Ruminations on TV Shows, Comics, And Music
If you are not a diehard Tom Petty fan (and I'm not, I fall somewhere between casual and formal fandom) than you usually skip a bunch of tracks on Petty albums, and just listen to your favorites. With two exceptions: Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers.
The new release of the updated Wildflowers is the reason I'm doing this discography now, but that doesn't detract from the joy of toying with Full Moon Fever. I have not removed any songs, and have, in fact, added a couple of Travelling Wilburys songs to it.
The original album was mostly designed to showcasr singles. It starts hella strong and slowly fades in quality until the Obvious Closer for the album, and then it comes back and smacks you with the weirdest song on the album.
I appreciate that method, but have aimed for a more cohesive album, letting the singles pop up occasionally rather than throwing them all at you at once.
I don't care if it's sacrilege not to start with those five breezy strums that signal the opening of "Free Fallin'". This album has several songs that serve as great openers. For my money, I love the folk silliness of Yer So Bad. It's a signal that this album isn't like any previous Petty album. The production is cleaner. The jangle is still present but no longer the focus of songs. Jeff Lynne (the guy from ELO, and a fellow Traveling Wilbury) has pushed Petty's vocals to the front, and the whole album is better for it. Instead of rebellious Southern Rock with a screeching Petty, this is going to be a bright, shiny, happy Petty. It's a joy to listen to.
The first single comes crashing through with an incredible riffy opening. Runnin' Down A Dream is such a summer song, perhaps the second most summer song on this Very summer album. I love how they fade the rhythm guitars to the front for the silly strumming, and then push it back to the background. The woo-ooohs that swallow the ending of the song, as the sinister guitar riff is subdued by a Mike Campbell solo is also a new and welcome addition for a Heartbreakers song (it's true that this is Petty's first "solo" album, but many of the Heartbreakers and The Traveling Wilburys play on it).
This is silly. "Runnin' Down A Dream" was the final song from Side A of the original cassette, and Petty does a little skit about it being the end of Side A. I like keeping it at the end of the second track. Just because it's fun, and because it makes the fact that the next song, End Of The Line, starts with Roy Orbison vocals before Petty joins in. Yeup, it's a Traveling Wilburys song. Still summery. I just see the sun coming down while people do watersports (like kayaking and diving into a lake, pervs).
We slow things down a bit with A Face In The Crowd. I think it's a mandolin that strums throughout the song that helps this song stand out. It's only the second excellent ballad Petty has recorded (after "Southern Accents").
Fading in at the end of the previous track is a Very 80s synth beat that's soon overwhelmed by Very Tom Petty drums and guitars. Love Is A Long Road is the first track that would have fit on an early Petty album. Its production may be cleaner but it's a classic Petty song, and it's hard not to imagine this is just a really good regular Heartbreaker track. It has more of a late 70s than a late 80s feel, apart from those synths. Lord, those synths.
Zombie Zoo is such a ridiculous Petty song. The brief piano riffs. The floating background vocals (which include Roy Orbison). The lyrics you shaved off all your hair / you look like Boris Karloff / and you don't even care. The chorus uses the phrase painted in the corner and, for reasons I can't explain, it always finishes in my head with like you was Pointdexter from Young MC's "Bust A Move", which came out the same year. I don't know why I've always had this association.
Another light, fun song is Cool Dry Place, a Traveling Wilburys song with Petty completely at the forefront. Unlike the previous Wilbury tracks, this one keeps the other Wilburys in the background, rather than have them trade verses. So it really does sound like a Petty song. But with Orbinson, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and Jeff Lynne as background singers. There's also a great low sax croaking, and some horn ribbits rounding out the bright instrumentation.
After a breath of silence, it finally comes in. Free Fallin'. I enjoy it as a change of pace, rather than the intro. I think it gives the song more weight on the album. Although, if this were a cassette or record, this would come at exactly the beginning of Side B.
I also want a cooldown after "Free Fallin'". The original album followed it up with "I Won't Back Down". I prefer putting The Apartment Song here. It's a solid song. A less weird "Yer So Bad" with more of a 1970s Heartbreakers vibe. And it has a great drum breakdown in the middle for a Southern Rock jam. I actualy wish there was more of the rockabilly piano before the song faded out.
