Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers


"I'm old enough to have lived in a country where, if you were willing to work hard, you could have a fairly nice life. You could support your family, and even get a shot at owning your own home. But you never thought you'd get a swimming pool. Now culture has hypnotised people into thinking they're really nothing if they're not wealthy and a Kardashian" - Tom Petty

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers (1976)

Rockin' Around With You/Breakdown/Hometown Blues/The Wild One/Forever/Anything That's Rock 'n' Roll/Strangered In The Night/Fooled Again (I Don't Like It)/Mystery Man/Luna/American Girl     

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers came on to the scene in 1976, after a few years gigging as Mudcrutch, and because of the time they emerged, they were considered punk. I guess they had a swagger and wore leather jackets, but they were no Ramones. They were, quite simply, a Southern States US rock band, albeit with a penchant for short, concise, sometimes fast-paced rock songs. Their influences were The Byrds, The Rolling Stones and even 60s pop bands like The Searchers.
Their debut album has a rough-edged rudimentary sound and kicks off with the Beatles-ish Rockin' Around (With You) and then we get the bluesy, organ-led slow rock of Breakdown, which remained a favourite for years. It is the second best track on the album. Hometown Blues was a far too short, sharp piece of Southern rock, where Petty’s strange, at times weak voice was exposed somewhat, as indeed it was on the slightly Springsteenesque The Wild One/Forever. Despite that, though, he clearly had something. These are good, punchy, riffy and catchy rock songs. Quite what the punks saw in these Southern States boys to let them in to their anarchic movement, however, is unclear. This was just US riffy rock. The semi-hit single, Anything That's Rock 'n' Roll was a hit with the punky/new wave crowd. I guess it had that attitude they liked and The Heartbreakers’ image sort of went along with that of The Ramones or The Dead Boys. I remember seeing the band live in 1977 and they played their rocking set to a crowd of pogoing punks.

Strangered In The Night was a slab of Bourbon-soaked rock with a vague bit of punk attitude, sort of Lynyrd Skynyrd meets the Patti Smith Group. The thing about US punk was that bands like these, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Television, Blondie and so on were considered punks. They were quite different from their UK equivalents.

Fooled Again (I Don't Like It) has a Stonesy sneer to its vocal delivery and a rumbling, down n dirty slow-paced rock feel. Mystery Man has an addictive, slightly reggae skank to its guitar parts, backed by some jangly Byrds-style guitar at the same time and a appealingly lazy Petty vocal. This is a favourite from the album. It is pretty hard to categorise however. A problem I do have with all of the album, though, is the sound. It is supposedly remastered but is tinny, lacking in punch or depth of bass. A lot of Tom Petty’s earlier material suffers tis way, and is often better heard on his later live performances. Luna is a mysterious, slow rumbler with some fine organ, keyboard and drum parts but a bit of on odd vocal. I believe Petty’s voice improved considerably over the years.

The album’s jewel in the crown is, of course, the mighty American Girl with its wonderful guitar intro and similarly impressive extended guitar ending. The song was also used to great effect in the film The Silence Of The Lambs. Listening to that intro now, it just makes we think again that this album could really do with a remastering. Tracks from it (American Girl, The Wild OneBreakdown and Hometown Blues) are given a bit of a clean-up on the Anthology compilation, where they are clearer and certainly bassier, which is good to hear. It makes them sound better tracks.

Much as this album is a reasonably pleasant listen an is pretty nostalgic for 1977, I have to say it is nothing special. The band were to produce much better.

You're Gonna Get It! (1978)

When The Time Comes/You're Gonna Get It/Hurt/Magnolia/Too Much Ain't Enough/I Need To Know/Listen To Her Heart/No Second Thoughts/Restless/Baby's A Rock And Roller     

After a quite successful debut album from 1976, with some patchy moments, but two copper-bottomed Petty classics in Breakout and American Girl, the Florida band were back with more of the same Southern, vaguely punk-associated bluesy rock.
The first thing that hits me, though, is that eighteen months between the albums, the sound quality has improved immeasurably (or is it just the remastering?). The first track, When The Time Comes sets the the tone. It is a vibrant piece of mid-pace soulful rock with a far richer, warmer, bassier sound than on the previous album’s material. The comfortable medium groove, slightly bluesy rock continues with You're Gonna Get It, which has an impressive drum sound. That strong backing - drums, bass and Byrds-style guitar licks is carried on into the upbeat, vibrant Hurt. All these years later, though, I still find myself having trouble accepting Tom Petty’s voice, but, as I said in the review of the first album, it has a certain something that just suits the recordings. It wouldn’t be the same without him. However, with all Tom Petty albums, I enjoy listening to them, but there is often a lack of truly standout material. By that, I mean songs that really stick in your mind as they do with, for example, Bruce Springsteen. The songs are all good, the general atmosphere is a rocking one. All ok. But often there is just nothing that really gets you by the whatever.

