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Tom Petty’s Back
by Tom Stock
Beat Instrumental — August 1978
Tom Stock did the interview, went to Knebworth, did another interview, went to the Marquee, and did another interview.
In the middle of last summer (or should that read ‘the last summer?’) Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, cresting a rising wave of euphoria in the music press, thundered around the country on a tour supporting Nils Lofgren. A couple of weeks later the band returned to headline the Rainbow in their own right, confirming, as many had intimated, the suspicion that the tour promoters had gotten their sums all wrong. The first album had been universally acclaimed by critics and poseurs alike, while Petty adamantly denied spurious accusations of punkdom. Beat wondered whether this phenomenon could be the elusive future of rock ‘n’ roll comprising as it did the right brand of hard, lyrical, uncompromising music with that physically acceptable face of rock. And then, nothing.
It seemed for a time that Petty had managed to upstage that master of non-follow up, Bruce Springsteen.
Via several devious methods I managed to meet Tom several times during his week-long stay in London, the first and only formal time being on the Wednesday morning following the OGWT appearance. He was knackered, and so was I, still recovering from Dylan’s blistering Earl Court performance the night before. He was not a particularly happy man. It could be argued that the two schedules performances on this short stop-over had been stage-managed to present maximum exposure combined with (relatively) minimum work. A 40 minute TV appearance offers a potential audience of several million, and Knebworth two is the equivalent of 8 sell outs at Earls Court. Thus the fact that the sound for the BBC show had been bloody awful had not pleased him.
“I enjoyed doing it, but when I saw it back I thought the mix was really bad — they took my guitar out, which is probably why I didn’t like the mix. It was disappointing, and anyway rock bands on TV bug me. But they took all the peaks down on the limiters — it looked OK, but it sounded so flat.”
The legal hassle seems still to be a disease which afflicts all levels of rock music — from the problems involved in signing that first, precious contract, through to the very top. How much did it effect Tom? “It was a real downer — I think it was England that brought all that about really. Before we came here last year we were real naive, but when we arrived we found that we could sell records; we saw that people would actually buy the records; but when we got back ABC records had changed their personnel, they’d got a new president, and a whole new bunch of people, and a whole bunch of labels came in and it became like a real tug-of-war. All we wanted was to make sure the records were promoted — which had never been done, there had never been an ad at all. It did work out good, but it was a real drag for a while. We would have had another record soon after our return to the States but as a result of the legal stuff we couldn’t record so we just stayed on the road. It’s all pretty rosy now, but hell, you can imagine us trying to talk to a lawyer?!!!”
The band’s first album, you may recall, was written and recorded in just fifteen days — probably one of the reasons it sounds so fresh and almost live. This time things were a little different, although seven of the ten songs on ‘You’re Gonna Get It’ were also actually written in the studio. “I had a few songs which I had to give a hard listen to — like Magnolia which I had written for McGuinn back when I did American Girl, but he and Thunderbyrd never got the song to where they liked it — and I’d completely forgotten about it until Mike Campbell played me the demo we’d made for Roger.”
In all Tom recorded some twenty or so songs, but found great difficulty in piecing them together to make a cohesive musical entity. This time the Heartbreakers were in the studio for a total of four months (“after that length of time on the road we just got fascinated by making noises in the studio!”). ‘You’re Gonna Get It’ as going to be a double album for a while but Tom couldn’t negotiate a way of producing a double album, as he wanted, for nearly the price of a single, so the idea was shelved. The album, not surprisingly, sounds like a Tom Petty record — but then artists very rarely get the opportunity of journalists to give their own opinion of their work. Is the Tom Petty sound tag justifiable?
“Yes, I think it is our sound now,” he went on, “but I don’t think this album is so accessible: I think the first album was a little more immediate. We called this one ‘You’re Gonna Get It’ ‘cos you’ve got to listen before you can actually get it; you won’t hear it all on the first time through; but I think it’s a better album, it’s more cohesive record, but you have to start at the beginning and play it right through to the end of side two.” The album finishes up with a pretty naive ‘Baby is a Rock’n Roller’ song which says just that several times over — was that wise?
