AmericanA to Z – Tom Petty

Tom Petty is one of the strongest and most resonant of all the artists connecting the 1970s to current Americana. In a desperately shortened career that still spanned over 41 years he wrote songs that appealed to the plaid wearing beer-drinking hell raisers, the shiny popsters with their beatboxes and hip shoes, the blue-collar workers heading out to their dead-end jobs singing to their dashboards about freedom and every other social grouping besides. 

A consummate artist who always put his music and his principles first he was the bane of record companies that wanted to take the piss always insisting on artists rights and a fair deal for all. His songwriting along with partner and band member Mike Campbell evolved from raw, brash singalongs to deep meditations on social injustice and the power of the simple things. Along the way, his work as Bob Dylan’s backing band led to working with The Travelling Wilburys and being produced by Jeff Lynne and Rick Rubin amongst others.  

His output is spread over 20 albums including 3 solo records, 2 with Mudcrutch and the aforementioned Wilburys and the remainder with his long time band The Heartbreakers. To investigate the canon is to take a long hard look at the way American mainstream AOR music has evolved over the last few decades and picking essential tracks is difficult when faced with such a wealth of material. 

The Canon:
The debut album from ’76 contained ‘American Girl’ which went on to become a staple of live shows and sports documentaries as well as turning up in Silence of the Lambs (!)  ‘Full Moon Fever’ has the enormous hits ‘Freefallin’’ and ‘Won’t Back Down’ (Sam Smith knows this tune). ‘Wildflowers’ – ‘Crawling Back To You’ and ‘It’s Good To Be King’. Even his final album ‘Hypnotic Eye’ contains some exceptional work ‘All You Can Carry’ and ‘Burnt Out Town .

Live, Petty and his band were an exceptional proposition: tighter than a gnat’s, musically gifted and well aware of how to work a crowd often playing in excess of 3 hours a show. There is so much to his career untouched by this article and this writer would highly recommend the Peter Bogdanovich film ‘Runnin Down A Dream’ (2007), a 4-hour epic that flies by quicker than an Irishman!

Key releases:
1970s – ‘Damn the Torpedoes’
1980s – ‘Full Moon Fever’ 
1990s – ‘Wildflowers’ or ‘Echo’ (tough call!) 
2000s – ‘The Last DJ’
2010s – ‘Hypnotic Eye’ 

About Keith Hargreaves 391 Articles
Riding the one eyed horse into dead town the scales fell from his eyes. Music was the only true god at once profane and divine The dust blew through his mind as he considered the offering... And then he scored it out of ten and waited for the world to wake up
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jonathan Aird

Great call on ‘Echo’ and ‘Last DJ’ – two albums that didn’t seem to get the positive appraisal they deserve. I’d chip in ‘She’s the one’, which is chock full of great songs like ‘Asshole’ and what I sometimes think is my favourite Tom Petty song of all ‘Walls (No 3)’. “Some days are diamonds, some days are rocks” –


It’s a great soundtrack not a great film. Too many riches but Echo, wherein Pettys heroin addiction rendered him almost zombie like, is all the more remarkable

Jonathan Aird

And whilst we’re talking addictions – worth recalling King of the Hill from Roger McGuinn’s ‘Back from Rio’, which Petty helped out on quite a bit

Inspired by John Phillips, it’s the kind of song that ought to make a Top 10 LA songs……..

Alan Sargeant

It’s hard to sum up the influence, legacy and class of Tom Petty in 5 or 6 paragraphs. I only got to see him twice and both times I was in awe. Good shout out for the film, I think it’s currently available “free” on Amazon or Netflix. Sorely missed…..