On to this album, though, Magnolia is a laid-back piece of country-ish rock with a nice hook and Too Much Ain't Enough is a fast-paced number that would have kept the punks happy - who inexplicably claimed Petty as one of their own in 1977-78. This Southern States rock was always slightly incongruous among gig listings for The Ramones, The Stranglers, Talking Heads, The Clash, Stiff Little Fingers and The Jam but it was accepted as part of the “new wave”. It was the attitude, I guess. It just seemed to fit the times. The Heartbreakers were an honest, hard-working band with no pretensions or “rock star” mannerisms, so that would appeal to the “sweep the decks clean/back to basics” punk ethics.

I Need To Know is a piano-driven rocker that is so reminiscent of a lot of the Bruce Springsteen session tracks from 1977-78 that appeared on Tracks and The Promise, while my favourite from the album, Listen To Her Heart has such as Searchers/Needles And Pins intro it’s untrue. Great song, however. There is something about the bass line on No Second Thoughts that reminds me of American Girl and, for me, there are strong hints of The Rolling Stones’ Factory Girl. Some interesting instrumentation used on it too. Restless is big, strong, powerful and has a killer chugging guitar riff and a suitably strong vocal. Make no mistake, this is a blues ROCK song. Not a punk song. Not a new wave song. Not white reggae. Not post punk. It is rock. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers were a rock band. The final track, Baby's A Rock 'n' Roller is an almost glam rock-styled track that proves it.

These early albums were all somewhat short, all over in about half an hour. All enjoyable though, but no works of genius. I prefer this to the debut album, however, it has a fuller sound and is generally more polished.

Damn The Torpedoes (1979)

Refugee/Here Comes My Girl/Even The Losers/Shadow Of A Doubt (A Complex Kid)/Century City/Don't Do Me Like That/You Tell Me/What Are You Doin' In My Life?/Louisiana Rain     

This was the album that “broke through” (to paraphrase Petty) for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. After two short but occasionally impressive albums, they really got their whatever together for this one. The first thing that hits you is how much better the sound is. It is now full, defined, powerful and with the bass given the oomph it needed. If only the debut album had been recorded like this, I am sure I would view it differently.
The quality is there right from the off with the rousing, fist-pumper, Refugee with Petty on fine vocal form, far stronger than previously, and a killer hook. When you think it couldn’t get any better, it does, with the anthemic rocker, Here Comes My Girl. It was 1979 by now and punk sensibilities didn’t matter so much (not that they ever did to Petty, he just got lumped in with it all, by default). It was ok to produce solid Southern States rock and the public wanted it. The powerful Even The Losers is even more Bruce Springsteen circa the Tracks sessions era than I Need To Know from the previous album. Shadow Of A Doubt (Complex Kid) is incredibly like Graham Parker in its sneering vocal delivery. Petty’s voice is so much better now than the often bleating sound he gave us on the debut album. Even some bongos on the backing on this one and some searing lead guitar. Great stuff.

Century City sounds a lot like Springsteen’s Pink Cadillac, speeded up, in places. It is another great rocker, though. You get the impression this is a band who have got it exactly as they want it now. This is as perfect as the debut album was frustrating. Next up is the wonderful piano intro to Don't Do Me Like That, one of Petty’s best ever songs, for me. It rocks, majestically, from beginning to end. Petty’s voice has never sounded as good either. No bleating now, that’s for sure. This song never fails to impress me.

The mysterious You Tell Me is slow-paced, slow-burning slice of Southern bluesy rock. Some great guitar and swirling organ backing. The subtle, melodic bass is finally given the mastering it deserves on this album, too. Most noticeable on this track. Love this one. What Are You Doin' In My Life? is a rocking tale of a girl stalking Petty around on tour, it seems. Again, it has serious Springsteen rocking intonations all through it and Graham Parker again, as well. Petty’s voice and the superb playing of The Heartbreakers always makes the tracks his own, however. The funny noises at the start of Louisiana Rain will have to startled for a split second before the track eventually, after a minute, launches into some majestic, marvellous bluesy rock. Big full sound and the track is quite lengthy, a nice change for Petty, as many of his earlier tacks ended too early. This is a great one, some mournful vocals in the verses and a kick ass chorus part.  A wonderful guitar/harmonica part half way through. Petty never sounded better.

