Tom Petty casually strolls into the room, looking slightly slept-in and slightly more bored.
He’s skinny, of medium height, and blonde, but as he drops into his designated seat, one gets the impression that all the “pretty” press he’s gotten came from fat and lonely female groupies doubling as rock writers.
Petty’s not bad-looking, but he’s no freshly scrubbed Peter Frampton lookalike, either. Like most night creatures, he looks better onstage, with a wash of colored lights disguising the lack of a suntan.
More than a few quasi-astute observers have linked Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – Benmont Tench on keyboards, Mike Campbell on Rickenbacker and Les Paul, Ron Blair on Fender bass, Stan Lynch on drums, and TP on Fender guitar and voicebox – to punk, diametric to Frampton.
“New Wave” doesn’t fit, either, because TP&HB are rock ‘n’ rollers in the classic sense: defiant, yet uncontrived; burned, yet compassionate; cool, yet always on the edge.
Tunes like “Rockin’ Around With You,” “Fooled Again,” “American Girl” or “Anything That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll” may deal with familiar rock ‘n’ roll themes, but they’re delivered with an urgency and originality that avoids overstatement while producing multi-leveled textures and moods.
TP&HB’s debut album (recorded at Shelter in Los Angeles with Shelter chief Denny Cordell producing and released November 9, 1976) crackles with spontaneity, catching the band shortly after its formation working on tunes written (for the most part) right in the studio. They hadn’t even gigged as a unit in front of people.
But that sort of situation isn’t at all uncommon when a new band with a drop-in-the-bucket budget embarks on its first project. The sessions could have easily died a rapid death or just as easily taken off like a bat out of holy hell.
Waiting until the album was released, meanwhile, the Heartbreakers couldn’t buy their way into a two-bit joint in Pacoima. And the “Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers” LP was practically ignored; it sold a mere 6,500 in the first three months.
Finally, in early ’77, TP&HB scored an opening gig for Blondie at The Whisky on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, and the snowball started to make headway after word got around and glowing reviews hit the newsstands.
British, European Girls Smitten by Heartbreakers
All hell broke loose across the Big Water. After a series of well-received sets opening for Crazy Horse alum Nils Lofgren, Petty and his band wound up headlining their own gigs on an extensive (and intense) tour of Europe. “American Girl” and “Anything That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll” permeated the airwaves, and tons of females clawed at their bodies.
“We got [to London] about 7:30 in the morning – the press was at the airport and from there it was totally to the floor for two months,” he said. “I ran myself into the ground, completely. We did England, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Paris, maybe more. Every gig was a huge success – there were riots 15 minutes into the first gig.
“We’d never had people in the stage knocking kids back down, and girls breaking through, knocking us around and grabbing us around the waist while we’re trying to play,” Petty said.
“It’s an incredible high. You’re scared, you’re excited, you’re pleased. And (when) the audience is at fever pitch, you’re bound to play better – you will play better. I mean, you’re not going to get bored,” he said. “Loads of fun.”
Yes, we’ve heard a lot about the band’s strong affinity for females, and seen females’ attraction to the band at local L.A. gigs.
“We’re really glad girls come to our shows because it’s much more rock ‘n’ roll to have girls out there instead of it looking like a stag party,” Petty said.
But in the U.K., it started getting silly after a while.
“We’d bring as many girls back to the hotel as would fit in the rooms,” he said. “But your lifespan is very short doing that, especially if there are three girls in your room and you have to make a 7 a.m. plane. You’re not going to make that plane, and if you do, you’re going to feel terrible and you’re not going to play well.
“So lately I’ve sort of slowed down my personal relationships because as much as I dig chicks, they aren’t my mission in life,” he said. “But I can only speak for me because the rest of the band really hasn’t cleaned up their act.”
The Heartbreakers like having security protecting them at their concerts – as long as it’s not too secure.
