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Five performances that show how Tom Petty was a one-of-a-kind music video star


When considering artists that helped set the direction of the music video era, a pantheon of pop stars and chart fixtures emerges that includes Madonna, George Michael and Michael Jackson, whose videos made such a huge impact that MTV's Video Vanguard Awards now bears his name.

Not as frequently cited is Tom Petty, whose catalog of indelible hits is packed with equally memorable videos.

With his long face and toothy grin, Petty didn't fit in among the usual camera-ready rock stars of the time or, frankly, this one. But he was among the first artists to recognize the potential of the medium, and -- with the help of an arsenal of hits and a willingness to take chances -- he was a fixture on both MTV and the radio for decades.

By way of example, his 1982 album "Long After Dark" is not among the first mentioned in his catalog of hit records. But his video for "You Got Lucky" that same year was among the first to leave an impression on his fans, and was the first to open with a minute-long, non-musical introduction.

For those familiar, who could forget the post-apocalyptic "Mad Max" atmosphere, the creepy synth melody, and the egg-shaped future-car a gun-slinging Petty and lead guitarist Mike Campbell crawl from before meeting the band in . . . a plastic-wrapped electronics graveyard-slash-rock history museum. (Okay, it doesn't make a lot of sense, but it also didn't look like anything else on a still-nascent MTV.)

It was a far cry from Petty's earliest, more performance-oriented videos with the Heartbreakers, which still made a splash for songs from his 1979 breakthrough album "Damn the Torpedoes" like "Refugee" and "Here Comes My Girl."  These were followed by the striking 1981 summit meeting between two heavyweights in  "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" from Stevie Nicks' solo album "Bella Donna." The song, as those who watched the 2017 HBO documentary "The Defiant Ones" know, became a contentious point between Petty and their mutual producer at the time, Jimmy Ioviine.

But maybe Petty's biggest splash on MTV came in 1985 with the lysergic clip for "Don't Come Around Here No More." Set in a surrealistic impression of "Alice in Wonderland" with Petty as a leering Mad Hatter (and the Eurythmics' Dave Stewart as a hookah-smoking caterpillar), the video split the difference between a haunting bad trip and playful costume party, culminating with the nightmarish image of Petty and the band feasting on a screaming Alice as if she were an office sheet cake.

Even out of the context of the Heartbreakers, Petty kept the hits coming into the late '80s and '90s. Where "Don't Come Around Here" reveled in a nightmarish quality, the equally omnipresent "Free Fallin'" plays like a dreamy Southern California idyll.

Though the video hits a variety of sunny, geographically specific touchstones such as backyard pool parties, mall escalator rides and halfpipe aerials, the tone is mostly melancholy, and nostalgic for a time that may or may not be as innocent as remembered.

Back with the Heartbreakers for 1991's "Into the Great Wide Open," Petty again went with a narrative concept with the album's title track. At over six minutes, the song finds Petty narrating the up-and-down rock 'n' roll life of Eddie Rebel, who's portrayed by Johnny Depp.

Directed by "The Great Rock and Roll Swindle" documentarian Julien Temple, the cautionary tale also features cameos from Faye Dunaway, Gabrielle Anwar and, weirdly, a pre-fame Matt LeBlanc alongside cameos from the Heartbreakers. Eddie Rebel crashes out of rock stardom, but don't worry: At the video's close, Petty dryly assures us "and they all lived happily ever after."

Researching Petty's output of music videos can quickly become overwhelming (the Winsor McCay-inspired animation of "Runnin' Down a Dream" is a personal favorite). But no list such as this would be complete without "Mary Jane's Last Dance," which appeared on the band's greatest hits compilation in 1993. 

Winner of best male video at the 1994 VMAs, the blue-hued clip is another instance of Petty's taste for video narratives falling more in line with the big screen than television. Kim Basinger plays a corpse who catches the eye of Petty's well-meaning morgue assistant, who sneaks away with the body for a candlelit romantic evening (it's oddly sweeter than it sounds) before letting her slip away under the moonlight in Leo Carillo State Park.

"I don't know, but I've been told, you never slow down you never grow old," Petty at one point sings. He never did, either.

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