Tom Petty and ‘pop rock’
By Ray Rogers, esq.
The Gateway — September 29, 1978
According to a recent World-Herald story, Billy Graham, the evangelist — not the rock promoter, was conducting a crusade in Norway when he was attacked by “the Norwegian Society of Heathens, anarchists, and other demonstrators…”
This rather unruly bunch threw “rotten fruit and cream cakes” at the renowned Mr. Graham.
One woman complained that Graham’s religious style consisted of “power Christianity.” What, one may be wondering, does this have to do with music? Well, not much, but the phrase “power Christianity” has the same ring to it as a term being bandied about currently in rock ‘n’ roll magazines — “power pop.”
I’ve never really understood what the term means, but it seems to have something to do with the mixing of pop music and hard rock. Or it could mean pop music with weird, usually perverse lyrics.
But “pop” and “rock” are relative terms. One person’s rock is another person’s pop, or something like that. Nevertheless, certain performers have been classified as playing power pop.
Elvis Costello, who defies categorization, can be included in the list (at least marginally). His fellow Englishman Nick Lowe, whose recent album is entitled Pure Pop for Now People, belongs to the perverse lyrics class.
Several American bands could be listed in this genre. Cheap Trick would be eligible both musically and lyrically. The Cars, who on their debut album occasionally wallow in eccentric psychedelia, have recorded some stunning pieces of pop.
The best of the Americans, however, would have to be Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Though Petty is neither pop nor perverse, the spirit of his music is similiar to the bands mentioned above. With his second album, You’re Gonna Get It, Petty, like Bruce Springsteen, has carved out his own turf and plans to hold on to it.
Petty’s music is a dazzling systhesis of various rock styles: Dylan, the Byrds, the Stones, Southern rock. He takes the best of each, strips it down and comes out with a sound that is all his own.
Petty’s first album suffered from a lack of direction. The band sounded unsure of itself. “Breakdown” and “American Girl” hinted at greatness, but the band seemed to struggle on the other numbers. On the new album, with the experience gained from working on the first, the band sounds as it it were recording its 10th album instead of its second.
This is full-bodied, mature rock ‘n’ roll. The guitars ring with a clarity almost unheard of in seventies rock. The lead guitar lines, though occasionally reminiscent of the Beatles, are never intrusive. The drumming is economical, and the bass is lead and taut.
Lyrically, Petty breaks no new ground, bue he is impressive nevertheless. Like many rock lyrics, these deal with love lost and found. Although Petty can be bitter — as in the title song — he more often delivers a charming sincerity that gives the words a refreshing quality.
He’s willing to take a stand (“When the Time Comes”), show he’s vulnerable (“I Need to Know”), and respectful (“Magnolia,” which is one of the prettiest songs I’ve heard in a long time).
In “Restless,” Petty is able to see the futility of relationships from the woman’s point of view as well as from his own. The real classic piece of music here, though, both musically and lyrically, is “Listen to Her Heart.”
It opens with a glorious, Byrds-like guitar riff that leads into a lyric which, in its naive trust and uncompromising belief in love, proves that romanticism is alive and well:
You think you’re gonna take her away
With your money and your cocaine
You keep thinking that her mind is gonna change
But I know everything is okay
Petty was scheduled to play an Omaha concert several weeks ago, but it was cancelled due to poor advance ticket sales. Evidently, most people decided to watch the Ali-Spinks affair which will go down in boxing history as one of the dullest title fights to ever occur. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, to be sure, are far from dull.