Editor's Note: Many thanks to Robert Barry Francos for allowing me to post this.
Tom Petty: A Petty Interview
by Robert Barry Francos
FFanzeen -- July 7, 1977
Although Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are considered a West Coast band, they have been fairly well accepted by the rockers on both coasts. They’ve played on the same bill with such groups as Blondie and the Runaways. When I interviewed them last March 8, 1977, they were playing the Bottom Line with Roger McGuinn. They had played at CBGB a few months past. They have a definite rock’n’roll sound that, to some, may take some getting into (remember the first time you heard Television?).
While doing this interview, I kept getting the feeling that, at times, Petty wasn’t listening to what either I, or he himself, was saying. You may catch this on some of the answers. Despite this, I feel that, in most cases, Petty answered to the best of his ability.
FFanzeen: With all the names for the music being played these days, what do you call what you play?
Tom Petty: We just consider ourselves a rock’n’roll band.
FF: Have you seen any other New York bands when you were here?
Petty: Yeah, I’ve seen, well, I just played in L.A. with Blondie for four nights. I saw the Ramones. I haven’t seen a lot of them but I have a friend here [in New York] at Sire Records who sends me a lot of records for me to hear so I’ve heard some of it. I’m not really aware of it. No, we’re not trying to jump in on that one. We’re a young rock’n’roll band and that’s it. Gene Benson was punk as far as – I mean, he was probably more punk than the Ramones are. So was Elvis.
FF: When you played New York, did you find that anyone got confused between Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and [Johnny Thunders and] the Heartbreakers?
Petty: Yeah, the first time we came here we didn’t know about that band for a long time. We heard about it right before we played CBGB’s; that there was another local band called the Heartbreakers. But by that time, I said, I haven’t heard them to this day, and, well, ours is Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and they can’t get too confused, and sorry and all that but we ain’t gonna change our name or nothing. That’s really a New York problem. It doesn’t come up everywhere.
FF: How did you like playing CBGB’s?
Petty: Good gig. When we came that time, we wanted to play the street place, you know. All I said about New York is “Alright, I’ll play there, but I don't want to go to the Bottom Line, come on with a big press party, and I hate that sort of thing. It just ain’t my nature. I’d like to play the street place where the kids go.” Went there and all the press came.
FF: You picked a bad night, a Tuesday night.
Petty: Yeah, it was a lot of fun. I enjoyed it. I met a lot of people here and it was a really good couple of days. I like New York.
FF: Did you like playing the Bottom Line?
Petty: Yeah, I had a great time. I think, you know, that the audience, they weren’t quite ready for what happened on the first show, for either show, but coaxed with it, ya know, they dug it. I could tell they dug it. They were with us.
FF: Are you on tour now?
Petty: I’ve been on tour about at least five weeks and I’m gonna be out for another two months. We were with the Runaways the night before we were with McGuinn. Roger was a strong influence on me when he was with the Byrds. They were some of the first records I ever bought. I met him in L.A. I like him, I really do. He’s a cool cat. No matter what he does, I dig him. He’s a legend, ya know? Roger McGuinn. I’m really going to enjoy this gig. The last night of the tour is in Long Island at some university.
FF: What was it like playing with the Runaways?
Petty: Well, we’ve only played with them once. We have another date in Cleveland. We played with them in Detroit with a band called Cheap Trick. It was just this Detroit rock show, you know, just give me blood, you know. We went down fine. It was really simple for us. I had never seen the Runaways till then. They were what you might call weird. It was kinda like a teen porn show, or something. I didn’t get to know the girls really well. I know them but I don’t know them. They just look like sex teens. They’re just some kids trying to play. They just happen to be girls. It was strange to see the guys go nuts.
FF: You’re from [Jacksonville] Florida.
Petty: That’s where I was born and raised. I haven’t lived there for ... four years. I live in L.A.
FF: How did you meet the Heartbreakers?
