Friday, August 7, 2009

Tom Petty 1: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and You’re Gonna Get It!

Few performers have been more successful and consistent with minimal chords as Tom Petty. After spending the first part of the ‘70s trying to get signed out of Florida—up against the typical “Southern rock” fare in the area—he emerged on the national scene with a decidedly anachronistic sound and look for the time. With a band dubbed the Heartbreakers (not to be confused with Johnny Thunders’ group), he blazed a path of simple rock ‘n roll influenced equally by the ‘50s and the ‘60s. Petty’s songwriting made him the face and voice of the group, but without the support of the Heartbreakers it’s doubtful his career would have been so lucrative. Just ask Dwight Twilley, a contemporary of Petty’s just as interested in making a splash with a power pop sound, but without the gang of support Petty had.
Again, the band made the sound—Mike Campbell, one of rock’s best guitarists and Petty’s right-hand man; Benmont Tench, whose keyboards usually consisted solely of piano and organ, and that was all that was needed; Stan Lynch, with the killer touch on the drums and deft harmonies, at odds with his gruff antagonism to get Petty to rock harder; and Ron Blair, who had the unenviable position of playing bass in a band that had three others with experience on the instrument (everybody except Stan). But despite all that charisma, the skinny guy with thinning hair, spindly fingers and a strangulated voice was their frontman.

Their first self-titled album made their mission pretty clear with not one but two songs about “rockin’”. Songs like “Strangered In The Night” and “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It)” add some dynamics, particularly when put up against such slower, soulful tracks as “The Wild One, Forever”, “Mystery Man” and “Luna”. But if the album is remembered for anything, it would be for “Breakdown” and the Bo Diddley-meets-the Byrds pastiche of “American Girl” (which Roger McGuinn said he heard on the radio and wondered when he’d recorded it). Either song will probably be played on an FM station near you sometime in the next hour.

You’re Gonna Get It! followed much of the same mold, with the added menace of the entire band staring down the listener on the front cover. There was only one song about “rockin’” this time, and a little more variety in the styles of the songs, which gives it an edge over the debut. Several songs stand out without inducing a wince: “When The Time Comes” sets a blueprint for success; the title track gives Benmont a chance to add color in between the vocals; “Hurt” suggests a kind of deliverance from whatever misdeeds transpired in the first two songs. Two more radio hits—“I Need To Know” and “Listen To Her Heart” (another Byrds homage)—start off side two, while “No Second Thoughts” takes its influence from Beggars Banquet, of all things.

If he wanted to do us a big favor, Petty would put both albums, as each barely breaks the half-hour mark, on a single CD. To date, he hasn’t, preferring to keep each available separately. Back then, they were off to a good start, building an audience on both sides of the pond. But record company shenanigans made things difficult, and they couldn’t afford a third strike.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (1976)—
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers You’re Gonna Get It! (1978)—

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