“Damn The Torpedoes” took Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to a new level. Their ability to encapsulate the Byrds, Beatles and Bob Dylan’s sounds was their speciality and their songwriting and musical talent held their own when compared with other emerging groups. Petty himself unleashed an ever-mounting increase in creative juices through the years following he and his band’s third album. In 1988, Tom decided to attempt a solo record. Though most of the Heartbreakers would perform on it (all but drummer Stan Lynch), “Full Moon Fever” marked Tom Petty’s debut solo album.
Most of the works on the album are co-written by Petty and Jeff Lynne, who also helped produce the album. Some were also written in collaboration with lead guitarist of the heartbreakers Mike Campbell. Lynne and Petty are also famously known for working together in rock’s greatest supergroup: The Traveling Wilburys. This group lacked no talent, consisting of Petty, Lynne, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan. Simply a collaboration for the ages, but I digress.
Petty’s solo album rocked the world as it soared to the Billboard 200, peaking at number three, while emerging successful in the United Kingdom, reaching eight on their charts. The track list reads as a greatest hits list for Petty, and many songs have become radio staples through today. Whether you want to ‘free fall’ into relaxation with Petty’s opening hit or ‘run down a dream’ with your car’s windows rolled down, this album has it all.
As I mentioned, the “Full Moon Fever” tracklist reads as a greatest hits compilation and among those hits is “Free Fallin’,’’ which kicks off the 1989 release. Petty co-wrote the song with Lynne in just two days, and it marked the first song completed as part of the album. Petty was rushing during the recording and writing days of this instant hit and was said to have had a cold. Friend, and later bandmate, Harrison, who was at the studio with Petty, boiled a ginger root and let Petty breathe in the fumes to aid his recovery. The first take ended up being what we hear on the radio today. Petty has reflected on this iconic piece, remembering strumming the guitar at home and being unable to get it out of his head. He knew from the get-go that it was special.
Another iconic single note reaches ears as “I Won’t Back Down” begins. Petty again co-wrote the song with Lynne and had initially been hesitant to release it. According to Petty, the lack of a single metaphor made it weak and too obvious in its meaning (ah, the mind of a songwriter). However, Petty was swayed (thankfully) by his colleagues and friends to release what would become one of several massive hits from the album and one of his greatest career works. The song has since been covered famously by Johnny Cash in his 2000 release of “American III: Solitary Man.” which Petty also appeared on to provide backing vocals. Petty commented on Cash’s cover claiming that he wished he hadn’t written it because he felt it belonged to Johnny with the emotion emanating from his voice.
The next song came from Campbell’s idea for a riff while riding his motorcycle one day. “Love is a Long Road” was shown to Petty by his best friend and lead guitarist then instantly forged into a classic. The sound was based upon how Campbell heard his motorcycle rumbling and flourished into another spirited roll-down-your-car-windows anthem. Campbell’s solo leaves listeners with a sense of unbridled freedom as Petty sings of a distant relationship.
Sometimes three simple chords can strike an infinite amount of heart strings. This is very much so the case for an underrated gem from “Full Moon Fever.” Petty’s seemingly simple chord progression is taken to a touching, intimate thought by his lyrics in “A Face In The Crowd.” How he can somehow explain the miracle of finding love in such a unique way is what makes Petty such a memorable songwriter.
Roll down your windows and get your air guitar plugged in, because “Runnin’ Down a Dream” has just started playing! The classic road anthem encapsulates Petty’s fun-loving spirit and finds itself amongst his greatest works. Campbell’s solo after the lyrics end remains one of the most iconic in rock and one that you cannot play just once. The song on CD ends with a message from Petty addressing the time spent for record owners to turn the vinyl and get to side two (how thoughtful).
Remember when I mentioned how Petty’s influence and sound came partially from the Byrds? Well, this next song, “Feel a Whole Lot Better,” was written by Byrds member Gene Clark. Petty’s take on this well-known classic has since become a very popular cover, as the single version reached 18 on Billboard.
“Yer So Bad,” “Depending On You” and “The Apartment Song” all reach the same similar theme of the album in their Beatles and Byrds-esque sound. Petty wrote the latter two himself while co-writing “Yer So Bad” with Lynne. Lynne’s production is a staple for the polished sound through the album, especially in these three tracks, and has been through his career and in later Petty collaborations. The separate recordings of instruments offers a much cleaner sound than those who produce based on live studio performances. Some critique the sound as too polished, but others don’t mind. Petty would later work with Rick Rubin, who followed a much different philosophy than Lynne.
Tom’s brief, but heartfelt, lullaby to his youngest daughter Annakim, “Alright For Now,” contrats this trio of fast-paced songs. Petty tenderly addresses his daughter with the assurance that everything is “alright” and that he will always be there for her. His fatherly love pairs well with the solitary acoustic performance. “A Mind With a Heart of Its Own” and “Zombie Zoo” return to the Lynne-produced sound as the album closes out.
Petty’s first solo record rocked Heartbreakers pianist Benmont Tench (who performed on only one song) and Lynch. Tench took the sudden solo success as a wake up call to defeat his own struggles with drug use and to work more closely with Petty in later solo and Heartbreaker albums. Lynch would further distance himself from Petty and the band and eventually left the band due to disagreements in the creative direction of Petty’s songs. Overall, the album became a landmark for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers even though it was named as a solo album. It also further progressed the idea that Petty was growing into a consistent musical force, especially considering his recent Travelling Wilburys collaboration in 1988.
Joseph Gill is a second-year English writings major. JG923276@wcupa.edu