Running Down the
Rock'n'Roll Dream

by Jason MacNeil

As one of the proverbial trio of U.S. born rockers still making credible mainstream music well into his fourth decade (alongside John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen), Tom Petty will be on the road again this summer with his backing band The Heartbreakers. And while he may not have a new studio album out by the time he kicks things off at the Germain Arena in Fort Myers on June 7, the 54-year old Petty could certainly rest on his vast musical laurels if need be.

Petty grew up in Florida and seemed pre-destined for the rock and roll lifestyle. At the age of 11, Petty met Elvis Presley while the star was filming Follow That Dream in 1961. According to his official web site, Petty formed a series of bands in high school before forming Mudcrutch. The group, which featured current Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, made the trek cross country to Los Angeles and released a lone single entitled “Depot Street” in the early ‘70s before disbanding.

From there Petty spent the next few years in various groups, but finally teamed up again with Tench and Campbell in 1975 to form Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.

“I thought, ‘If I’m going to start another group, I’m going to put my name into it, so at least I get something out of this,’” Petty said in a lengthy March 2004 interview on his official web site. “In the other group, I felt I had to stand silently by and watch it self-destruct.”

The group released its self-titled debut in 1976. The album got a lukewarm reception in America but British fans couldn’t get enough, resulting in the album making the U.K.’s Top 30 charts. The record featured “American Girl,” the first of several staples Petty regularly performs live. His sophomore effort “You’re Gonna Get It” followed in 1978.

After battling with the record label and Petty declaring bankruptcy, the group broke through with 1979’s Damn The Torpedos, an album featuring the hits “Refugee” and “Don’t Do Me Like That.” The album seemed to be the perfect mix of pop and rock.

“We wanted to have a sensibility that was kind of a mixture of the Rolling Stones and The Byrds,” Petty said in the 2004 interview. “We wanted to be a mix of those things.”

While the band was still getting its footing around 1980, the advent of MTV and the music video would be a great help in taking Petty to the next level. But again the band would be butting heads with record labels, this time over pricing. MCA demanded that the group’s 1981 Hard Promises album be priced at $9.98. Petty refused to hand over the album until the price dropped to $8.98. He won. He would also release a video for the song “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me)” from the same record.

After 1982’s Long After Dark, Petty and company (now featuring bassist Howie Epstein) took some time off from the road, returning again with 1985’s Southern Accents and a performance at Live Aid. The group also released a double-live album that tried to capture the band at its best–on stage. Fans would have to wait another 14 years before another live release.

Petty’s sound and style seemed to appease both critics and the everyman alike—a no-nonsense, straightforward rock and roll that resulted in his biggest album being 1989’s Full Moon Fever. The album featured signatures like “Runnin’ Down A Dream” and “Free Fallin’.”

“The funniest story of hits to me was Full Moon Fever, Petty said in 2004. “I think there were five hit songs on that record. When I first brought it to the record company, they rejected the album, saying there were no hits.

“They said, ‘Uh, sorry, we don’t want to put this out. We don’t hear any hits,’” he added. “And this had ‘Free Fallin’,’ ‘Runnin’ Down A Dream,’ ‘Yer So Bad.’ I went away completely depressed by it. So I waited six months and brought the same record back. And they loved it!”

It was also around this same time Petty became Charlie T. Junior Wilbury, one of five characters in the super group The Traveling Wilburys. Petty, along with George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison, had hits such as “End Of The Line” and “Handle With Care” from the band’s debut Volume 1. A second album, oddly named Volume 3, ensued but Orbison’s death in December, 1988 signaled the end of the band.

“It’s pretty amazing when you look back at it,” Petty said last year. “But the truth is that it was friends. It was kind of like we were going to hang out anyway so we might as well make a record.”

The ‘90s saw Petty continuing his prolific pace, but offered up a wealth of material for die-hard fans. A greatest hits compilation in 1993 featured the new single “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” 1994’s Wildflowers was more of a solo effort from Petty and seemed to uncover his singer-songwriter side on songs like “Wildflowers” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” The following year Petty broke open the vaults with an incredibly generous 6-CD box set entitled Playback. The set featured three discs of primarily album material with three discs of live, demos and dozens of unreleased tracks.

Petty was supposed to have some down time before his next studio album after Wildflowers. Film director Ed Burns asked Petty if he could contribute one song to a film soundtrack. The film, entitled She’s The One, and featuring Friends star Jennifer Aniston, resulted in new inspiration for Petty and another entire album of new material.

Petty and The Heartbreakers ended the millennium with Echoes, a return to form that blended the softer songs with foot-stomping rockers like “Free Girl Now.” A double-disc Anthology welcomed 2000 but Petty’s biggest challenge was his last album, a quasi-concept album. The Last DJ, released in 2002, pulled no punches at the state of commercial, mainstream radio and was basically ignored by the medium as a result. But critics lauded the album for its stance. Petty and his band also were inducted that same year into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.

And 2005? Well, a new studio album, a double-live album and a second greatest hits collection are all in the works. Petty also hosts a weekly radio show now on XM Radio called ‘Tom Petty’s Buried Treasure.’ More than 35 years later, Petty still seems to be running down a dream. •

from the May-June 2005 issue

"When I first brought
Full Moon Fever to the
record company they
rejected the album,
saying there were no hits.
And it had 'Free Fallin',
'Runnin' Down a Dream'
and 'Yer So Bad'.
So I waited six months
and brought the same
record back. And
they loved it!"