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