The Petty Archives

Editor's Note: This article frustrates me.

Rock 'n' roll is sure Petty sometimes
By Ken Hoffman
Houston Chronicle - Thursday, December 6, 2007

I happened to mention that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers aren't exactly legendary rock 'n' roll superstars - just my opinion - so why were they picked to play the halftime show at Super Bowl XLII in February?

In recent years, actually since 1993 when Michael Jackson and - how's this for irony? - 3,500 local children performed during the Super Bowl, the gridiron stage has been reserved for the biggest names in show business. Since then, Diana Ross, ZZ Top, Stevie Wonder, Phil Collins, Aerosmith, U2, Paul McCartney, Shania Twain, Prince and the Rolling Stones have played the Super Bowl halftime show.

Oh, yeah, Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake made a little noise during the Super Bowl held in Houston in 2004. Few remember, though, that Kid Rock, P. Diddy, Nelly and Jessica Simpson also performed during that halftime show.

The NFL obviously thinks Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are in the same league as McCartney, the Stones and U2.

I don't. They're a good solid band with good albums and three decades under their belt. I have five of their songs on my iPod: Don't Do Me Like That, Free Falling, Refugee, Jammin' Me and I Won't Back Down.

But are they superstars? Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have never had a No. 1 record. Only three of their songs ever made the top 10 - Don't Do Me Like That, Stop Draggin' My Heart Around (with Stevie Nicks) and Free Fallin'. It's been almost 20 years since they've had a hit single.

Still, even with logic like that, I heard it pretty good from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers fans. Greg Eby probably said it best.

"Ken, you've got to be kidding me! Your statement that Tom Petty is not a superstar act was ridiculous. Easily he is a top 5 all-time American rock band. Think of some of the all-time classic American rock bands: Eagles, Bon Jovi, Fleetwood Mac, Aerosmith and Tom Petty. Easily, top 5. Also, he actually writes all of his songs and has sold 50 million albums. Please do better research next time before commenting. Don't forget, there is a reason he is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I would be interested to see your list of top 5 American bands."

OK, let's do some research.

I'm going to present some cold, hard statistics here - mostly record sales. But when I said that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers weren't superstars, I wasn't talking only about cold, hard cash. But record sales are a big part of superstardom, so let's crunch some numbers.

The biggest-selling acts of all time are the Beatles, Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson. All have sold more than 500 million records.

But let's be fair here. The reader said that Tom Petty was a top 5 all-time American rock band.

According to the Recording Industry Association of America and other show business accounting sources, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have indeed sold 50 million records.

However, that doesn't put them anywhere near the top 5. Here is a list of American rock bands that have sold more records than Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

- 100 million records: Aerosmith, Backstreet Boys, Beach Boys, Bon Jovi, the Carpenters, Chicago, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Prince and the Revolution, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, the Four Seasons, the Jackson 5, KC and the Sunshine Band, and Tommy James and the Shondells.

- 75 million records: Alabama, the Doors, Earth Wind and Fire, Guns 'N Roses, Journey, KISS, Metallica, the Osmonds, R.E.M., Santana, Sonny and Cher, Van Halen and the Ventures.

There are many American rock bands in the 50 million neighborhood with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, including Alice Cooper, Blondie, the Doobie Brothers, Green Day, Mötley Crüe, Nirvana, 'N Sync, New Kids on the Block, Pearl Jam, Three Dog Night, Simon and Garfunkel, and for heaven's sake, the Turtles, and Paul Revere and the Raiders.

So 50 million doesn't exactly make you a legend.

I admit it, sales figures are hardly a fair way to judge a rock band's importance. So let's look at other criteria.

AVR.com did an interesting study, sort of like a BCS poll of the greatest rock bands of all time. A panel of judges ranked the top 100 rock bands based on several criteria, including sales, songwriting, technical ability, innovation, live performances, consistency and longevity.

That sounds pretty fair, right?

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers didn't make the top 100 list.

To show you it wasn't an off-the-wall, snooty or druggy list, the top 3 were Led Zeppelin, the Beatles and Pink Floyd. No arguments there. Well, I do have an squabble with No. 1, but you know me and the Beatles.

The American bands to make the top 10 were Jimi Hendrix Experience, Van Halen, the Eagles and Metallica. Other American bands on the list: the Doors, Stone Temple Pilots, Earth Wind and Fire, the Beach Boys, Steely Dan, Soundgarden, the Allman Brothers Band, ZZ Top, Aerosmith, Grateful Dead, Guns 'N Roses, Pearl Jam, Boston, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bon Jovi, Dixie Chicks, Talking Heads, the Band, Beastie Boys, Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, Sly and the Family Stone, Tool, Journey, No Doubt, and many more.

But no Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Were they innovators? Not really. I can't think of any successful group that they've influenced. I've seen them perform live and enjoyed the show. But it wasn't a breathtaking concert, like the first time you see Springsteen. Longevity and consistency are their strong points, but don't forget they've taken long and consistent breaks from each other during the past 30 years.

Again, I'm not slamming Tom Petty or saying he's not a solid rock 'n' roll singer and songwriter. Hey, he's on my iPod. And I love his contribution to the Traveling Wilburys albums, where he stood shoulder to shoulder with Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and George Harrison. But not with the Heartbreakers.

And being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame doesn't make you Super Bowl worthy. Would you stay glued to the TV screen for a halftime show featuring the Lovin' Spoonful, the Mamas and the Papas, the Animals and the Yardbirds? They're all in the Hall of Fame, too.

Oh, my five favorite American rock bands of all time?

1. Creedence Clearwater Revival. Only the Beatles rank ahead of CCR in my heart. John Fogerty is one of my heroes.

2. The Byrds. Innovative and influential? When the Beatles copy your sound, you've got something. Plus, the Byrds were how I found Bob Dylan.

3. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. I grew up near where he grew up. I understand every word he says. Even when you can't understand what he's saying.

4. The Eagles. I don't like their music, but obviously they're important.

5. Van Halen. More so with David Lee Roth singing lead than Sammy Hagar, though.

Now if you consider Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band an actual band, they slip in at No. 2.