The Heartbreakers' first record finds Tom Petty on a mission
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Under the glass at the front counter of Deep Groove, a record store in the Fan of Richmond, Va., the owner has meticulously assembled all of his concert tickets dating back to the seventies. There’s the severe Rust Never Sleeps tour that Neil Young and Crazy Horse sprung on folks who had bought tickets expecting the lilting tunes of Comes a Time. There’s the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers Band and, I notice, the Kinks in 1978.
“Oh yeah,” he says. “That was actually with Blondie and Tom Petty opening. Petty just ripped that stage apart and blew everyone away. The Kinks had a really, really hard time following him.”
And he says this, I figure, in correlation to me plopping down a copy of Petty’s first album, self-titled and priced at an extremely friendly $8, as a note that I was in for a true barrelhouse when I finally got home to pop that one on the turntable.
Home is a few hundred miles away back in Boston, of course, and when it happens, there’s a visceral reminder of how powerful Petty was in his earliest days with the Heartbreakers, reassembled from the ashes of Mudcrutch and still mostly in tact today. And what came through the grooves were just that, heavy and pissed and meaningful in a way where I felt like an idiot for being surprised at all.
I’ve had this album in one format for some time — the files live in my digital library, along with just about everything else Petty has done. I’ve listened to the songs for years, especially live versions on bootlegs and his four-disc The Live Anthology, that compendium that summed up the Heartbreakers’ power so well as a live unit that it, too, made me feel stupid for feeling revelatory.
But the act of finally having this one on LP and in my hands, to accompany so many of his records on my shelves, tuned me in in a way I couldn’t appreciate until the moment. It goes beyond just being able to hold the jacket and see them in their first shot at stardom. There’s Stan Lynch, open chested and appearing to blow a smoke ring into the camera. Below him, Mike Campbell has his guitar and headphones strapped on, peering in for the next note. Ron Blair is distracted and holding a cigarette. Benmont Tench has a long handlebar mustache and is peering up from his piano. Petty centers it all, leaning and letting another smoke burn between his fingertips.
It’s in the way Campbell drags his pick across the strings to start “Strangered In the Night” at the start of side two, an abrasive introduction that was intended to feel just that abrasive. Petty wasn’t the world-weary singer-songwriter yet. He hadn’t accumulated the years on the road and the gold records and wave of hits and reputation for being as dependable as the sunrise on stage and on vinyl. He and his band were just kids. His photo was centered, but they’re all shown to be just as glamorous and just as hungry and just as edgy. They demanded the attention they had yet to receive.
Upon this newly invested attention, the record revolves around “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It),” a snarling declaration that showcases Petty’s anger and the Heartbreakers’ slithering technique equally. Though not as biting, that edge also appears on the opening “Rockin’ Around (With You)” and “Anything That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll,” a sign that this first album was intended as a mission statement summing up Petty’s journey from Florida through the clubs to this first, real chance as much as anything.
“Breakdown” and “American Girl” have lived on longest from this album, understandably. But they only form only one piece of Petty’s story — his ability to magnify small details into full stories that could resonate with a ridiculous number of listeners. That was a gift that was finely crafted through the years, and it’s helped to make Petty such a long-standing success.
But before all that, he and his band were hungry. They were pissed off, and they were kids looking to be noticed. Their first path through that was to play a blinding brand of rock and roll that jumps off the wax and out of the speakers. It started early on, in small clubs and eventually opening for bigger bands that had already gone through all their own growing pains to reach the top.
It worked, of course. Petty can headline arenas and stadiums at will because, in 1978, he was able to knock down a future record store owner to the point that, 37 years later, he only remembers the headliner on his ticket stub as struggling to follow this young band out to set the world on fire. That night was no fluke. The Heartbreakers immediately meant business.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org