“Probably wasn’t wise if you’re worried about the press,” Tom explained dryly, “but it was a very conscious thing. It’s a real bubblegum song and it was intentionally done, because I get very bothered when records start to sound artistic. I just don’t want to make records that you have to go to college to listen to — I can’t stand that. You know, we spent all this time trying to figure out how to end the album, and we had all these tracks, and then me and Michael wrote that song sort of as a giggle: we deliberately wrote it as one of those Mid-West Kiss-type song. I don’t know, it probably made a lot of people mad — but it’s one of my favourite songs. The production’s real crazy — we spent about a week trying to make that sound like a four track…”
Why not use a four track, I interjected? The smile became dryer still. “We tried to — we actually brought a TEAC in but we found we couldn’t transfer the tape properly. I wanted it to sound very live. — “She’s a rock ‘n’ roller and that’s all she ever wants to be” — I figure that’s just so dumb, it’s such a dumb thing to say and it’s so true! I mean, if I wrote ten ‘American Girls’ I really wouldn’t like the album that much: that’s all fun, but I just want this band to be very much a kids’ band. I don’t want the kids to think we’re going over their heads, so we put that song at the end of the album.”
Tom’s conscious that this new album shows off the band as a much stronger corproate unit, a point which the debut record missed. That was most certainly more of a solo-sounding effort, a front man with his backing band. “You’re Gonna Get It” sounds like it’s been put together by a far more cohesive unit, even though there are a couple of tracks which are exclusively Pettyesque as opposed to TP and the HB’s.
“I think it’s a much more American album than the first one — like doing the acoustic song, I could already read the English press giving me shit about that. Mind you, it’s always been one of my ambitions to make one of those Melody Maker writers really mad. I love them see ’em when they’re just irate — that’s almost as good as a really good review.”
This brought up an interesting point — over recent months the music press in general, including this magazine, has become more vitriolic than has been apparent in the past, perhaps more conscious then ever of the freedom of the publicist’s type which for a long time demanded almost reverential treatment of its protégés. These are the musicians who take a lot of the attacks to heart. Petty, on the other hand, is far more philosophical about it.
“It’s a waste of time to give a shit about what the press writes. I mean I used to get mad once, and anyway, the press had been really good to us so perhaps I should shut up as they’ve been really fair for the most part — but, man, I can’t make records for the press! Think about it man, if your whole record collection was like just records that had got good reviews you’d have the biggest pile of shit on your wall in the world — I mean, who’d come over and listen to your records? You wouldn’t have any friends, or anything. You’d just have awful shit on your fucking walls.
“No, it’s all just good fun really because it never makes that much difference to the sale — I don’t think it affects kids so much that they won’t buy a record because of a bad review. I mean theatre critics can close down a show, but I hope it never gets like that in the rock business. I mean, the whole premise of trying to write about a record must be pretty difficult — it’s much simpler to listen to it than write about it.”
He’s right, as a matter of fact, I thought as I attempted to move the conversation off a subject rather too close to home for comfort! Rallying the troops in any Beat interview is easy — just throw the one in about guitars and leave the tape recorder running.
“I’ve got a new Flying V — Gibson just gave it to me, and it’s really good; the best one I’ve ever had so I;m playing that. I’m attached to the Vs as I’ve been playing them for so long.” The new one arrived just in time, as he’d recently swung his trusty axe over his head in a triumphant arc only to find it collecting the lighting rig and smashing to bits on the stage! Amongst his guitars, including a Dan Armstrong and Strat, is a more recent and rare acquistion: a Vox Phantom 12 string: “I found it in L.A. brand new — I just went in a shop and there it was. The guy had had it for about five years. I like it better than the Rickenbackers — it gives a real different sound. The Hollies used them as well, and I’ve used it quite a bit on the record. I’ve not brought it on the road because I was afraid something might happen to it — and to think the guy thought I was doing him a favour getting it out of the shop! It had the warranty card and the Vox polishing cloth — just brand new!”
