Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers belong to a special class of artists, a class comprised of those few acts that have sustained decades-long careers despite the restlessness of popular music’s audience. The Heartbreakers’ tours are among the most successful in the business, year after year. Together for some three plus decades, they have scored major hits in every one of those decades. They’ve earned 18 Grammy nominations, entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and prestigious lifetime achievement awards from Billboard, MTV, ASCAP, and other organizations. But, even as such accomplishments have earned Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers a spot alongside the giants of rock and roll, the band remains an anomaly amongst their peers.
While many among rock and roll’s most celebrated performers have become captives of their own hits or have willingly settled into the la-z-boy chair of back catalogue, the Heartbreakers keep going back to the forge to hammer something new out of rock and roll’s essential materials. The band’s members have kept themselves deeply engaged in the possibilities of the music. And the audience picks up on this. Go to a live show and what you’ll find is a multi-generational community of - what else to call them?--believers. What is significant is not that the band?s tours have remained successful for so long a time but that their audience is growing. Why? Real rock and roll is no longer an easy thing to find. And here’s a brand you can trust. Which is to say, their story is not one relegated to the history books. In the past few years alone, the Heartbreaker documentary, Runnin’ Down A Dream, a film directed by Peter Bogdanovich, won the Grammy. The band’s last release, the Live Anthology, a collection of recordings from across the years, earned four and a half stars in Rolling Stone. Their Super Bowl performance of 2008 set records for event-driven album sales. Their most recent tour was the highest grossing of that season. Here is a band that is alive and well and, most importantly, still exploring.
The latest Heartbreakers release, MOJO, was recorded live in the group’s rehearsal space. Arranged in a circle, the band members played as a band, eschewing the use of headphones and instead using a PA system to monitor performances. From a recording perspective, what this arrangement requires is that every player be locked in with the others, simply because any one individual’s mistake would bleed through from the PA speakers and onto the recording. It’s a set-up that means you can’t fake it. If you can’t play like a band, you can?t record this way. But if you can play like a band, this mode of recording reveals in a special way what is magical about recording group performances. Whether in jazz, rock and roll, country, or what have you, many among the most celebrated recordings from across the years are just this, recordings of group performances. But it’s a fading art. After years and years of musical conversations with one another, the Heartbreakers are particularly adept in preserving this art, effortlessly functioning as one musical organism. MOJO is only the latest, but certainly one of the most inspiring, musical conversations the Heartbreakers have brought to their listeners. But, beyond what the no-headphones, full-bleed approach to recording means from a technical and performance perspective, that scene, that situation of a band standing in a circle, monitoring their efforts through PA speakers, is also just where it all comes from: those countless garages, basements, and bug-infested rehearsal spaces where bands have tried their best to work it out together, most of them packing it in.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers emerged from a particularly vibrant scene, in a time and in a place where bands were everywhere. Gainesville, Florida was a college town, with a fraternity row that was a remarkable place of incubation for young bands. When the weekends came, every frat house was a live music venue. The Beatles had made their point on Ed Sullivan, and young people everywhere were forming groups, particularly if they had places to play - and in Gainesville they were in deep. The future Heartbreakers were moving in and out of various local acts, playing popular covers and learning what it felt like to be inside well-crafted material. There were the Sundowners, the Epics, Road Turkey. But among all of the groups in which the band members touched down, it’s Mudcrutch that deserves special mention in the history books. In addition to Heartbreakers Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, and Benmont Tench, Mudcrutch included Randall Marsh and Tom Leadon. The group is often viewed as the laboratory in which the Heartbreakers were invented. And there’s some truth to this. In Mudcrutch Petty eventually stepped out as a writer and singer, and certainly Campbell and Tench began to distill their wealth of abilities into signature styles.
If the Heartbreakers emerged from the ashes of Mudcrutch, however, there’s a key distinction to be made between the two bands. The lessons the future Heartbreakers learned in Mudcrutch were primarily those of live performance. Key lessons, to be sure. But the stage and the studio are different worlds, even if great performances are what make both worlds come alive. When the Heartbreakers fell together, they landed in a situation wherein they could explore, in the studio, what it meant to play as a band. And that is where something crucial happened. Not every band that gets signed as a band goes through that. It was in the recording studio where, under Petty?s leadership, the Heartbreakers became something more than Mudcrutch. Like another of Bob Dylan’s backing bands, The Band, the Heartbreakers used the studio to extend the territories of their musical adventure. And what they learned there made them not just a great studio band but an even better live band.
The Heartbreaker’s first album, with its hits “Breakdown” and “American Girl,” introduced the world to the results, that combination that is so fundamental to the Heartbreaker’s musical identity: elemental rock and roll mixed with a tireless interest in finding new ways to make it all resonate. The Heartbreakers had rock and roll’s most celebrated forms down - but they knew well the joys of messing with it all. You could hear the Stones in there, but you could also hear the Memphis soul of Stax, the productions and songwriting associated with the Brill Building, the musicality and melodic strength of the Beatles, the raw power of early Kinks tracks, even glimmers of the country roots that marked them as Southerners. The Heartbreakers put everything they loved into the mix and came up with something that was all their own.
But all of the above says little of the factor that made the greatest difference in the Heartbreakers rise: Tom Petty’s writing. It would be hard to say where Petty learned his most crucial lessons as a writer, but what came out was a style that was striking for the economy with which he could set a scene and establish the right melodic support for it. If every writer of Petty’s time learned from Bob Dylan, most revealed that influence in a kind of verbosity. But Dylan was more than an avalanche of words. At his best, Dylan could tell a story in a few lines - and that is where Petty revealed himself to be a master. “American Girl,” as just one example, said more in a few lines about the experience of growing up in America than any other song of its time. Like Walker Evans photographs or the most distilled of Hemingway’s short fiction, Petty’s songs used the vernacular to capture something transcendent. He didn’t need to insist that he was from our world, that he understood our lives, he showed us. Without bravado or an inflated romanticism, Petty connected with the people about whom he wrote.
Through the course of decades and with the release of many hit records, Petty continued to reveal new layers. Never comfortable with self-promotion, it was his music, his quiet confidence, and his celebrated efforts on behalf of artists’ rights that attracted a growing audience and collaborators from Bob Dylan to George Harrison to Johnny Cash,
Roy Orbison, and others. Making good use of the backbone he’d been given as a kid, he initially took the music industry by surprise. While the Heartbreakers were not easy to pigeonhole musically, Petty’s defiance seemed like a concrete example of what punk rock aspired to. Petty became an artist who didn?t need to sell himself. Everyone had a good idea of who the man was.
In time, Tom Petty will be remembered for all that is described above but will be singled out as a great singer and songwriter who never forgot his role as bandleader. Despite his tremendously successful solo recordings and time as a Traveling Wilbury, for instance, Petty has always returned to his band as the place he calls home. He’s given his fellow Heartbreakers the space to grow without being so threatened by that growth that he stood in its way, and in the process he’s gotten a better band. It may sound easy, but if that were the case there would be many more rock and roll bands from the golden era that are still together and still hitting new levels of creativity. But there are not. Again, the Heartbreakers are an anomaly. When young musicians start looking for real rock and roll, they still know just where to go.