Twanging out of the piano is A Mind With A Heart Of Its Own. Another strange set of lyrics (where on Earth does I slept in your treehouse / my middle name of Earl come from in this song?) but a more radio-friendly instrumentation. I like the slide guitar twang, and the weird rising background vocals that don't actually go anywhere after the false stop.
I Won't Back Down is the obvious second favorite song on this album. It's got the rebellious spirit of early Petty but with the more subdued delivery of the newly maturing Petty. It's catchy as all hell.
Jangle jangle jangle in the foreground. Sing-along-background vocals. Feel A Whole Lot Better is a great breakup song with 100% less misogyny than previous Petty breakup songs. The mandolin has it feeling somewhere between a country song and something off of REM's Out Of Time. I debated having this as the final track but I'm a sucker for ending an album with a ballad.
Probably the song I'm least familiar with on the album (though I know all the words) is Depending On You. It's another throwback to the earlier Heartbreakers sound, the ones where Petty sing-talks before falling back into the melody. If I had to lose a song on the album, it would be this. But I don't want to lose it, even if it structurally weakens the close of the album a bit with its reliance on someone else, which stands in start contrast with the message of every other song.
There's a false start to the wonderfully sleepy lullaby, Alright For Now. This song would have fit right in on Wildflowers. In fact, "Wake Up Time" is almost a response to this track. And, okay, this also has a bit of co-dependent feel that clashes with the album's overall theme. But it's such a perfect summer lullaby.
I've mentioined this before, but growing up, my parents were lost in the 50s and 60s. Almost all of the music they listened to was Motown, Doowop, Soul Music, and Nostalgic Country. There were Some 80s albums in our house (by the mid-80s anyway). But you were more likely to find a Mousercise album than anything New Wave or even pop. We did have a copy of Thriller mixed in with my Stories on Record (mostly Disney movie synopsies), but I'm pretty sure that was legally mandated at the time. We had more stand up comedy albums than we had top ten music albums.
While my parents' collections were all on vinyl, I eventually started using my newspaper route money to buy tapes. My collection was pretty much all Broadway musicals and Ronnie Milsap until, hanging out with friends I was introduced to Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Guns & Roses, Poison, and Def Leppard. One of those things was not like the others. But I kept listening to the music that my friends thought were cool. Until one day, visiting my neighbor's house, I heard two albums that I thought my friends might like, but also my parents might not hate. Because they Hated my tape collection from Phantom Of The Opera to Anthrax. Those two albums, Juice Newton's Juice (which was eight years old at that point) and Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever. I only ever bought the one Juice Newton album, but from Full Moon Fever, I built my Tom Petty collection backwards until I had every tape of his I could find, and I bought Into The Great Wide Open, Greatest Hits, Wildflowers, the Playback box set, She's The One, and Echo the weeks they came out. It took me longer to get his 21st century output, but I did get it all, usually within a few months of release.
I wore out several of his tapes. He was one of the first artists I bought on CD. Until I got all hopped up on buying bootleg albums in high school, I had more Tom Petty albums than any other artist.
Now, my Petty love is very specific. I *like* almost all Petty, but the era between Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers is my jam. The other eras of this discography will be akin to The Cars and Queen, where I smoosh a few albums together to make a super album, but the mid-era Petty will be similar to the U2 and Pearl Jam where I actually make the albums longer by including B-sides, rarities, and more.
The first album is definitely a pre-Full Moon Fever Greatest Hits. The radio definitely influenced which early Petty songs I learned, consumed, and sang along with. I don't think there are any true surprises on this album, it's just a really solid collection of Tom Petty writing catchy three-minutesish pop rock.
If you're going to start setting up tracks for a Tom Petty discography, and you don't start off with some jangly guitars, you're doing The Heartbreakers, Tom, and anyone listening to the project a huge disservice. There are going to be a ton of jangly riffs, so why not start off with one of his best? The title of American Girl may give you the impression that we're starting with something at least vaguely political but, no lyrically this song gets as deep as Oh yea / all right / take it easy baby / make it last all night / She was / an American girl. So, fun and jangly, not so much critiquing the mores of modern American society. It's a pretty sweet opener.
Similarly, you might take a look at the second track and think, Refugee? Is this going to be vague early U2-like political rock? Nahhhh. It's really just appropriative lyrics in a love song. But generically appropriative. You cold modernize the word and imagery of like a refugee to in the closet, and it would make more sense. You don't have to live in the closet just doesn't have the easy rhyming of the word refugee.