Hard Promises (1981)

The Waiting/A Woman In Love (It's Not Me)/Nightwatchman/Something Big/Kings Road/Letting You Go/A Thing About You/Insider/The Criminal Kind/You Can Still Change Your Mind  
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers albums, by now, 1981, were becoming trustworthy, more of the same impressive fare offerings. 1979's Damn The Torpedoes had established Petty and his band as a solid outfit worthy of respect from both the rock and the new wave fraternities. After the slightly dodgy sound of the band's first two albums, this, their fourth outing, finds a better quality of sonic delivery.

There is not too much analysis that can be given to these Petty albums - he was a deceptively good rock songwriter and his band could play. The first two tracks are the ones that instantly stand out - The Waiting, which became the album's fan favourite, and the anthemic rock of A Woman In Love (It's Not Me). The former is one of those archetypal Petty upbeat rock songs, full of anthemic hooks and killer guitar riffs and the later is a fine example of his slower, but equally punchy numbers.

Nightwatchman has a sort of funky rock vibe about it. Something Big is a brooding, Stonesy slow burner and Kings Road sees the riffiness return on a typical Petty rocker. Presumably, judging by the lyrics, it is about a visit to the legendary London street. Letting You Go also ticks all the boxes of requisites for a slow but catchy Petty number.


A Thing About You rocks as hard as anything on the album, with hints of Bruce Springsteen and Graham Parker in the song. Insider is a walking pace, organ-powered maudlin-ish number, with Petty's voice delivering in that strange, slurry tone of his to great effect. In many ways, his voice is awful, but in other respects, his songs wouldn't sound the same without it. The chunky rock of The Criminal Kind sounds very much like Bob Dylan did around the same period, both vocally and musically. You Can Still Change Your Mind ends the album on a low-key, but dignified note.

The thing I find with these albums is that none of the songs, or indeed the album as a whole particularly sticks in your mind, yet at the same time it is still a quality offering. You can't argue with it, not in any way, but neither can you make a case for it being extra special.

Live Anthology

Thanks to the release, in recent years, of many radio broadcasts, from the seventies and eighties, the market is now awash with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers live material, with varying quality. Some are excellent, some are understandably a bit hissy. This is an "official" live compilation - a 48 track 4CD monster - and its is by far the best in terms of sound quality. It is a sprawling compilation, however, that does not have any continuity i.e. it doesn't come across like one live gig. Tracks are scattered across the compilation, willy-nilly, with no real connection to each other, as they are derived from many different gigs. Bruce Springsteen's Live 1975-1985 is similar and suffers from a similar lack of continuity. Because of that, it is an album I dip into for short periods. You can't really listen to it in one sitting. Playing it on "random" is a good idea, otherwise you find yourself listening to the same few tracks at the beginning each time you re-visit it.

As I said, there is no chronological nature to the album and there are all sorts of rarities thrown in - covers of Booker T & The MGs' Green Onions, Willie Dixon's I Just Want To Make Love To You, Bobby Womack's I'm In Love, Van Morrison's Mystic Eyes, Thunderclap Newman's Something In The Air and, interestingly, the theme from Goldfinger. Most of the Petty favourites are here - Free Fallin', American Girl, Refugee, I Won't Back Down and Breakdown. A personal favourite is the riffy, rocking Jammin' Me. Good, Good Lovin' is a corker too. Checkout out the beautiful, sad tones of Louisiana Rain as well.

Petty always liked a bit of a jam, and there are some extended versions in places, but that is live albums for you, it adds to the live feeling of the recordings, in my opinion, as opposed to functional note-perfect replicas of the songs' studio versions. It also highlights just how good The Heartbreakers were, musically. Whether you dip into this for a rocking half hour, or you play it for longer, this is a highly invigorating, quality live compilation.

