everything’s gonna be all right.”
Petty guardedly admits to this juxtaposition: “Yeah, that sort of sums it up. I’m not sure it covers it complete, but, yeah, I’ve had those sentiments a lot.” Petty is a dextrous songwriter. He moves effortlessly from three chord pop/rock like the (maybe) hit “I Need To Know” to Byrds-like, mid-tempo cuts such as “Magnolia” and “Listen to Her Heart,” and covers a vast musical ground in between. Petty says, “I think it’s very important that each track stands out on its own, but it is still an album, it has continuity. Usually that happens naturally.”
I accused Petty of almost deviously plotting “I Need to Know” for AM success. It is so catchy that it begs to be spun six times a day at any self-respecting AM rocker. Petty hedges a bit. “I didn’t really think about but when I heard it, I knew it might be a hit single. To tell you the truth, my visions of ‘I Need to Know’ and the AM radio are not very positive. I’d love to hear the radio just rock a little bit. I think that it’s such a blast to come on after John and Olivia, it could really knock Grandpa out of his rocking chair. I think he’d be great if they’d play it… and some of them are, bless their hearts.” The single is charted nationally at 43; the album at 25.
The Heartbreakers tour relentlessly. “Actually walking up there and playing is great,” Petty muses. “The best part of the day. But after the first 30 airplane rides in a row, you start to get a little funny, and then by the time you’re up to Bangor, Maine, in a Holiday Inn you can really be funny by that stage. You have to be careful with a tour to be sure the band is still in shape to play the muisc — that things don’t get so mundane and routine that you become a machine.”
The Heartbreakers are far from that stage. Their lively rock is wholly infectious — rougher than the studio; lead guitarist Mike Campbell and Petty blast away all night, with genuine enthusiasm, not the kind of Framptonian movements that lesser groups fall prey to. The Heartbreakers may seem like a throwback to the rave-up days of the Yardbirds but their interpretation of mid 60s style are assimilated, not stolen. The band returns to the studio in the fall to to work on the third album (this time with no year and a half gap). Are these boys gluttons for self-abuse? “If I get a vacation I go crazy,” says T.P. “I go nuts if I sit around very long.” For Tom Petty anything that’s rock ‘n’ roll’s fine. “But I sure could use a week right now.”