We manage to get to the third song of the album without any drug references, and shockingly, he's not talking about weed but the cocaine of the impending '80s jerk who's trying to steal the object of his affection in Listen To Her Heart. But if she's done any of that cocaine, you're not going to have to listen very hard to hear her heart. I wonder if the drumline in this song is meant to be her frantic heartbeat.
I love the lone drumbeat that starts Breakdown, as well as the way the guitar creeps in, politely, to take over the lead.
Another drum intro, followed by some more jangly guitar riffs, and then, one of my favorite rock tropes, the lead singer speaks the beginning of each verse before falling into the melody. Here Comes My Girl. Growing up, I thought the chorus was Yea, she looks all right / she's all I need tonight. Turns out it's Yea she looks so right, which is a much more complimentary line but makes me enjoy the song just a little less.
Fooled Again (I Don't Like It) is the first song on this album that wasn't a hit. It's vocals are too weirdly straining, almost like Bob Dylan doing a David Byrne impression, or vice-versa. This song wasn't on my radar until I started doing a writing project where I wrote a poem for the title of every Tom Petty track. Something about the alternating dark, spacey verse backing (for Tom Petty, this ain't The Cure) against the usual happy fuzzy Petty guitars just stands out against his other early work. I also love the I don't like it mantra outro.
Unlike most of my discographies, I don't blend the songs into each other much on Petty albums. His songs don't really lend themselves to fading. But I do like the progression from "Fooled Again" to this other Not A Hit track, You're Gonna Get It. I love the multiple breakdown structure, how it both does and doesn't sound like the 70s album rock that dominated the rock and roll that was being overshadowed by disco. The background vocals are pure disco, but his vocals and the piano and guitar are pure album rock. There's also the open spaceiness, spilling over from the previous track.
You Got Lucky brings us back to the classic Petty hits. But it's incredibly synthy. This could almost be a track from The Cars. The twangy bassline is also a nice touch.
The cover for this "album" is from the video for Don't Come Around Here No More, a lovely weird track that Dave Stewart, from the Eurythmics, wrote about and for Stevie Nicks. The background vocals are completely unlike anything Fleetwood Mac and add a surreal touch to what would otherwise be a pretty basic Petty song.
The natural pairing for "Don't Come Around Here No More" is Stop Dragging My Heart Around, another song by Dave Stewart, this one on a Stevie Nicks album. But the track is just drenched in Heartbreaker. Even without Petty's vocals, it would be hard not to hear the guitar on this song and not imagine Petty playing it.
The Waiting is the only song I've taken from Petty's Hard Promises album. It's not lyrically amazing. It's a song that I heard so many times on classic rock radio in the 90s that I may only enjoy it through some sort of Stockholm Syndrome. Petty's sound especially goofy during the verses, which makes the trite lyrics more palatable.
The drumline intro and building bassline, followed by the It's just the normal noises in here always throw me. What Tom Petty song is th---ahhh, Even The Losers. This is another song that I have heard so many times that I know all the lyrics. Is it one of his best? I don't know anymore. But it does make me want to do the White Guy Shoulder Dance.
It's been awhile since we've had a Billy Joelesque piano lead in. Don't Do Me Like That falls into the triumvirate of the Generic That songs, along with Hall & Oates's "I Can't Go For That" and Meatloaf's "I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That)". Unlike those songs, I understand his Generic That.
I Need To Know feels a bit like Refugee but the vocals are buried a bit deeper between the jangle and the spare piano notes. Petty gives a great Waaaaaaaaaaah! before The Heartbreakers hit a guitar solo and keyboard sweep. Pure 70s rock and waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.
The original Southern Accents was the first Petty album I bought after Full Moon Fever (again, I built my collection backwards). Spike struck me as such a weird, dark, echoey song for Tom Petty. I loved it instantly. I love the doot-dooo d'doo-doo doos and how they counterbalanced his less-nasally-than-usual vocals. Plus, who doesn't love a heavy panting dog outro?
The final track is the title track for this album. Southern Accentsis the first real ballad in this discography. The soft drums, the chord-focused piano. I think these final two songs are a great way to signal that there is an evolution taking place in Petty's music, and it's about to sound very different, while still sounding very ... ummm ... Petty?