I grew up loving Tom Petty – thanks to my step dad who played him nearly constantly and scoffed at the “grunge” era of bands that didn’t share Petty’s classicist reverence for the history of rock music. I’ve long identified with Petty’s celebration of songwriting and his general disregard for most everything else. Yet, he was often seen as a second fiddle to Dylan, Neil Young, Springsteen, Stevie Nicks, The Byrds, George Harrison, and more. But as far as I can tell, all these people (not sure about Springsteen) actually revered Petty – and genuinely liked his company. His greatness was that he didn’t seem to be too bothered if people thought he was great or not. What mattered to him was being part of a lineage of timeless rock songwriting.
Is it cheesy to say “Tom Petty was all about the music, man?” Maybe. But he wrote so many iconic songs – and is remembered for little else – that it seems apt. There are no lurid Tom Petty scandals, car crashes, stints in jail, public meltdowns or things he had to walk back and make us cringe today (well, maybe “Zombie Zoo”). His legacy is just DECADES of iconic songs. He was an unconventional conventional rock star – his charisma subtle, his voice nasal but effective, and his appearance was – at best – a bit avian. He was probably the least technically gifted performer to ever headline the Super Bowl Halftime show. He wasn’t a dancer, guitar virtuoso, crooner or sex symbol – he just got there by wring a lot of great songs that everyone loved.
Tom Petty’s first solo album, Full Moon Fever (which featured almost all of his actual band members, cameos from Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and Del Shannon, and was produced by ELO’s Jeff Lynne), coincided with an era that was especially inspiring to my own music in The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Released in 1989, it was weirdly aligned with a lot of the ideas that attracted me to bands like The Pastels, Teenage Fanclub, R.E.M., The Replacements, or Jesus and Mary Chain – jangling guitars, sweet harmonies, classic songwriting (verse, chorus, verse chorus, bridge, chorus chorus) and lyrics that captured a very specific point of view. But unlike those bands, Petty was an arena act, at home and enabled by large record labels and big budget videos, and (by this era at least) had about zero reputation as “cool.” So I thought it would be a great tribute to one of my heroes to re-imagine his music in the context of my own – to wonder what it would be like if the songs he wrote sounded a bit more like the artists that were working in the underground at the time he was making this iconic record.