Petty: They’re from Florida, too. They were all in different bands. I was in a band there that got pretty popular. We came out to L.A., and got a record deal, and I quit about halfway through the album. The band broke up and the album never came out. Then I signed another record contract, sort of an artist-in-residence thing with Shelter for about three years. I would sit back and play in the studio ... Then the other guys drifted out to L.A., like Michael Campbell, the guitar player, was with me all the time. We’re playing together about five years. The rest of them just drifted out for various reasons. Through a series of chance meetings, we showed up on the same demo session and it was so good ... so we got together and we did a couple of tracks and we said all right. I went to a record company ... with my hat in my hand, “I’m joining a band, the Heartbreakers.” They were real understanding.
FF: What was the group (you came to California with) ...
Petty: The Heartbreakers.
FF: No, what group was it ...
Petty: We’ve been together now for about a year. It’s a great band. I’m still on the rush. I don’t understand how it happened or what went right. I dig this band, and I’m pretty hard on bands. No ego trips. No leader and nobody’s got more say than anybody else. It works very well.
FF: I take it you’re satisfied with the way the album came out?
Petty: For a first album, it’s pretty true to where we were at the time. It’s getting played on (W)NEW (New York) with moderate airplay. We got a single that’s a hit in England.
FF: What single?
Petty: “American Girl.”
FF: Roger McGuinn has the same single out ... are you satisfied with the way McGuinn did it?
Petty: Well, I wouldn’t have done it that way. I obviously didn’t do it that way.
FF: I haven’t heard his single yet. I heard him do it last night though.
Petty: He did it very Roger McGuinn-ish. A lot different. A lot more laid back. We do it like Bo Diddley. Roger does it a little cruizier, and he changes some of the words. When I played one day in L.A., I was teaching the song to Roger. Like, we just sat, and it was a real standoff situation. I came in and they say, ”Whoa, a real punk. What a punk.” Like Roger would call me a punk. “Who the fuck are you callin’ a punk? I ain’t no punk.” I put on my guitar and I say, “It goes like this: One, two ...” But I respect the guy a lot. He knows what he’s doin’. His audience is probably better that way, than my audience. This is really sort of a great compliment to me. I’m really second generation to Roger. I’m flattered he did it at all.
FF: What music do you listen to now?
Petty: Now? Sort of the same stuff I used to listen to. I listen to everything. I really do listen to all kinds of music. I have not heard Bruce Springsteen. I mean, I heard him once and that’s it. Right before I went on tour I listened to the Everly Brothers’ greatest hits. I listen to Aerosmith and I tend to go by tracks. The ones I listen to all the way are usually classic albums, like the Kinks. The Low album is probably a classic.
FF: What do the Heartbreakers listen to?
Petty: There isn’t really much we disagree on. Stan (Lynch, drummer) is definitely into heavy metal and Ron’s (Blair, bass) into heavy metal. Michael (Campbell, guitar) is into Stones stuff, Beatles. Ben’s (Tench, keyboards) a thousand things.
FF: Will a time come when a Heartbreaker will sing a solo?
Petty: No, I don’t think so. It might happen. If it does, it will be a group thing. I’m the lead singer because I’m the lead singer. We didn’t dye our hair, we didn’t curl it, no one did any of that. People actually ask me, “Did you dye your hair?” We’re just a straight rock'n’roll band. No smoke machines. None of that. We’re straightforward guitar, drums rock’n’roll. We’re song-oriented.
FF: What is your ultimate goal?
Petty: We want to be successful. Not just money. You know, just making a successful record and a successful show. Whatever that means, that’s what it is. I just want to be successful. I could feel successful without selling a million records.
FF: Do you see yourself branching out into other media, like television?
Petty: We ain't never gonna do no TV special. I don’t think we’d do the Midnight Special. I wouldn’t go on with one of those “Alright, the stage is gonna go upside down. Here’s this camera angle. Here’s the same old fuckin’ set we look at every week.” I would like to do a variety show. I could dig that.
FF: Do you have any hobbies?
Petty: Girls are my latest hobbies. I think that’s the Heartbreakers’ latest hobbies now-a-days. Yeah.