Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers - Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers - Review
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On November 9, 1976, an album containing two of the most widely beloved and unavoidable rock radio staples ever recorded was released, and nearly a year went by before anyone noticed. It’s not that the music was difficult or short on power-pop hooks or songs about rockin’—all the elements that later made Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers one of America’s most agreeable and enduring music institutions were clear and present on the band’s self-titled debut. But the album and the band were square pegs culturally—neither downtown cool nor Southern-rock sprawl, too dirtbag to be sex symbols, too nice to be dirtbags. “There’s an eccentricity to the first album,” Petty told biographer and former Del Fuegos guitarist Warren Zanes. “It doesn’t sound like anything else from the time.”

Eclectic might be a better word than eccentric. There was nothing particularly weird or inaccessible about the album’s 10 tracks in 30 brisk minutes; if anything, arriving in the heyday of punk and glam and new wave, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers weren’t weird enough to grab immediate attention. Petty’s cover pose, heavy-lidded smirking while sporting a black leather jacket and bandolier in front of a cloud of smoke and a logo with a flying-v, promised something snottier than the music delivered, trademark adenoidal whelp notwithstanding. The punchy drum beat and bassline of opener “Rockin’ Around (With You)” quickly gave way to the great wide open of “Breakdown,” a change of pace that hardly seems jarring now but may have been just a left enough turn to defy easy categorization at a moment when easy categorization was essential for launching a career.

In 1974, Tom Petty moved from Gainesville, Florida, to Hollywood with his new wife Jane and his band Mudcrutch, who were signed to esteemed British producer Denny Cordell’s Shelter Records and then dropped before an album was even made. Shelter kept Petty on as a solo artist but he brought along Mudcrutch’s guitarist Mike Campbell—Petty’s closest collaborator for the entirety of his career—and keyboardist Benmont Tench, and added fellow Gainesville transplants, bassist Ron Blair and drummer Stan Lynch to start from scratch under the new name. In between, Petty had an apprenticeship of sorts with Cordell’s Shelter partner Leon Russell and spent time with idols like Brian Wilson and future bandmate George Harrison. He’d gotten a close look at what success looked like, but so closely on the heels of Mudcrutch’s disheartening failure—and with a newborn daughter to take care of—he knew he didn’t have all the time in the world to find his own.

Under Cordell’s watch, much of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers consisted of amiable but forgettable trifles like “Mystery Man,” and “Hometown Blues,” as well as parallel-universe classics that foreshadowed bigger, better hits to come. “The Wild One, Forever” is the kind of cinematic power ballad that found its final form in “Nightwatchman” five years later while the simmering, mid-tempo “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It)” scans now like a dry run for “Refugee.” It’s a band figuring out how to be a band in real time—familiar with one another but still adjusting to a new dynamic in which their onetime hometown pal and bandmate was now unequivocally their boss. The luxurious groove of “Breakdown” was the ideal showcase to sell Petty’s subtropical homesick alien voice (“your eyes give you ay-whey”), always unique even when the songs themselves weren’t, necessarily. Throughout, they fade out abruptly rather than properly end, as if the album has somewhere to be in a half-hour.

Stylistically, the biggest gambit is “Luna,” an atmospheric, vaguely proggy ballad that nods to Cordell’s background producing the likes of Procol Harum and the Moody Blues. Petty sings in a higher register, ironing out the wrinkles of his most distinctive vocal tics, and even as the album’s longest song at just under four minutes, it feels like an incomplete thought and drifts away before ever getting to anything like a hook. “I mean, you can tell we’re discovering things, that we’re happy to be there, you know?” Campbell told Warren Zanes. “Tom and I were probably more curious about the recording studio than the other guys. We wanted to figure out how to make records.” Even with the benefit of generous hindsight, the album as a whole is mostly significant today as a sketchpad and a respectable starting point from which the band sought to, and did, improve.

And yet: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers also contains what by now has to be on a very short list of the most perfect rock songs ever written. The musical equivalent of a starter’s pistol or a struck match, “American Girl” is, somewhat counterintuitively, the album’s final track; had it been the opener, it might not even have mattered what came after. From that clarion opening chord and snare crack to the jittery guitar solo outro and all beats in between, the song is a master class in economy and a snapshot of a newish band that’s found its footing. The archetypal story of the girl from nowhere—or more specifically, from somewhere overlooking Highway 441 in central Florida—dreaming of somewhere else, is what eventually helped vault Petty into the sub-Springsteen league of capital-A American songwriters. It feels like the very blueprint of a hit, even though it never cracked the Billboard Hot 100 (but did peak at 40 in the UK).

In the aftermath of the album’s release, radio stations were uniformly ambivalent, and opening for KISS went about as badly for Petty and his band as that sounds. Twenty-five years before Kings of Leon accepted this playbook like sacred scrolls from atop a Waffle House, five fresh-faced good ol’ boys found their first real acceptance by going to London.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers opened a UK tour for Nils Lofgren in spring 1977 and “Anything That’s Rock N’ Roll,” a perfectly generic stickin’-it-to-the-man anthem that is unlikely to reside on even diehard Petty fans’ deep-cuts playlists, hit the UK charts (it was never released as a single in the U.S. at all). They stuck around, played “Top of the Pops,” wound up on the covers of NME, Sounds, and Melody Maker, and got their first taste of the rock-star trappings that they would soon grow accustomed to over the next four decades. But by the end of that summer, the debut album—eight months after its release—had still only sold 12,000 copies in America.

ABC Records, which distributed Shelter, continued to badger radio stations into playing “Breakdown,” which finally hit the top 40 just over a year after it first came out. But by then, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were back in the studio at work on an album, 1978’s You’re Gonna Get It!, that hit all the strengths their debut did, just a little bit harder.

Steve Kandell
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