As Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers hit the road for a summer tour, their Indianapolis stop on Saturday night (June 15) is the first after multi-night stands at small theaters in both New York and LA. The band heads to Bonnaroo the day after Indy, so this will be the first outdoor/shed/large venue show of the trek – not that it should matter. Petty always rocks. This time, however, they have decided to scatter a few hits while hitting a lot of great forgotten album tracks. Hell, they are playing “Tweeter and the Monkey Man”, one of the great, largely buried cuts from the first Traveling Willbury’s album.
If there’s one band that best represents American Rock music in the past 30 years, I’d give the title to Petty & the Heartbreakers. Sounding not from one place (belying the band’s strong Florida roots), but from everywhere. It enables them to connect with rednecks and hippies, east coast attitude and west coast shine. They can rock loud. Tom can be acoustic quiet. Lyrics resonate. Petty can sweat and smile at the same time. It is a band that has been making music for almost 40 years, the most recent album, Mojo, released in 2010. That record is both a departure for the band, and a rejuvenating set of music. I’m a big E Street Band and Pearl Jam fan, but still give the nod to the quintessential American rock and roll to Petty and his boys when it comes to the package of accessibility, passion and sweet-ass rock and roll hooks.
Here for you, my friends, is the Rockforward list of Petty’s 7 Essential Albums (and a couple that were too good to leave off).
1. Damn the Torpedoes (1979) – Straddling intersecting lines of power pop, rock and roll and new wave, Petty made the record that, all these years later, defines the artist. Is it his best record? Always debatable, but Damn the Torpedoes is always in the argument. The songs that became classic rock radio staples have stood the test of musical time; they still sound essential. And an album cut like “Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid)” sounds just as good. Producer Jimmy Iovine worked the band tirelessly and seemingly endlessly to get the sound he wanted. It worked. Consider it the album that made superstars of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.
ESSENTIALS: “Refugee”, “Don’t Do Me Like That”, “Even the Losers” and “Here Comes My Girl”
HIDDEN GEMS: Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid), “Louisiana Rain”
2. Hard Promises (1981) – Many critics consider the followup to Damn the Torpodoes even better than it’s predecessor. The songs are more ambitious, deeper lyrically, and a bit more mature. Many have been concert staples since the 1981 release, but simply looking at the titles (“A Woman in Love”) tells you they weren’t radio smashes like the previous record’s songs. And in 1981, it was all about radio airplay. Not that hits = a great record, but it is slightly less powerful than the record that came before it.
ESSENTIALS: “The Waiting, “Insider”, “Something Big”
HIDDEN GEMS: “A Thing About You”, “Letting You Go”
3. Full Moon Fever (1989) – Shine it up, Jeff Lynne, and let’s take it on the road! The ELO mastermind had Tom drop most of the band (except for the liberal use of Campbell) and crafted a smash hit. The hard-edged heartland rock of Petty’s previous few records was augmented by a California shine, created by banks of acoustic guitars, ELO background vocals and drums that sound like they have tambourines attached to the snare. I find nothing wrong with the record; I’ve played it hundreds of times. It is a slice of brilliance. Listen to the album; There’s a musical sweetness that was never again duplicated – though he would try, with mixed results, on his next record, Into the Great Wide Open.
ESSENTIALS: “Running Down a Dream”, “Free Fallin'”, “Long is a Long Road”, “I Won’t Back Down”
HIDDEN GEMS: “The Apartment Song”, “Dependin’ on You” “Face in the Crowd” “Feel A Whole Lot Better”
4. Long After Dark (1982) – This is where I get beat up a bit. An album that essentially completed their first run of big success. it is considered dark, uninspired and lacking spark by many who reviewed it, but I don’t hear it that way. Instead, it feels to me like a band that is rocking hard – which is maybe all they think they know how to do – and trying to come to terms with the question “OK. What now?” Where Hard Promises was edgily introspective, Long After Dark was angry. Throw out “You Got Lucky” – the synthesizer dates it terribly. Listen to tough shit like “Finding Out”, “Change of Heart” and the title cut. It’s all played aggressively and passionately, slathered with enough of the sweet Petty sound to make it engaging. Of all his releases, it is the truly forgotten great Tom Petty album. Only the final song, “A Wasted Life”, gets close to quiet.
