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Tom Petty was born and raised in northern Florida, where he had some success in
one of his first bands, Mudcrutch, which included two more future Heartbreakers
– guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench. The group moved to
California around 1970 in the hopes of getting a record contract. They were able
to do so, but the group splintered and it wasn’t until 1975 that Petty reunited
with Campbell and Tench, who were playing with bassist Ron Blair and drummer
Stan Lynch in a band called the Heartbreakers. Petty still had his original
record deal, so they recorded an album under the moniker “Tom Petty & the
Heartbreakers” and the legendary rock outfit was born.
It was only after a few successful tours of Europe that their self-titled debut
finally took off in the U.S. behind rock radio staples “Breakdown” and “American
Girl.” The group was initially pigeonholed into the new wave and punk movement,
but the band was more influenced by the Byrds, The Beatles and the Rolling
Stones. They took the best of rock & roll up to that time and combined it with
Petty’s nasal, Dylan-esque vocals to generate their own unique sound. The
Heartbreakers’ second album, You’re Gonna Get It, rode two excellent
singles – “Listen To Her Heart” and “I Need To Know” – to give the group their
first Top 40 album in the U.S., despite the fact that the album has one of the
worst covers of all time.
The band’s third effort, Damn The Torpedoes, was its artistic and
commercial breakthrough, containing four great singles -- “Refugee,” “Here Comes
My Girl,” “Even The Losers” and “Don’t Do Me Like That.” The record made Tom
Petty & the Heartbreakers a household name. The group ran into problems with
their record company over the pricing of their next album, Hard Promises.
Their label, MCA, wanted Hard Promises to be the first album with a price
of $9.98. Petty was adamant that it be priced at $8.98. He eventually won this
standoff and his stubborn stance kept industry-wide prices down for a few more
years. Promises wasn’t the hit that Torpedoes was, but with the single
“The Waiting” along with fan favorites “A Woman In Love” and “Insider,” the
record was still a solid effort.
Over the next five years, the group released three decent studio albums –
Long After Dark, Southern Accents and Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough)
– along with the group’s first and only live album, Pack Up The Plantation.
It was during this period that the group became one of the first rock acts to
truly embrace videos and the potential of MTV, releasing complex, story-driven
videos for “You Got Lucky” and “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” The video for
the latter, which Petty wrote with ex-ELO’er Jeff Lynne, is especially memorable
due to its psychedelic, Alice in Wonderland storyline, where Petty plays the Mad
After Let Me Up, Petty started to spend more time writing with Lynne,
with the goal of creating something different. The result of this collaboration
(along with Mike Campbell, who co-produced the album with Lynne) was Petty’s
solo masterpiece, Full Moon Fever. Fever sounded a lot like a
Heartbreakers’ album, but Lynne’s presence brought along acoustic guitars and
those great ELO harmonies, making the album very radio-friendly. The record had
a number of singles – “I Won’t Back Down,” “Running Down a Dream” and “Love Is a
Long Road” – but it was the monster hit “Free Fallin’” that struck a chord with
young people everywhere, and earned Petty a slew of new fans.
Petty and Lynne took the formula that worked on Fever and used it on the
next Heartbreakers’ album, Into The Great Wide Open, which was released
in 1991. The album wasn’t as big as its predecessor, but it still went
double-platinum behind several great songs - “Learning To Fly,” “Kings Highway”
and the title track.
In 1993, the band released their first greatest hits package. As part of their
agreement with MCA, the band had to include two new songs, which were a cover of
an old Thunderclap Newman song, “Something In The Air,” and “Mary Jane’s Last
Dance.” That begs the question - when was the last time that an artist
released a song of the caliber of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” as a bonus track on a
greatest hits compilation?
Since the last two records were fairly similar, Petty decided to go with a
scaled-back, solo effort for his next effort, Wildflowers. Petty brought
in uber-producer Rick Rubin, who helped to coax out some of the songrwriter’s
very best work. Driven by the hit single, “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” the
album has several other great songs, including the acoustic title track and the
eventual fan-favorite, “Honey Bee.” Like Fever, just about every song on
Wildflowers is strong.
In 1995, the group released Playback, a six-disc box set covering the
bands hits, rarities, live versions and B-sides. The highlight of this set is
the sixth disc, Nobody’s Children, which has several fantastic songs
(including “Waiting For Tonight” and “You Come Through”) that were left off the
group’s last few releases.
Wildflowerswas supposed to be a double album, so Petty had some leftovers
that he used for the soundtrack of the Ed Burns’ movie, She’s The One, in
1996. The soundtrack didn’t receive a lot of attention, but “Walls (Circus)”
received radio airplay. The Wildflowers castoffs – particularly
“California,” “Hope You Never” and “Angel Dream” – make the soundtrack an
important (if uneven) Heartbreakers’ release.
Petty’s output (along with the Heartbreakers’) during the seven-year span from
1989 (Full Moon Fever) to 1996 (She’s The One) was incredible.
According to this writer’s iTunes ratings, Petty released a staggering 42 four-
and five-star songs during that period.
After a three-year hiatus, the group released Echo, which was a hit with
the critics but only a modest commercial success. Though there are several good
songs on the album, the two main singles – “Room At The Top” and “Free Girl Now”
– received most of the radio airplay. In 2002, the group released The Last DJ,
which was critically panned. For a portion of the album, Petty railed against
corporate rock, taking on both the labels and the radio conglomerates. While
there is definitely some good music to be heard on DJ, it was unfortunate
that the focus was more on Petty’s message.
Since 2002, the group has continued to tour and is currently putting together an
album for release sometime in 2006.
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers On The Web
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Tom Petty Videos, Interviews and More on TV Guide's Online Video Guide
The official website of the veteran rocker.
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The ultimate source for entertainment news on Tom and his band.