The Packaging Of Petty’s ‘Plantation’
By Jonathan Takiff
The Philadelphia Inquirer — February 8, 1986
Life used to be a lot less complicated for pop music fans and makers, before all these new-fangled recorded music configurations came along.
Now there are almost too many format choices available – cassette tapes, 12-inch dance singles, compact discs, short-form and long-form videotapes, videodiscs, as well as the traditional long-play albums and 45 rpm singles. Each package has its own benefits and restrictions, aesthetically and technically.
Tom Petty knows this as well as anybody, having recently completed a multi- format concert recording project called “Pack Up the Plantation – Live” for MCA Home Video, plus MCA Records, compact discs and cassettes.
“Our original concept was to do just a concert film,” says Petty, ”basically because we’d never done one before, and because the timing seemed right. Then it just grew and grew . . . “
Concert recordings (audio and video) have always intrigued Petty, “for their ability to freshen up material.” By contrast, he’s never been much of a fan of music video mini-dramas, and would never think of packaging his promo clips for sale, “even though I’ve been doing them since 1978, and have won a couple of awards for mine. I don’t like the way music videos fix an idea of a song in concrete. And I find most of them pretty boring.”
The occasion for Petty’s project was the tail end of his summer 1985 tour – a stimulating concert production with its elaborate Southern plantation stage setting, fancy rear projection displays, and expanded Heartbreakers band – enhanced by backup singers and a brass section. Director Jeff Stein (best known for his work with the Who) and Petty opted to shoot the project on 35mm color film stock rather than videotape because Petty feels “film has a much richer look. Video seems too cold.”
Two concerts were photographed and recorded in August at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles. However, all but a couple of the numbers used would be drawn from the second show, “since we were feeling our way along as we went,” claims the performer. Given the crisp cuts, the amusing interplay between musicians, and the multiplicity of camera angles, it all looks very well planned.
During the mixdown process for the movie’s super soundtrack at Petty’s home-based Gone Gator One studio in Encino, California, friends “kept asking if they could get cassette dubs of the music cause it sounded so hot,” Petty recalls. “I started listening to the music the way they were, with my eyes closed, and realized it still seemed pretty good. So we talked our record label into putting out a soundtrack album to the movie.”
As it turned out, the double LP’s contents differ significantly from the movie treatment. “Film is a linear medium,” perceives Petty. “Records are not. It’s rare that a person will sit down and play all four sides of an album in succession. People usually play one side at a time. So you have to package a record in balanced, 20 minute chunks. That’s why we shuffled the order of the songs. The movie, by contrast, is a pretty accurate representation of the real concert show.”
Another concern was that even with four sides of vinyl, there was no way Petty could squeeze the total contents of the 96 minute soundtrack onto the album without lowering the volume levels. Something had to give. Petty decided that it didn’t make much sense to repeat live versions of tracks from his last studio LP “Southern Accents” on the new record album, so scratch them. And to downplay any perceptions of the live album as merely a ”greatest hits-revisited” package, Petty intentionally scotched versions of two very popular songs, “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Don’t Come Around Here Anymore” in the transition from movie to album.
(As it turns out, however, MCA Home Video is sticking the videotape version of “Pack Up the Planatation” as “Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits – Live,” a sore subject with him “since I don’t like people defining my work.”)
To make the record package more of a collectible item for loyal fans, Petty stuck on a sprinkling of special tracks from other live recordings he’d made through the years “but couldn’t figure out how to use before.” Among these treasures are two duets with Stevie Nicks – “Insider” and “Needles and Pins.” The songs don’t appear on the home video version, “since we didn’t have cameras rolling when we recorded them.”
The compact disc version is, as you’ve probably anticipated, different again from the video and the LPs! With its 74-minute maximum playing capacity, and higher unit manufacturing cost, the CD medium offered Petty the choice of putting out “the entire LP on two discs that would cost the customer $30, or cut off a couple of tracks and squeeze the rest onto one CD.” The latter course prevailed.
Each music medium likewise required a customized, two track mixdown from the master tape. The basic difference is in the equalization (“EQ”) processing, by which the sound engineer boosts or de-emphasizes certain frequencies, corresponding to the performance characteristics of the sound carrying medium. The LP version demands more powerful high frequency signals, to offset the tone softening that occurs in record pressing operations.
For the Hi-Fi VHS and Beta videotape mixes, Petty had to back off on the bass, to downplay the exaggerated low frequency response of the Hi-Fi video medium’s noise reduction system. “If you take the extra time, you can get really great sound out of video tapes,” says Petty.”In this instance, it turned out to be my favorite mix.”
Petty is cool on compact discs, even though this digital medium needs the least amount of EQ fine tuning.”The sound of compact discs is almost too clean, verging on sterile,” he says. “I know there are people out there who’ll disagree with me. But my perspective is that rock and roll ought to sound a little dirty. And the medium is never as important as the performance. I’ve never heard a guy who was playing great sound bad.”
Quite telling, Petty confesses that his favorite at-home sound source is a 1952 Seeberg Juke Box. “You just can’t beat that big old monaural tube amplifier and that warm full-range speaker sound,” he allows. Besides its exposure on home video tape (and later, pay TV and MTV) the videotape of “Shoot Out the Plantation – Live” also will be showing up (on projection TV and with a big sound system) at some rock clubs in the near future. “I had an offer to play it in movie theaters, but that struck me as a pompous idea,” says Petty. “Rock music should only be seen where people can dance and drink and have a good time.”
And while the “Shoot Out” movie is touring here, Petty and the Heartbreakers will be playing concerts in New Zealand, Australia, and Japan in an historic pairing with Bob Dylan. Yes, cameramen will be trailing behind, ”but that’s another movie – Bob’s movie,” says Petty with a cheerful sigh of relief.