Editor's Note: Thanks to John Harrison for the scan!
Tom Petty: Plugging In to the Glory of Rock
By Robert Hilburn
The Los Angeles Times - Sunday, June 4, 1978
ABC Records president Steve Diener was excited by the field reports on his desk. The new Tom Petty album had been in the stores only a few days, but reorders were already coming in. Lots of them.
"The interest is phenomenal," Diener said. "The reaction is the kind you normally expect only for an artist who has been around five years and has a dozen gold albums. The record is an event. I feel something building here that is like an eruption."
Across town, Petty—whose Monday night concert at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium is sold out—smiled at the possibility of finally having an album high on the charts. It's only his second LP, but Petty has been on the rock 'n' roll trail for nearly 10 years.
The slender, 25-year-old rock singer also seemed encouraged by signs of a turnaround in the bland, unchallenging pop-rock diet of the mid-'70s. He feels a kinship with such equally passionate rock figures as Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Bob Seger and Elvis Costello.
"I remember when you could hear great stuff on the radio," Petty said here last week. "There'd be the Beatles records and the Stones, Otis Redding, the Byrds, the Zombies, Dylan. I mean you could hear 'Like a Rolling Stone' on the AM radio. That's when the Top 40 meant something to me.
"I can't get behind most of the stuff they play now. It's either disco or MOR or those faceless rock bands. That's not my idea of a good time. But I can feel it changing. We got into the '30s with the 'Breakdown' single. Patti Smith's going to do better than that with 'Because the Night.' Costello should be up there.
"As soon as one of those records gets into the Top 10, it could break things wide open. Once kids get a taste of it, they're going to say 'Amazing!' and demand more. If they do, whoever those radio guys are who closed the door on rock bands will have to reopen it. Then we'll start having fun again..."
Petty started dreaming of being a rock star the day a decade ago he saw girls go crazy over Elvis Presley on a movie set near Petty's home in Gainesville, Fla.
"I just couldn't believe it," Petty has said. "I just thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. When I got home I started collecting everything I could about him. I even combed my hair back like he did. It was only about a year or so until the Beatles came out. And then the Stones. I was stuck. I must have listened eight hours a day to the record player. It was my world."
After teaching himself to play the guitar through a Beatles songbook, Petty put together a band when he was 13. By 15, Petty was on the road. His school principal sent Petty to a psychologist to find out why he'd rather play rock 'n' roll than go to school. Simple, Petty remembers telling him, rock was more fun.
Petty and his group, the Mudcrutches, had enough confidence by the early '70s to try for a record contract. They made a demo tape, piled into a VW van and headed for L.A., where they were signed by Denny Cordell's Shelter Records, a label distributed by ABC.
But the recordings went poorly and the Mudcrutches broke up. Petty stayed with Shelter as a solo artist. Cordell, who had worked with Leon Russell and Joe Cocker, got Petty together with some L.A. studio musicians, but the sound wasn't what Petty wanted. It was too tame.
Almost by accident, Petty hooked up in L.A. with some musician friends from Gainesville. They, too, had come to California looking for a contract. He jammed with them a few times and realized they had the driving, shadowy rock 'n' roll sound he wanted.
Cordell, too, was impressed and the Heartbreakers band was formed: Mike Campbell on guitar, Ron Blair on bass, Stan Lynch on drums and Ben Trench on keyboards. After three years of frustrating wrong turns, Petty was finally heading in the right direction. The band recorded the debut album in two weeks.
But then: Another dead end. The album received almost no airplay or critical attention when released in late 1976. By the time Petty & the Heartbreakers played the Whisky in January of 1977, the LP had sold less than 7,000 copies. Two singles—"American Girl" and "Breakdown"—fizzled.
Though the Whisky engagement brought the band some attention, it wasn't that big a deal. Most of the writers and disc jockeys were on hand just to see the headliner, Blondie.
The Heartbreakers did begin picking up some isolated success after that—some glowing reviews, enthusiastic response during a return Whisky stint—but the turning point was England.
Arriving there as opening act on a Nils Lofgren tour, Petty did so well the band was booked on its own tour. This time as headliners. The album made the British Top 20.
The experience made Petty a stronger and more confident performer. It also made him more demanding. The British success told him they could sell records. He blamed his U.S. label—ABC—for not pushing the record harder.
Before starting work on a second album, he and manager Tony Dimitriades demanded a commitment from the company for more promotion. ABC, which had undergone a change in top management, agreed. It rereleased "Breakdown" as a single and this time the record caught on. The album eventually reached the Top 40. An audience was set up for the new work and true to its title—"You're Gonna Get It"—the new LP delivers. It's gripping, invigorating rock 'n' roll—energized yet classy.
Because Petty wore a black leather jacket on the cover of his first album, some incorrectly lumped him with the punk movement. Others, noting the Heartbreakers' L.A. base, assumed the band was part of the laid-back, Southern California folk-rock contingent.
The misconceptions show how silly the labeling process in pop music can be. The only real dividing line should be between what's good and what's bad. Whatever the outward style, the important thing is whether the band stirs one's imagination and emotions.
Petty—whose long blond hair and tough-but-vulnerable stance fits perfectly the rock star mold—meets that test. He and the Heartbreakers reflect the power and glory of mainstream rock 'n' roll. The music combines the shadowy, late-night compulsion of the Rolling Stones with the classic charm and accessibility of Elvis Presley and the original '50s rockers.
"Maybe that shadowy feeling is in the records because we always record late at night," Petty said, when asked about the dark, somewhat hidden undercurrents in his music. "We're also night people. We're usually up real late.
"But some of the mystery is put there on purpose. It's good to intrigue people a little, leave room so they can explore and find things out for themselves. That's one reason we never put a lyric sheet in the album."
While the driving "I Need to Know" has been released as a single from "You're Gonna Get It," the album's most memorable selection is "Listen to Her Heart."
Set against a rousing, Byrds-flavored arrangement, the song reflects the teen-oriented romanticism and idealism that is at the heart of many of rock's greatest records. It's the somewhat underdog-ish story of a guy's belief that his girl won't be tempted by someone else's swagger:
You think you're gonna take her away
With your money and your cocaine
You keep thinking her mind is going to change
But I know everything is OK.
She's gonna listen to her heart
It's gonna tell her what to do
She may need a lot of lovin'
But she don't need you...
The album's other highlights range from the nostalgic, romance-behind-the-grandsands aura of "Magnolia" to the mocking anger of "Too Much Ain't Enough" to the wounded emotion of "Hurt." While only the Caribbean-flavored "No Second Thoughts" fails to contribute to the album's momentum, the straight-ahead simplicity of the Kiss-flavored "Baby's a Rock 'n' Roller" may strike some as too teenyboppish. Petty disagrees.
"We put that song on the album as a statement," he explained. "It's just like the lyrics say: 'Rock 'n' roller...That's all she ever wants to be.' There's a lot of people who take rock too seriously. They mix it up with all sorts of cosmic and political concerns.
"I take rock seriously, too, but that seriousness should never interfere with the fun and excitement of it. That's what we're trying to point out in the song: 'Rock 'n' roll itself is all you ever need.' You don't have to add those other things to give it strength."
While Petty retraces some themes in the new collection, the production is generally firmer and more potent. Coupled with the tunes from the first album, the songs should give the Heartbreakers one of the most uplifting bodies of work of any new band in years. The group has also developed into a crack live attraction.
"The amazing thing is the audience reaction," Petty said last week after returning from a series of tour warmup dates. "When we walked out, the whole room was screaming at the top of their lungs. It was wilder than England for us, and I didn't think anything would ever be as crazy as that."