ESSENTIALS: “Change of Heart”, “Deliver Me”
HIDDEN GEMS: “The Same Old You”, “We Stand a Chance”
5. You’re Gonna Get it (1978) The best of his early period, and listening back to it as I write this, it is earns a place as one of his great albums. They took the template of The Cars – or The Cars stole it from Petty – and made the first part of the leap from new wave to straight up rock and roll. Even a buried cut like “No Second Thoughts” shows the progression, sounding like a cut from Exile on Main Street. The album was an essential indicator that Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers were as good as anybody else in 1978.
ESSENTIALS: “Listen to Her Heart”, “I Need to Know”. “When the Time Comes”
HIDDEN GEMS: “Hurt”, “Magnolia”
6. The Live Anthology (2010) – With 58 songs, it could be overkill, and it isn’t one you will sit down to listen straight through. But it very much is an album that you can drop into the car CD player, and choose a random track – or hit the shuffle on the iPod – and you will never be disappointed. Never. Hits like “Free Fallin'” and “Breakdown” are included , but so are winners like “Louisiana Rain” from Damn the Torpedoes, “Have Love, Will Travel” (one of the few keepers from The Last DJ ) and “Oh Well”, a song from Fleetwood Mac that later became a hit for the Rockets in the late 70’s. It is a sprawling testament to what American rock and roll should sound like. The album encapsulates everything musically righteous about a band that not only made essential records, but celebrated them while playing live for the past 35 years.
ESSENTIALS: Most of it
HIDDEN GEMS: The rest
7. Echo (1999) – A return to his classic sound, and the final album with bassist Howie Epstein before he died. An equal parts aggressive and intimate record, it showed the band could still fight, even if it was a dark record. Epstein, in the final stages of his long drug battle, struggled to even show up (he’s not in the cover photo) and I’ve heard Petty say he was absent himself for too much of it. Somehow, the raw power of 25-year old band overcame all those problems to create a keeper. A sprawling 15-song album, producer Rick Rubin seemed to help maintain a rock record aggressiveness without it getting messy. A couple really good cuts (“Free Girl Now” is one of his best ever) and a whole lot of guitar, drums and Petty. This inclusion may get the argument started about the validity of the whole list. I don’t care. Echo sounds good loud.
ESSENTIAL: “Free Girl Now”, “Swingin'”
HIDDEN GEMS: “This One’s For Me”, “Room at the Top”, “Accused”
Four more for the road (Honorable Mentions)
Wildflowers (1994) – His second album minus the Heartbreakers, it is an organic and surprisingly lively rock and roll record. “You Don’t Know How it Feels” is a TP classic, and “You Wreck Me” should be. It’s 15 songs of mostly acoustic guitar-driven tunes and Tom’s voice. The title cut is one of his best love songs.
Into the Great Wide Open (1991) – Some great tunes (trademark Petty like “Learning to Fly” and the title cut) with some rockers (“Makin’ Some Noise”, “Kings Highway”) that all kinda pale in comparison to the previous album’s output, the ginormous Full Moon Fever. To me, it’s a record that was lacking some passion. Drop it into another year in his catalog (say 1999), and it might feel different/stronger.
MOJO (2010) Here’s a prediction: The Mojo album will eventually by hailed as one of his brilliant moments; it’s the album where Petty let the band loose to play modern blues – filtered through, and kept familiar, by the Florida nasal twang of the frontman. He loosened the grip on the band, may have smoked a little weed, and then told the boys to play what felt right. We may not recognize it now, but Mojo may prove to be one of his best.
Pack Up the Plantation (Live) (1986) – A bit bloated, I will say that. Not sure TP and the band needed a horn section. But in the mid 80’s, it still sounded good, because it was what we had. We couldn’t hop on the web and find a audience bootleg version of last Thursday’s show. We needed live albums to hear the rough side of a band, and this one was a sloppy, yet endearing memento of the road-weary rockers . Includes “American Girl”, Refugee”, “The Waiting” and Breakdown”, but still can’t call it a a greatest hits record. The single from the album was a loving cover of The Searchers’ “Needles and Pins”, with official Heartbreaker groupie, Stevie Nicks.
BONUS: Here’s a great song from She’s The One, a slightly-dismissed, soundtrack-that-was-really-an-album. And guess what? He’s been playing it on this tour.