Anthology: Through The Years

This is an excellent anthology - taking between two and four tracks from each of the albums produced by Florida’s Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. They were a classic Southern States, soaked in Bourbon guitar-driven bluesy rock band, with clear influences from The Byrds, The Searchers, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Graham Parker and Bruce Springsteen. The late Tom Petty (I still can’t really believe I’m writing that) had a unique voice that, at times, was something of a whiny bleat but it did improve and get stronger over time and he was an excellent guitarist. The voice, rather like with Bob Dylan, never really detracted from the appeal of the material. The band, The Heartbreakers, were somewhat faceless, no rock star pretensions, just honest guys would could certainly play. The backing on the songs is always excellent.

This is an attractive album for me because it appears to have been remastered, and has a full, punchy sound that makes room for the often melodious bass lines to be heard. The remastering is particularly relevant on the four tracks taken from 1976’s debut album, which was recorded notoriously badly - tinny and weak. Here, at least there is a bit more “oomph”, which is pleasing, considering that two of the tracks are the iconic pair of Breakdown and American Girl.

The other highlights are the wonderful Don’t Do Me Like ThatRefugee, I Won’t Back Down, Here Comes My GirlListen To Her Heart, Free Fallin’ and Don’t Come Around Here No More. No place for the rocking Anything That’s Rock n Roll’s Right, which is a shame, however.

An American Treasure

This is an excellent compilation box set, largely made up of alternative and "outtake" versions, and live versions, spanning Petty's career with The Heartbreakers, on his own and also some tracks from Mudcrutch (his pre-Heartbreakers band, who re-recorded some of their early material relatively recently). It is not an "anthology" or a "greatest hits" so it is of more interest to hard-core fans as opposed to casual ones, however, listening to it, it is so good that it can be appreciated by anyone, really.

Most followers of Petty's career will be familiar with the material so the point I want to make here, as opposed to analysing each track individually, is just how damn good the sound is. It is the best I have ever heard Petty - big, thumping, bassy and loud, as his music should be, for my taste anyway. Just check out When The Time Comes or the marvellous Surrender (inexplicably left off their debut album). The latter is listed as an "outtake". It is one of the finest quality outtakes I have heard. That is the great thing about this album, the outtakes are excellent in quality, putting it ahead of many such complications, where the outtakes and demos are inferior in sound quality. What is still frustrating for me is that the first two Heartbreakers albums are in need of further remastering, yet tracks like The Wild One/Forever, No Second Thoughts and When The Time Comes are given an excellent makeover here. Why not re-do the whole albums they came from? Even Wild One sounds better here, and the material from the first album is notoriously poor.

Incidentally, just as an aside, I am sure No Second Thoughts has hints of The Rolling StonesFactory Girl in it. What Are You Doin' In My Life? is very Springsteen-esque too. Another aside - good old Tom looks far more handsome on the cover drawing than he actually was, bless him.

Overall, this is an invigorating, sonically pleasing, spirit-raising compilation from a much-missed, honest and highly respected artist. Just listening to the "alternate version" of Here Comes My Girl Great stuff. The bass is just beautiful. Regarding the two editions, the full 63-track "deluxe edition" is the one to go for.

The Best Of Everything (1976-2016)

Yes, this is another Tom Petty compilation. As others have pertinently said - "do we need one?". Possibly not. Possibly yes. The previous one, American Treasure was an excellent collection of outtakes, alternative versions and live cuts interspersed with some superb remasters of early tracks. This set is more of the "well known" tracks type of release, but it still has a few rarities, a really good Stevie Nicks collaboration track and some impressive tracks from Mudcrutch (the name The Heartbreakers first called themselves from 1970-1975). The important thing, for me, is the outstanding remastered sound, which has still, incredibly frustratingly, not been applied to the first two Heartbreakers albums and Southern Accents and Tom Petty solo albums like Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers. Although you don't get more than one or two tracks from each album, it is great to hear those that are included in superb big, full, bassy sound - at last.

The Anthology set also has a good sound quality too, as does American Treasure. So, do we need another collection? For me, yes - to add to those two and get as much Petty remastered material as possible. It really gives a new life to the songs.

Personal highlights are - You Wreck MeMudcrutch's Scare Easy, the previously unreleased For Real, the Springsteen-esque I Need To Know, the pounding rock of Runnin' Down A DreamEven The Losers, You Got Lucky, Learning To Fly, the riffy, Stonesy Jammin' Me and the Stevie Nicks song Stop Draggin' My Heart Around. Of course, there are many more, including the more famous ones. There is not really a duff track on here, let's be honest.


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