“The most ironic thing about it is that we’ll be out onstage, and chicks will be five rows deep throwing all sorts of clothing up at us,” Petty said. “But by the time we get backstage, after seeing umpteen beautiful young girls down there, they can’t get to us and we can’t get to them. Solving that little problem is the secret to a good road manager, and we’re glad it doesn’t happen too often!”
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers represent another case of “overnight success” and another instance of an American band being relatively ignored at home while being “discovered” abroad.
It’s quite reasonable to expect Petty to be a taste bitter when he reacts to all that – he’d been beating his head against the rock ‘n’ roll wall for a mere decade.
Tom Petty Follows That Dream from Hogtown to Hollywood
Though they met and formed in the Los Angeles area, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers are Floridians, most of them from Gainesville, affectionately (or not so affectionately) called “Hogtown” by locals.
When he was 11, young Tom saw Elvis Presley while “Follow That Dream” was shooting about 30 miles away, and a year later The Beatles and The Stones arrived. Within hours he was teaching himself guitar while listening to Keith Richard(s) and Brian Jones.
Petty had a lot of problems growing up Anglophile in Hogtown, which he felt limited itself too much. Ultimately, he had to leave to make any headway as the Florida music pendulum swung away from creative to copy band and ultimately disco – but not before Petty enjoyed a good deal of statewide success with Mudcrutch, his best Gainesville group.
“People in Gainesville were telling me I lived in a dream world, thinking that rock ‘n’ roll would come back,” Petty recalled, incredulously. They didn’t think it was hip unless it was bluegrass or very college-oriented stuff. I dig all that stuff, but by denying rock ‘n’ roll to everyone – the club owners denied it, the press denied it, and the people denied it – they fucked the situation up every possible way they could, discouraging creativity on every front. A lot of people lost their gigs in clubs because they played originals, and one by one, everyone who could play anything started leaving.
“It’s a drag because in a lot of ways it was a cool town,” Petty said. “But all that happened, and I was into the English side of things, and everybody else was into Allman-type things. The Allmans were fine with me, but when you’ve got every single band playing slide guitar for hours, I couldn’t buy that. Not me. I said, ‘I’m going where they know about other things because this ain’t my trip.'”
So Petty and his band made a demo tape and drove 3,000 miles practically non-stop to L.A. They got several offers within the first week, he said, so went back to Florida to tie up loose ends, and at Denny Cordell’s request the band stopped at Shelter in Tulsa on the way back West. They signed a label deal, cut a few singles, but the recording back in L.A. fell apart, and so did Mudcrutch.
A Petty solo album in ’75 was aborted because it was beginning to sound too much like a laid-back L.A. session album to him, so he hung around L.A. and starved for a while.
Mudcrutch Breaks Down; Heartbreakers Never Forget
Finally, Petty, Campbell and Tench ran into some more Gainesville players who’d also fled the stultifying musical environment hopefully for greener pastures in L.A., and in May ’76, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers was formed.
“When the album came out, no one wanted to know about it,” Petty said. “When we got back from England, everyone wanted to know. We were supposed to just erase the last year from our minds – just forget about driving for 10 hours in an Econoline because the record company wouldn’t pay for a bus. We were supposed to forget about not being able to get $20 over the phone to pay the hotel bill. But now that we’re a success, everything’s changed.”
And indeed it has. Because until his label deal is renegotiated to prevent that (abuse) from happening again, there won’t be a next album, he said.
“We didn’t forget about it,” Petty said. “When we got back, we said we weren’t going to make any more records until the whole things is restructured the way it should be. It’s not an uncommon thing, and I’m just staying on the road (most recently, opening five shows for BeBop Deluxe) until it’s right. I don’t want to go on about this, because it’s boring, but it’s been a huge number and I really feel all sides are being reasonable and it should be settled soon. Eight shots out of 10, the album will commence within a matter of weeks.”
What about the tracks Petty and the band recorded just before leaving for Europe?
