In 1976, a Gainesville native named Tom Petty debuted his first studio album with his backing band: The Heartbreakers. Featuring Mike Campbell on lead guitar, Benmont Tench on the keys, drummer Stan Lynch and bassist Ron Blair, the Heartbreakers boasted an array of talented musicians. Petty had joined forces with Campbell and Tench in their hometown of Gainesville, Florida to form a group called Mudcrutch with some other bandmates. The group traveled to Los Angeles to get a record deal but were unable to gain any traction early in their career. Shortly afterward, the band broke up, but Petty still believed he could live out his dream. A year later, Petty, Tench and Campbell joined up with Shelter Records and released their first album with Blair and Lynch. Their self-titled album, “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,” marked the beginning of an iconic career that spanned over forty years.
Leading off the album is a peppy tune that shows off Petty and company’s fun-loving side. ‘Rockin’ Around (With You)’ rolls into the ear with an energetic bounce which renders you helpless to not bob your head or tap your foot. This reaction is, of course, appropriate given the nature of the lyrics and Petty’s unique voice inflections that embody the youth and energy of the group at the time. Offering a contrast to the toe-tapping tune, the second track ‘Breakdown’, begins with a soft keyboard intro backed by Lynch’s steady beat. Campbell’s guitar ends up stealing the show as it and Petty’s voice mesmerize listeners with a song about someone allowing their true intentions to be revealed.
It is a simple, yet powerful piece about letting loose and putting your feelings on the table. This fan-favorite remains as one of Petty’s many hits even to this day. Following ‘Breakdown’ is ‘Hometown Blues.’ This bluesy rocker showcases another element of Petty and the Heartbreakers’ talent and ability to write and perform an array of genres. Next, we hear an acoustic guitar intro precede a cymbal roll into the mournful piece of lost love. ‘Wild One, Forever,’ was the first of Petty’s softer, more heartfelt tunes that his career would be remembered by.
The fifth track returns to a steady rock feel with ‘Anything That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll.’ This one is another embodiment of the youth and energy of the group. Similar to ‘Rockin’ Around (With You),’ this track has a catchy beat and lyrics that call for nothing more than for listeners to have fun and let loose. ‘Strangered in the Night’ follows with a smooth groove backing a story of two people’s relationship being distant as if they were but strangers in the night. Next in line is ‘Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It),’ which tells a story of a regretful person being played in a relationship yet again. Petty shows off the range of his voice in this song as he is backed by Campbell’s guitar along with strings to emphasize the pain of the man in the piece. Petty returns to a softer, more country-style feel in ‘Mystery Man’ and then delves into a synth-driven piece similar to the style of ‘Breakdown.’ Concluding the album is Petty’s first hit and iconic rocker: ‘American Girl.’ The tune roars to life driven by Mike Campbell and carried by backing vocalists who guide you down the road into Tom’s story of a girl who knows life can be better somehow. This is felt in lines such as, “God, it’s so painful, something that’s so close is still so far out of reach.” The lyrics offer a sense of metaphorical meaning with various forms of speculation surrounding the true desire of the song. Some say it is a metaphor of the American idea itself, and how it has changed over time, others say it is simply a song of a longing romantic, still, others offer several meanings of their own. This is the mastery of a songwriter at its best.
While Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers had not gained much traction with this album, they offered a powerful swing for their first time at bat. It would not be until “Damn The Torpedoes” was released that the band would become a household name in the classic rock genre. Yet, all bands need to have a starting point. Although this was their first album, it held a few gems for fans to latch onto for decades.
Joseph Gill is a first-year English major in the writings track. JG923276@wcupa.edu