The guitar is probably happy (if guitars have emotions) to have ended up with Petty because he’s also an exclusive Vox amp user — “We have terrible trouble getting our amps fixed. We’ve got ten of them, but I can’t find another amp that I like. I think it’s like the Flying V, in that I’ve played Vox amps all my life, and when I try to play through a Marshall or something, I just can’t get it to do what I want it to do. The Vox has a real presence and everything else sounds a bit mushy to me. I use two Super Beatles.”
Petty’s role as a rock’n’ roll rhythm guitarist is probably made more difficult or at least more demanding in the current state of the art by his adamant refusal to use any effects pedals at all. “I don’t use any effects at all” is all he says on the subject, although pointing out that Mike Campbell, the extraordinarily gifted lead guitarist, uses just a compressor and that little E-Bow.
“He was one of the first people ever to use one — he actually endorses it. We (the band) got them in prototype form and were fascinated that they work on acoustic guitars as well. I remember showing one to McGuinn and he just jumped back; he didn’t know what it was. Mike uses it so subtley that I don’t think you’d ever notice that he’s using it. He uses it like an organ, or to just add sustain — he doesn’t play solos with it very much. I hear they’ve developed one which you can use on all six strings.”
We talked then about the Gizmo, before Tom went on: “Yeah, gadgets are cool, but you’ve got to be so tasty, you’ve got to use it so carefully. They send me every gadget in the world and the roadies hook ’em up and I start steppin’ on buttons and everything explodes and goes crazy and they take everything away from me again! — hell, I’ve got enough trouble just keeping in tune!”
“I was so mad, I played good last night.” His anger, which I had thought spent, bubbled back to the surface again. “I was playing really good guitar but they’ll never know my virtuosity on the instrument — it was just mixed right out. They’ll never know — for once, just for once, I was in tune and everything, playing really good and I’m just not there, you know?”
But the main purpose of Tom’s visit to England was really the Knebworth Festival, not the OGWT. Knebworth, as has been recorded elsewhere, was a weird one this year: violence reared its head, as it had done at Reading last year when the unfortunate victim was Wayne County. This year Devo took the stick from the crowd of heavily denimed punters. However, the facts have not been accurately reported. Some papers had the sheer affrontery to suggest that the majority of back-stagers were there only for Devo, that Devo were, despite the crowds admittedly lamentable treatment of them, a success, and accused the punters of ignorance, prejudice, and you name it. If only the punters had been aware that they should have liked the insect dance, should have wanted to listen to a pile of drivel before the boring arrival of Petty, Starship, and Genesis, then they might have been better behaved. Perhaps violence is something they read about in the music press and thought it a reasonable and expected way of showing their disgust.
Anyway, I asked Tom, three days before the event, how he anticipated it. “I’m looking forward to it only out of sheer curiousity,” came the considered reply. “I was a little hesitant to accept the offer — we refused outdoor gigs all summer in the States; we won’t play 20,000 seaters because I don’t think it goes along with our ideals.
“I’m not really impressed by huge numbers — we don’t know much about English festivals — but I’ve seen them in the States and in Holland and it’s all sort of hippies camping; if there’s a hundred thousand there, you’re playing to maybe 40,000 there, cos 60 are walking around looking for their lost girl friends, or dope, or something, or they’ve lost their backpack somewhere. We rely so heavily on lighting and stuff — I think it might be good to shove us out there in the middle of the day and say ‘play.’
