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Remembering Tom Petty – and His Surprising Punk Past
“I’m gonna free fall out into nothin’
I’m gonna leave this world for a while”
– Tom Petty, “Free Falling”
The recent death of Tom Petty left a multitude of fans feeling, well, heartbroken. And nostalgic. His songs have long been ubiquitous, showing up in movies (remember hearing “American Girl” in Silence of the Lambs?), on his peers’ albums (the hit duet with Stevie Nicks, “Stop Dragging My Heart Around,” on her Bella Donna record) and in aching covers by other musical legends (“I Won’t Back Down” by Johnny Cash).
In this spirit, we came across a 2006 Creative Loafing: Charlotte article, “It’s Good to Be King” celebrating 30 awesome things about Tom Petty on his 30th anniversary with his band, The Heartbreakers. Some of the items on the list made us chuckle. (“7. The fact he said ‘joint’ in an obvious radio-reach hit, ‘You Don’t Know How It Feels.’ And because he mocks the censoring of said word in the music video for the same.”)
Another item inspired us to stop what we were doing to watch the weird and wonderful Alice in Wonderland-themed video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” (“16. He not only embraced music video as a traditional rock & roller, but also made some of the more inventive and popular videos of MTV’s Golden Age.”)
And still others caused us to say “Wait – what?!” (“9. Petty started out being lumped in the punk/new wave camp…”)
That last one came as a surprise, and warranted a little investigation.
First (punk rock) impressions of Tom Petty
In the mid-70s before Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers really caught on in the U.S., a fanbase in the UK was latching on to the band’s early sneery, frenetic sound. Writing for The Globe and Mail in 1978, Alan Neister observed:
In England, where they seem to pick up exciting new trends before we do, the Los Angeles based Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have become so popular that Petty often gets mobbed by young nymphets on the street, is the subject of cover stories in the national music magazines, and headlines concert tours over such notable acts as Nils Lofgren.
Neister went on to say, “One stumbling block in Petty's drive to inevitable stardom (a feeling both he and I share) has been the burden of a punk-rocker label,” which the writer calls “unjustified,” claiming it likely resulted from Petty and his band emerging at the same time as notorious punk acts like the Sex Pistols and the Stranglers.
“If Petty is indeed a punk,” Neister adds, “it is in classical fifties Elvis/James Dean chip-on-the-shoulder quick sneer style, not the over-hyped and choreographed sense of the Pistols, et al.”
The classification of Petty as a punk rocker didn’t just exist in the UK. In 1977, The New York Times ran a review of one of his shows titled “Tom Petty’s Pop Punk Evokes Sounds of the ’60s.” And David Fricke’s 1983 review of Long After Dark claimed that “Tom Petty comes out of America’s garage-punk tradition” noting that the band’s first two albums Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and You’re Gonna Get It “bristled with ‘60s garage band fire and bruised pride.”
There is definitely something of a punk energy in this description of a 1978 show reviewed by The Boston Globe:
And Petty, although a slight, frail figure, was self-assured throughout. He moved with a compressed boil to his gestures and exploded unpredictably, but never vengefully, at the audience. For instance, on “Breakdown,” he bristled about, as if ready to break down and kept screaming “Is it all right?” to do so.
Even if Petty’s early music embodied the essence of punk rock, the category wasn’t big enough to contain him. Throughout Petty’s 40 year-long career, his appeal expanded to encompass rock ‘n’ rollers of every stripe. As the article from Creative Loafing continued that in addition to “being lumped in the punk/new wave camp,” Petty also
...became post-punk, became an MTV staple, became a solo artist then became an elder statesman, all while still retaining credibility with the above-named camps. Don’t believe me? Go see one of his live shows, whose audiences feature equal parts septum-pierced, septuagenarian and soccer moms.
Our Senior Product Marketing Manager and Tom Petty fan, Mary Beth Perrot, did have an opportunity to see one of his live shows and shared with us this photo taken in 2010 during an encore of “American Girl.” Perrot described Petty as “a great in rock ‘n’ roll history…a diverse musician just doing what he loved.”
For further research:
Rotondo, A. M. (2014). Tom petty: rock ‘n’ roll guardian.
Volpert, M. (2017, Oct 04). Life lessons from a hardcore pettyhead. PopMatters,
Jules, G. (2017, Oct 10). Recording artists' debt to tom petty. Los Angeles Times.
Cabaret: Tom petty's pop punk rock evokes sounds of 60's. (1977, Mar 09). New York Times (1923-Current File).
Davis, Timothy C. "IT'S GOOD TO BE KING." Creative Loafing, Jun, 2006, pp. 79, Alt-PressWatch.
Fricke, D. (1983), RECORD REVIEWS: Tom petty & the heartbreakers. Musician (Archive: 1982-1999), 84.
Morse, S. (1978, Jul 20). Tom petty catches on with lean, snapping beat. Boston Globe (1960-1985).
Niester, A. (1978, May 29). Petty: Newest wave? The Globe and Mail (1936-Current).