Tom Petty was one of the most iconic rockers of all time. Be it with The Heartbreakers, Mudcrutch or even The Traveling Wilburys, he influenced everybody from Dave Grohl to The Strokes before his sad death in 2017. A true hero, the Florida-native released classic songs such as ‘Don’t Do Me Like That’, and ‘Free Fallin” and etched his name into the annals of history in the process. Taken far too soon, Petty’s larger than life character lives on through his celestial musical efforts.
His career was full of ups and downs, and famously his 1979 album, Damn the Torpedoes, with The Heartbreakers, which boasted the classic anthem ‘Refugee’, was influenced by his well-publicised legal battle against his new record label MCA. The label attempted to sue Petty for a breach of contract after he refused to be transferred to them from his previous home, ABC, without his consent.
After this fraught period, Petty would become one of the most prominent advocates for artistic freedom and creative control. During the ’80s, he’d continue to be a thorn in the side of the music industry, criticising MCA for hiking the prices of their records, echoing the feelings of fans, and endearing himself to them at the same time. His efforts would be so effective that MCA would eventually renege on their decision to increase the prices of their records.
During the ’80s, Petty and The Heartbreakers released three more albums that showed their increased acknowledgement of the changing musical landscape around them. The classic Petty sound combined punk, new wave, and heartland rock into a heady mix, but 1982’s Long After Dark and 1985’s Southern Accents would depart from this tradition, and this would be the start of a period of creative wilderness for the ex-Mudcrutch man.
They saw synthesisers and drum machines added to the band’s sound, although to many, it showed that Petty was just another member of music’s old guard struggling to keep up with the times. That latter was a jumbled half-formed concept album that saw Petty appropriate the confederate flag whilst on tour, which he was duly criticised for and would later disavow.
Petty wouldn’t properly rediscover his form until 1994’s Wildflowers. His second solo studio album but featuring all the members of The Heartbreakers, during the making of the record, he enjoyed all the facets of the creative control that he’d advocated. The record was not credited to The Heartbreakers because “Rick (Rubin – producer) and I both wanted more freedom than to be strapped into five guys”.
Revisiting the heartland rock that Petty did so well during the early part of his career, to many, Wildflowers is his magnum opus. Fittingly, Petty agreed with this assertion as well.
“Even on the last tour, if we played a song from Wildflowers he’d say: ‘That’s the best record we ever made’,” Benmont Tench, keyboardist of The Heartbreakers, recalled to The Independent. “And I appreciated that he said ‘we’.”
A semi-departure for Tom Petty, and a Heartbreakers record in all that but name, there’s no surprise that he thought it was the best album he ever made. Stellar from start to finish, featuring cuts such as ‘You Don’t Know How It Feels’ and ‘You Wreck Me’, it’s likely we’ll be talking about the album for a very long time. It does feel strange that The Heartbreakers weren’t given credit for their efforts, though.
Listen to Wildflowers below.