Few rock acts have the startling consistency of sound and quality of Tom Petty. A cursory listen of any random cross-section of Tom Petty songs
reveals an artist who never lost his fire, always remained relevant, and occasionally indulged in experimentation without losing sight of the music he did best.
Backed primarily by the Heartbreakers, Petty carved a niche for himself by playing bluesy rock infused with a pop sensibility that kept him relevant, even in the days of synth pop and grunge. From the opening strains of the first top-40 for the Heartbreakers (“Breakdown”) to the first single from the Heartbreakers’ last album (“American Dream Plan B,” from Hypnotic Eye), Petty forged a sound that is distinctly his.
Petty’s first taste of fame came with Mudcrutch. Although the band didn’t get national recognition until after Petty’s own rise to fame, Mudcrutch gained a regional following around Florida and Georgia. Petty’s future pop sensibilities shine through on an early Mudcrutch single, “Up in Mississippi,” which has echoes of Big Star-esque power-pop while keeping a country-rock ethic.
While Mudcrutch never gained serious popularity (with their only national single, “Depot Street,” not gaining any traction on the radio), many of the members of that group would follow Petty into the Heartbreakers. Their first two albums, a self-titled album and You’re Gonna Get It! both saw modest success, but they broke through with Damn the Torpedoes. To give an idea of just how impactful this album was, four of the album’s nine songs (“Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Refugee,” “Here Comes My Girl,” and “Even the Losers”) feature on their greatest hits collection.
Petty’s modest sense of humor came out when asked to comment on Pink Floyd’s The Wall keeping Damn the Torpedoes from the number one spot on Billboard’s album charts; “I love Pink Floyd, but I hated them that year.”
The MTV Era
Many 70’s rockers could not adjust to the music video era. Petty, however, managed to fit perfectly in the era of musicians with skinny ties and bizarre sartorial choices by continuing to be himself. His underrated acting talent helped to make clips like “You Got Lucky” and “Don’t Come Around Here No More” memorable, as he could be menacing, steely-eyed, and even silly.
As he continued to gain popularity, he found himself meeting with (and often performing with) other legendary rockers. This culminated in him joining up with Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and Roy Orbison for the Traveling Wilburys.
This connection with Jeff Lynne would prove fruitful for Petty, as Lynne would produce Petty’s first solo record, Full Moon Fever. And this turned out to be one of Petty’s biggest commercial smashes, with “Free Fallin’” hitting the top 10 and gaining heavy rotation on MTV.
The Elder Statesman
While Petty’s smash hits would fall off by the end of the ’90s, he still saw an impressive run of top-40 hits up to “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” Even without having major hits, Petty still churned out excellent songs in his later career, with songs like “The Last DJ,” “Swingin’” and “American Dream Plan B” releasing in the last few years.
While the pop charts may have cooled on Petty’s music on an individual song basis, true rock fans never forgot Petty, with all of his albums hitting the top 10 of the album charts. And Petty and the Heartbreakers saw an induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class of 2002.
He even reunited Mudcrutch, finally bringing the band some success with two top-10 albums to their credit. And, to show just how much people still loved Tom Petty even to his final years, his last album, Hypnotic Eye, debuted at #1, being the first Heartbreakers album to hit #1.
But all these numbers are tertiary to the music itself: going from the beginning of Tom Petty’s discography with Mudcrutch, going all the way to his last songs, one notices that Petty never wavered in quality. Sure, some albums are better than others (Damn the Torpedoes typically being the fan-favorite), but you can’t really go wrong with any album featuring Tom Petty. It’s hard not to fall for Tom Petty’s music.