“I think more and more we get locked in a sense of security in the States in the sense that every city becomes the same, 3 and 6 thousand seater halls where everybody can see us, and have paid specifically to see us. I think now that I’ve talked myself into it, I’m going to kind of dig it…”
Why is it that festivals are such ramshackle affairs? How is it possible to arrange in advance for 100,000 people to enter a given field in Hertfordshire, get the bands there, construct the biggest stage in the world, cadge generators, have British Rail lay on special trains and buses, provide refreshments, security, and all that, and still treat the punter so abysmally? Like the easy things in life — telephones? Yeah, probably in a ratio of 1 per 8,000 people. Lavatories? No, but latrines are ok, and we’ll all piss on the corrugated fence anyway.
Communication. Yeah, leave your name on a notice board and hope someone’ll see it. Food? Not really. It’s incredible that 100,000 people can fork out half a million pounds, and get a deal roughly equivalent to signing on for a day at a cotton picking farm in Alabama. Like dirt.
Back stage passes, press passes, guess passes, nothing. How could I get into the hallowed shrine, the ‘Artists Arena’? I had my ticket, a blue Guest Pass, a Green Press Pass, but I was lacking that ticket to the Gods, the all powerful Purple Artists Guest Pass. Will the security staff take a message to Tony Demitriades, Tom’s manager? Will they hell. “We’ve got a job to do mate,” came the menacing reply. Screw you, sunshine, so have I.
I retreated to the press front stage area, didn’t dig the view, and moved into the real place. Devo were so incredibly untalented it wasn’t true … mind you, Knebworth was the wrong place for them, and they didn’t get away with it. By the same token, Knebworth’s the wrong place for The Heartbreakers, and it took Tom some time to get the crowd back on the side of music. Still, he played well, although there seemed to be some hassles with the keyboards. Encore, and back I went.
Recognizing an erstwhile mate and now big time camera man Bob Ellis my message gets through to Tony who somehow manages to slip me past the gorillas on the gate. Tom’s in the caravan, looking pretty depressed. “The fucking Hammond broke down,” he explained, disappearing again. The band seemed OK, but Tom was taking the downer for the rest of them, Surprisingly it had been a success for them, but given the state of the audience who spent half the set wondering if Devo were coming back and preparing new missles if they should, it was a close thing.
“We’re gonna play the Marquee on Tuesday night,” Tom told me a little while later as we passed around. “I gotta get somewhere that’s real.” He disappeared again.
For an unpublicised gig there sure were a few people who’d heard they were playing. In fact it was damn near dangerous in there. Back-stage again, past another gorilla, Tom could be found getting slowly out of it again.
This time the smile was friendly. Why the Marquee, Tom? “Saturday was so weird, you know,” he replied. “We just needed to play somewhere small where we can communicate a bit. We just called up the management and asked if we could play — just like that. And here we are, man…” The gig was stupendous. Sweat poured off all of them and all of us. It was, in a small way, a bit of rock music history. It’s been a long, long time since a major band has stepped down to the punter and played to him where he can see, feel, and touch the atmosphere. It was like a stand up sauna bath party, and every song came over like a furnace blast. The P.A. was bad, the sound just about OK, but the sheer energy and dynamism made up for all of it. I’m too old to rock, so I just rolled.
It was, if you like, a gift to the punters who were lucky, and one hell of a blow out for the corporate Heartbreakers system — bad sound on the TV, the mammoth strain and hassle of Knebworth must have just flowed out of them.
It was certainly a fitting end to a week crammed full of good music and the band must have returned to the States considerably happier than they might have feared on Saturday night. I couldn’t get to a special party thrown by Tom the following night, but I guess I’ll pick up with him if the projected Autumn tour comes into reality. But the reality of the Marquee made me remember something else he’d said in the course of our interview in the hotel a week before while we’d been talking about the problems of stardom.
“I just get concerned that we’ll get cut off — physically. I think it’s very dangerous to build a wall around yourself. We’ve always taken pride in being on the street, trying to keep in touch with the punters, b’cos we’re just a bunch of punters ourselves, really.”
Looking forward to the next one, Tom.