Introducing the Band
Your hosts Scot Bertram (@ScotBertram) and Jeff Blehar (@EsotericCD) with guest Dan McLaughlin, contributing columnist at National Review, attorney, and baseball fanatic. Follow Dan on Twitter at @baseballcrank and read his work here.
Dan's Musical Pick: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Yes, it's a sad day for us at Political Beats as we mark the sudden passing of rock legend Tom Petty, taken too soon by a heart attack. But Dan is here to sing his praises, and the gang has decided to celebrate his music instead of simply moping about. Dan explains how he first got into Petty, and amusingly enough it more or less mirrors Jeff's entry into Pettydom despite the fact that they're a decade apart, age-wise: the hallucinogenic "Don't Come Around Here No More" music video, and then the ubiquitous Full Moon Fever.
KEY TRACK: "Don't Come Around Here No More" (Southern Accents, 1985)
It Crawled from the South: The Early Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
From Gainesville, FL to Los Angeles, CA. A band named Mudcrutch collapses due to having too many songwriting cooks gathered 'round the stewpot, leaving only frontman Tom Petty, who gathers a few of his ex-bandmates back together along with a couple new additions to create one of the finest rock groups in history: The Heartbreakers. The gang discusses Petty's origins and his first two pre-superstardom records, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers (1976) and You're Gonna Get It! (1978). Jeff, Scot and Dan are all agreed that Petty came out of the gate pretty much fully-formed (though Jeff notes that he did indeed serve a musical apprenticeship, i.e. his Mudcrutch years). Dan cites to "Breakdown" as an example how singular and weird Petty's singing voice truly was, running the gamut from a slurry drawl to a smooth Roger McGuinn tenor all the way up to an excited, Sam Kinison-like screech (Jeff calls it the "chicken-squawk."). Jeff argues that You're Gonna Get It! is the most underrated record of Petty's career, and delightfully brief to boot. Scot cannot help but point out what compellingly UNattractive guy Petty was, which was just another part of his strange rock appeal.
KEY TRACKS: "Breakdown" (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, 1976); "American Girl" (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, 1976); "The Wild One, Forever" (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, 1976); "Strangered In The Night" (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, 1976); "When The Time Comes" (You're Gonna Get It!, 1978); "Hurt" (You're Gonna Get It!, 1978); "Listen To Her Heart" (You're Gonna Get It!, 1978)
At War with the Record Label: the Damn The Torpedoes/Hard Promises Era
Normally when an artist goes to the mattresses against their own record label it portends doom for their career. Not so for Tom Petty, who came up with what many believe to be his finest record, Damn The Torpedoes (1979), while suing MCA for absorbing his record contract from his original (failing) label against his will. Jeff takes this moment to single out the Heartbreakers' lead guitarist Mike Campbell, not just for his peerlessly tasteful guitarwork, but for the massive songwriting contribution he made to Petty's records ("Refugee" and "Here Comes My Girl" are both his on Damn The Torpedoes). Scot emphasizes that the songs you haven't heard from Damn The Torpedoes like "Shadow Of A Doubt" and "Century City" are just as good as the ultra-famous ones you already know, and Dan agrees, chiming in with "Louisiana Rain."
The story behind 1981's Hard Promises is that MCA wanted to charge an elevated "superstar artist" price of $9.98 for it, so Petty threatened to name the record $8.98 to humiliate them unless they relented. Yet again, he won his fight against his label, and came out with a triumph. Scot raves about "The Waiting," naming it perhaps his single favorite Heartbreakers song. Jeff adores this record as well, and laments that the only way most people know about it is through the (admittedly classic) episode of The Simpsons where Homer wants to buy a gun. So much good material was available from these sessions that Petty was even able to give away "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" to Stevie Nicks. Dan salutes the glimmers of hope that are always imbued in the stories of the protagonists of Petty's songs ("Nightwatchman" is a good example of this on Hard Promises) and Jeff agrees, contrasting him favorably to the depression-chic of, in his words, "wannabe-John Steinbeck-era Bruce Springsteen."