“We did some tracks, and I liked them a lot, but they were done when I was real sick,” Petty said. “And then we went to England and we started playing the tunes entirely differently. So we decided not to use those tracks.”
Sneak Preview of Second Album by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
He figures the second Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers LP will probably be 12 songs as opposed to 10, and that it’ll be a little more energetic.
“We’re much more of a group now, and it’ll sound a lot more like the band does onstage, and I don’t mean a ‘live’ album, either,” Petty said. “Right now we’re playing live quite a bit so it’s bound to have more energy. It’ll be a rock ‘n’ roll album, and it won’t be no Southern boogie (the first one wasn’t, either).
“We did the last one very quickly and we probably won’t so the second one so hurriedly,” he said. “It’ll be more into the sound, like playing the studio like a guitar – on the last record, the sound was just sort of incidental to everything else. The next one will probably be a little more produced, but not in any slick sense. But it’s hard to talk about an album that isn’t an album until we’re in the studio doing it.”
Will the writing and arranging be done in the studio again?
“Yeah, we wouldn’t do that until we came into the studio because we want that freshness,” Petty said. “If you work it out too much, then it’s a little dangerous. I only know there are about six tunes (including “Surrender,” “Listen to Her Heart” and “I Need to Know”) that we’ll try to have on the album, but we usually write more in the course of the album. The last time – by the time we got 10 tunes, they were all nice, but it didn’t run cohesively, so I was having to write more and more and fit things in so it sounds like an album instead of just 10 nice tunes. The second one will probably be like that again.”
Is writing at will a natural or acquired talent for him?
“I guess I developed that – I had to eat,” Petty laughed, dead serious. “I don’t know how good I am at it anymore. I did it then, and I think I could still do it again if I had to. I hope I don’t have to as much this time because it’s just so frenzied to write a song in two hours and cut it the next.
“But there is no formula to it,” he said. “We just have sort of a little way we work that just occurred naturally. How we arrange is relative, of course, to the song – how we can get the most out of it. That’s really the band’s trip – like everyone has the same amount of contribution to a tune, and everyone gets paid the same. I just write the most and sing lead.
“I might play them a song on piano or acoustic guitar, and maybe as a ballad, and by the time everyone adds their contributions, it’s a high-speed rocker. And it can go the other way, too,” Petty said. “That’s why the studio is the best place for us – this band is very good with arrangements and it moves very fast once it starts moving.”
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Special thanks to Jane Alsobrook and Michael Ochs for setting up the interview, Danny Lipman for publishing it, and Steve Heidt, Jeff Kraft and Joe McGee for immoral support.
Santa Clarita journalist Stephen K. Peeples grew up in North Miami, Florida, and was born 11-1/2 months after Tom Petty. Relocating to Los Angeles in 1968, Peeples went on to a career in media. In 1976-1977, he was West Coast Editor for Rock Around the World magazine. He went on to be a record company PR executive for Capitol Records (1977-1980), Elektra/Asylum Records (1980-1983) and Rhino Entertainment (1992-1998). Peeples was the original, award-winning writer/ producer of “The Lost Lennon Tapes” radio series for Westwood One from 1988-1990. He is also a Grammy-nominated record producer (“Monterey International Pop Festival” box, Rhino/MIPF, 1992). He was Rhino’s first web editor (1996-1998), then Online Editor for The Signal newspaper’s website from (2007-2011), and wrote/hosted/co-produced SCVTV’s WAVE-nominated “House Blend” local music/interview show (2010-2015). He is now VP/New Media Emeritus for Rare Cool Stuff Unltd. and CEO of Pet Me Happy Treats. For more stories and info, visit https://stephenkpeeples.com/. For exclusive behind-the-scenes interviews, subscribe to his YouTube channel.
Article: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers: Hogtown Boys Make Good (1977)
Author: Stephen K. Peeples
Category: News & Reviews
Article Source: StephenKPeeples.com