Tom Petty – Music Biography
Learning to Fly
Tom Petty was perhaps destined for a life in Rock and Roll. Growing up in Gainesville, Florida, he met Elvis Presley at the age of ten while he was filming his ninth movie near Petty’s home. A few years later Petty would see the Beatles live on the Ed Sullivan Show and know right away that he wanted to be in a band. It also didn’t hurt that one of his earliest guitar teachers was Don Felder, who also lived in Gainesville at the time and who would later join the Eagles.
Petty’s music career began to take hold while playing bass for the Florida band Mudcrutch. In 1974 they relocated to L.A. and signed a deal with Shelter Records. By 1975 they were disbanded by the record company with Petty, to his own discomfort, left inheriting the record contract for himself. With leftover Mudcrutch band members Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers was formed. They recorded their self-titled first album for Shelter Records, which included the classic songs “Breakdown” and “American Girl,” in about two weeks. At the time, it got little notice in America, but did better in Britain where the band did a tour opening for Nils Lofgren.
After more extensive touring, the band recorded the follow-up album You’re Gonna Get It! in 1978. The band desperately wanted a hit single and they thought they had it with “Listen to Her Heart.” Both the record company and reluctant radio stations objected to the line “You think you’re gonna take her away/With your money and your cocaine.” They wanted him to change “cocaine” to “champagne” which seemed silly since the line was clearly against drug use. Petty refused to change the line, one of the first of many instances of the rebellious streak that has guided him through most of his career.
And sticking to his guns was important (not to mention something of a recurring event) around this time because in 1979 Shelter Records was sold to MCA. Petty objected to being transferred to a new company without his consent. He became embroiled in a legal battle which ultimately bankrupted him. But he eventually emerged with a new contract and the album, Damn the Torpedoes, later that year. Most importantly, the re-negotiated contract now included the rest of the members of the Heartbreakers.
The album’s title alludes to not backing down in the face of deadly opposition. It comes from the famous navy quote, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” The band was rewarded with a pair of hit songs “Don’t Do Me Like That’ and “Refugee.” The album itself held steady at the Number Two position on the charts for a full seven weeks, only being stopped from reaching Number One by Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
Petty had more run-ins with the executives at MCA. In 1981 the label hoped to capitalize off his name by charging an extra dollar for his next album. The forthcoming album would be one of the first records released under the company’s so-called “superstar pricing.” Petty objected loudly and publicly. He threatened to withhold the album altogether, or name it $8.98 if the company insisted on selling it for $9.98. Petty was again triumphant and the company backed down. Hard Promises came out in 1981 and the band had another hit with “The Waiting.”
In 2002 Petty released his most fully charged album of angst for the music industry. The Last DJ includes several attacks on the music business, criticizing it for greed, watering down music and relying too heavily on music made by underdressed young women. It was the only flop of Petty’s career selling less than any of his other albums. Critics claimed he was being “bitter,” which Petty took issue with. He claimed the album is full of hope if you look for it. Poor sales notwithstanding, that same year the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 2006 he released his third solo album, Highway Companion, and embarked on a tour to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Heartbreakers. Following that he reunited with his old band mates from Mudcrutch for an album and tour. Their swinging jam inspired album provides a nice side project to the Heartbreakers regular sound. The songs are more countryish and stray further into southern rock than typical Heartbreakers outings. Everything seems to have a freer flow, perhaps owing to the fact that everything was recorded in a two week period. Petty also lays down his guitar to return to bass duties.
Tom Petty’s style of songwriting has a lot in common with his band mates from his more famous side project The Traveling Wilburys. If you look through all the commonality between Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Geoff Lynne and Roy Orbison – you’ve got yourself a typical Tom Petty song. Writing mostly about successes and failures or love and romance, Petty frequently revisits the theme of American individualism (“Into The Great Wide Open,” “Running Down a Dream,” “I Won’t Back Down”). Listening to songs like “Free Falling,” “Learning to Fly” and “Room at the Top,” you can’t help but notice a recurring exploration of the highs and lows experienced in life. They’re not just songs about a rock stars life, but about common human experiences. There can be no feeling of joy and success without the flipside of disappointment and failure. No matter how high you go, you always have to come down. Whatever you make of it, the music is always uplifting and optimistic while remaining realistic and true to life.
An example from the 1980 song “Here Comes My Girl” – “It just seems so useless to have to work so hard and nothing ever really seems to come from it,” Petty murmurs. “Then she looks me in the eye and says, ‘We’re gonna last forever.’ and, you know, I can’t begin to doubt it.”
After more than thirty years of touring high and low, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers released The Live Anthology in 2009, a fifty song retrospective of the band’s life on the road. The sprawling set of songs showcases their incredible talent and musicianship, playing tunes of ever-changing styles, moods and genres with an ease that underscores their abilities. The collection includes the obvious hit songs as well as some interesting covers and a few new arrangements of some classics. It’s as solid a representation of what a great live rock and roll rock band could and should do as you’re ever going to get.
Since 1976 Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers have released thirteen studio albums, with Mr. Petty releasing three solo albums withouy the Heartbreakers. Their most recent album is Hypnotic Eye, from 2014.
On October 2, 2017, one week after completing the Heartbreaker’s 40th Anniversary Tour, Tom Petty suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu. He later died at UCLA hospital in Santa Monica – less than a month from his 67th birthday.