The gang is somewhat less enthusiastic about Long After Dark (1982), the last album of this early era of The Heartbreakers, though yet again nobody can really find too much to criticize. What stands out is the interesting synthesizer attack of "You Got Lucky" and the killer album track "Straight Into Darkness."
KEY TRACKS: "Refugee" (Damn The Torpedoes, 1979); "Even The Losers" (Damn The Torpedoes, 1979); "Here Comes My Girl" (Damn The Torpedoes, 1979); "Don't Do Me Like That" (Damn The Torpedoes, 1979); "Louisiana Rain" (Damn The Torpedoes, 1979); "The Waiting" (Hard Promises, 1981); "Something Big" (Hard Promises, 1981); "Nightwatchman" (Hard Promises, 1981); "A Thing About You" (Hard Promises, 1981); "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" [Stevie Nicks/Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers] (Bella Donna, 1981); "You Got Lucky" (Long After Dark, 1982); "Change Of Heart" (Long After Dark, 1982); "Straight Into Darkness" (Long After Dark, 1982)
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers Spin Their Wheels with Southern Accents and Let Me Up
The first major hiccup in Petty's career comes with the long-delayed Southern Accents, a half-realized attempt at a concept album that Jeff deems a failure upfront. Whether it was due to creative confusion, drugs, or some combination of the two, this is an album that doesn't quite work in his opinion. But that doesn't mean it lacks for classics! "Rebels" and "Don't Come Around Here No More" are as good as Tom Petty ever got (even if that electric sitar on "Don't Come Around" is as far from Petty's signature sound as he would ever get on one of his big hits). Dan emphasizes that the backwater American South that Petty was writing about on songs like "Rebels" is a world that simply no longer exists in Florida: Gainesville in the 1950s and '60s was a vastly different place than it is today or even was by the mid-Seventies and Eighties.
If Southern Accents was a flawed-yet-worthy record, its follow-up Let Me Up (I've Had Enough) is the first (and maybe last) truly poor album of Petty's career. None of the gang has much good to say about this album outside of the lead single (co-written with Bob Dylan) "Jammin' Me." Jeff observes that it's the only LP of Petty's career that is saddled with classically "Eighties" production tics (drum sounds, synth tones, etc.) and it does it no favors. This sounds like a band at the end of its rope, and it's no surprise that Petty took a break from the Heartbreakers for several years afterwards.
KEY TRACKS: "Rebels" (Southern Accents, 1985); "Don't Come Around Here No More" (Southern Accents, 1985); "Spike" (Southern Accents, 1985); "It Ain't Nothin' To Me" (Pack Up The Plantation - Live!, 1985); "Jammin' Me" (Let Me Up (I've Had Enough), 1987); "Let Me Up (I've Had Enough)" (Let Me Up (I've Had Enough), 1987)
Tom Petty takes a holiday from The Heartbreakers and revives his career: Full Moon Fever and The Traveling Wilburys. After two albums of diminishing returns with his band, Petty stepped away from them, hooked up with ELO's Jeff Lynne as a producer, and found the joy in making music again. First up was Full Moon Fever, a 'solo' album (though every Heartbreaker except drummer Stan Lynch makes an appearance) that just so happened to be stuff with some of the most famous, tuneful, and immediately catchy songs of Petty's career. His record label rejected the record at first, claiming "there was no single" on it. Millions of listeners would be to differ, since this is the home of "Free Fallin'," "Runnin' Down A Dream," "I Won't Back Down," and several others. Scot remarks that Petty seems awfully happy for a guy whose house had just been burned to the ground by an arsonist. This is Dan's favorite Petty LP for reasons that need little explanation (he even defends "Zombie Zoo!"). Jeff is less enthusiastic, musing about whether it's possible for an album to "perish through absorption"; in other words, for it to be so embraced by radio, so folded into what our standard definition of 'classic rock' is, that it almost becomes superfluous to listen to anymore. Perhaps it's our fault for loving it too much.
