Some artists make a huge impact before shrinking away, take the Sex Pistols for example. Others permeate the industry and seep into every corner of it, a skill mastered by the late Leonard Cohen. While some artists manage to do both without blinking an eye; enter Tom Petty. The acclaimed performer has his roots firmly implanted in the foundations of rock ‘n’ roll and you need only look back at his searing debut album with The Heartbreakers for all the proof you need of his rock hero status.
The late, great Tom Petty is one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century and beyond. His skills both lyrically and his expert ear for a tune have made him one of the most revered acts in rock. But how Petty became not only a rock star but the leader of The Heartbreakers, all can be found in the songs on their self-titled debut LP. Petty may well have gone a traditional route in achieving his status but it wasn’t with The Heartbreakers that he tried to play the music business game.
Petty’s earlier band, Mudcrutch, was the group he had initially earmarked for widespread success. A group which also included Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench managed to secure a deal with Shelter Records in 1974 and it saw them move from Florida out to the west coast and set up shop in Hollywood. As you may have already guessed, touching down in La-la Land left the group in disarray and they followed another rock trope to the tee as they squabbled over egos and girls before breaking up before they could ever break out.
Dejected and without a band, Petty did manage to sign on as a solo performer but struggled to mingle effectively with the Los Angeles session musicians. The coastal warfare was rife and Petty’s swampy sound wasn’t in great demand amid the soft-rock revolution in California. Luckily, it was when he caught up with former Mudcrutch member Tench and laid down some licks that he found his band.
In Petty’s mind, the keyboardist “really handpicked the Heartbreakers. They were all Gainesville guys who had moved out to L.A., so I was invited to play the harmonica,” Petty told Billboard in 2005. The session band included drummer Stan Lynch, bassist Ron Blair, Campbell on guitar and Petty on harmonica: “I went by the Village Recorder in Santa Monica, and I was like, ‘What a band!’ And being the cunning businessman that I am, I said, ‘You know, backing up Benmont’s fine, but there’s no reason you couldn’t have me in the band and I have a record deal, so you could circumvent the whole try-to-make-it thing and go in with me,’ and we were off.”
As the band began to work on a few jams at the session little did they know, within a year, the group would be riding high with a debut LP that would shape rock for years to come. The Heartbreakers were born to rally against “disco trance music,” according to Petty, and produce “the kind of rock that used to come blasting out of the AM radio when every song was a new Creedence or a new [Rolling] Stones, and all you wanted to was crank it up.” The debut album was the first blow struck for the group.
Go to any rock dive bar in America and chances are, on their jukebox, they will have at least one track from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ debut LP. When you consider the musical landscape of the time, there was a good chance that this LP could have fallen through the cracks. As it was, it became a foundational moment for Petty’s career and rock in general.
Naturally, the album is full of youthful energy and a captivating pulse, something perfectly encapsulated on ‘American Girl’, arguably Petty’s most beloved release. If debut albums are meant to be the distillation of everything it took for a band to reach their record contract, then this one is proof of just how in love Petty was with rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, he wrote a song about that too.
Now, however, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers were writing the songs to fall in love with.