Although Full Moon Fever was mostly in the can by mid-1988, it was held back because Petty was fully ensconced in another project, the delightful Traveling Wilburys. The Wilburys were basically the super-est supergroup to ever exist: Petty, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, and Bob Dylan. And yet Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 is the opposite of a pompous, bombastic ego-trip: it's a breezy, charmingly low-key record full of pop/rock songs and sly humor. The entire gang agrees that you're missing out on one of the finest rock albums of the '80s (of all time, in fact, Dan would argue) if you don't own this record.
This era concludes with Into The Great Wide Open (1991), Petty's reunion with The Heartbreakers. Jeff likes the big singles, but is down on the record as a whole, arguing that it's more of a Tom Petty/Jeff Lynne solo LP than it is a true Heartbreakers record. But Dan really loves the rockers on the record like "Out In The Cold" and "Makin' Some Noise": tributes to rock & roll for its own sake.
KEY TRACKS: "Free Fallin'" (Full Moon Fever, 1989); "Runnin' Down A Dream" (Full Moon Fever, 1989); "I Won't Back Down" (Full Moon Fever, 1989); "Yer So Bad" (Full Moon Fever, 1989); "The Apartment Song" (Full Moon Fever, 1989); "Last Night" [The Traveling Wilburys] (Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1, 1988); "You Got It" [Roy Orbison] (Mystery Girl, 1989); "Learning To Fly" (Into The Great Wide Open, 1991); "Two Gunslingers" (Into The Great Wide Open, 1991); "Makin' Some Noise" (Into The Great Wide Open, 1991); "Into The Great Wide Open" (Into The Great Wide Open, 1991); "Mary Jane's Last Dance" (Greatest Hits, 1993)
Into the Firmament
The post Greatest Hits era: from Wildflowers all the way to Hypnotic Eye. With the release of 1993's Greatest Hits, Petty solidified his place in the firmament of the rock world. But that wasn't the end of Petty's greatness. Wildflowers (1994) may be 20 minutes too long (or so Jeff thinks), but the title track, "You Wreck Me," and "It's Good To Be King" are all classics on par with the best of his work. The gang talks about the effects of Petty's divorce and his (long-concealed) mid-'90s heroin addiction on the lower gear of much of the music from this era, though Jeff thinks of She's The One as the last great, authentically energetic Heartbreakers album. Scot begs to differ and cites to Echo (1999), which he thinks is even better. Everyone agrees that "Room At The Top" is a masterpiece, but Scot also points to "Echo," "Lonesome Sundown," and two or three others. The gang generally dismisses the sour The Last DJ as being the album equivalent of the Simpsons meme "Old Man Yells At Cloud," but Dan is a huge fan of the final two Petty albums, Mojo (2010) and Hypnotic Eye (2013).
KEY TRACKS: "Wildflowers" (Wildflowers, 1994); "You Wreck Me" (Wildflowers, 1994); "It's Good To Be King" (Wildflowers, 1994); "A Higher Place" (Wildflowers, 1994); "Walls (Circus)" (Songs and Music from the Film "She's The One", 1996); "Angel Dream (No. 2)" (Songs and Music from the Film "She's The One", 1996); "Change The Locks" (Songs and Music from the Film "She's The One", 1996); "Room At The Top" (Echo, 1999); "Lonesome Sundown" (Echo, 1999); "Echo" (Echo, 1999); "Swingin'" (Echo, 1999); "High In The Morning" (Mojo, 2010); "Running Man's Bible" (Mojo, 2010); "Fault Lines" (Hypnotic Eye, 2013); "American Dream Plan B" (Hypnotic Eye, 2013)
Dan, Scot and Jeff name their two key albums and five key songs by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.
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