TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Shelter Records – 1976
Before Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, classic American rock icons, they were just five kids from Gainesville, Florida who had driven cross country to Los Angeles with $200 and hopes of landing a record deal for their southern rock group Mudcrutch.
Their ascent would be a slow one; the group signed with Shelter Records in 1974 and released a single, only to be dropped from the label. The band broke up. The band got back together and found themselves with a new opportunity to release an album — this time with a better name: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Released in 1976, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ self-titled debut is an amalgamation of styles and influences. It travels from classic blues to swampy country to classic ‘50s rock in songs that are abruptly short and full of anxious, pulsing rhythms that weren’t too deviant from the emerging punk scene. It’s no wonder people didn’t know what to do with them or how to classify them when the album was released.
Though the album contains songs that are now staples of American pop culture, engrained in our collective consciousness — songs like “American Girl” and “Breakdown” — it would be a few years before Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers cemented their status as household name rock stars — but it’s a status they’ve held onto.
In this episode, we discuss the variety of musical influences on early Heartbreakers work, dive into Tom Petty’s sparse songwriting style, and talk about why Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ enduring, four decade long careers truly inspire us.
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Episode notes and postscript corrections
- We love almost anything and everything Tom Petty (with and without the Heartbreakers) has released, but we’re covering the Heartbreakers’ debut, rather an album as iconic as Damn the Torpedoes, because we want to have conversations about albums without just rehashing what everyone else has already said. Check out our FAQ page for more on our philosophy.
- Peep our further watching and further reading links below for two tomes on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers that we cannot endorse more emphatically.
- Petty is Warren Zanes’ incredibly in-depth, intimate, and breathtaking biography of Tom Petty that will probably make you love Tom Petty more than you thought you could.
- Runnin’ Down a Dream is Peter Bogdanovich’s epic, 4-hour long documentary of your dreams. It’s enthralling, candid, and thorough — so worth a binge session.
- It all starts with Mudcrutch.
- Listen to some of their original demos here or here.
- Mudcrutch got back together in 2007 and have released two albums since. Listen to them here.
- TBH, we don’t blame the good people of 1976 for thinking Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were punk. It really doesn’t help that there was already a punk band — a staple at CBGB — who were also called the Heartbreakers…
- We’re not going to get too too deep on lyrical analysis — Tom Petty’s songwriting is often sparse and without a lot of intentional metaphors to unpack; he’d probably roll his eyes and think we were really digging for bullshit if we went that route.
- (No, really, he wrote “Free Fallin’” just to make Jeff Lynne laugh.)
- But here are all the lyrics just in case you want to go for it.
- “Breakdown” is a fantastic combination of old and new. Seriously.
- Listen to “Breakdown.” Then listen to Booker T. and the M.G’s “Green Onions.” Note the similarities.
- Listen to “Breakdown.” Then listen to Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road Jack.” Boom.
- Listen to a live version of “Breakdown” where they weave the aforementioned classic into their own song.
- All that seem like a lot? Follow us on Spotify to listen to all the great songs we just mentioned (and more to come!) in order of discussion for your listening-and-nerding pleasure.
- We love all the Heartbreakers, but honestly, people don’t talk enough about how MVP Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench are.
- All roads go back to Gainesville. (Watch this. Trust us on this one.)
- 500% here for this video of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performing “Anything That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll” on Top of the Pops.
- Want to talk about the symbiotic relationship and pop culture exchange between Britain and America in the mid-to-late 20th century? Talk to us.
- “Strangered in the Night” could totally be a sister song to “Two Gunslingers.” If you’re a regular listener, you’ll know how much we love sister songs.
- We went down a musical rabbit hole again, which is fun.
- Listen to Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good.” Then listen to “Fooled Again.”
- Listen to “Fooled Again.” Then listen to Sheryl Crowe’s “My Favorite Mistake.”
- Did your brain melt a little bit?
- Basslines, yo.
- Agree? Disagree? Just tell us.
- Listen, “American Girl” is a bop and we don’t have time for any haters.
- Speaking of the Byrds… Roger McGuinn actually ended up covering “American Girl” in 1977. (It’s in our master playlist, hint-hint, nudge-nudge.)
- Slow this song down and you’ve got a haunting (but good) ballad.
- Seriously. Don’t be that person who hates “American Girl” just because it’s popular. Just don’t.
- Also, don’t be that person who wears the band tee-shirt without knowing anything about the band. Follow this trusty rule: Can you name two non-singles and the bassist? Then you can wear the band tee.
- We love Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for myriad reasons. Just let us gush for a minute.
- Okay, just a few: their never-ending hustle, their supreme musicianship, the fact that they’re just good human beans who got into music — and continue to make music — for all the right reasons, their humility, and total lack of egos.
- If you missed the last (and only, so far!) Mudcrutch tour, we are truly sorry. (Carly feels your FOMO). If you did, and you’d like to talk about how magical it was with Carrie, hit us up.
- Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are currently on a North American tour to commemorate their 40th anniversary.
- No, it’s not a greatest hits tour; it’s full of deep cuts to be stoked about.
- If you can go: GO. (And say hi to Carrie if you see her at Newark and/or Forest Hills — yes, she knows she has a problem.)
- If you can’t go: Hit up this awesome live recording of their 30th anniversary tour.
- Again, come say hi on Facebook, Twitter, or email. We always love making pod friends.
Favorite track(s): Breakdown (Carly) | American Girl, Luna (Carrie)
Least favorite track: Luna (Carly) | Mystery Man (Carrie)
Tom Petty – vocals, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, keyboards
Mike Campbell – electric guitar, acoustic guitar
Benmont Tench – piano, hammond organ, keyboards
Ron Blair – bass guitar on tracks 1–2, 4–5, 7–10, cello
Stan Lynch – drums on tracks 1–2, 4–10, keyboards
Jeff Jourard – electric guitar on tracks 2, 7
Donald “Duck” Dunn – bass guitar on track 3
Emory Gordy – bass guitar on track 6
Randall Marsh – drums on track 3
Jim Gordon – drums on track 6
Noah Shark – maracas, tambourine, sleigh bells
Charlie Souza – saxophone on track 3
Phil Seymour – backing vocals
Dwight Twilley – backing vocals
Runnin’ Down a Dream | 2007
Tom Petty MusiCares Speech: Rock & Roll Empowers America’s Youth | 2017
Tom Petty Q on CBC interview | 2014
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech | 2002
Petty (biography) | 2015
Conversations With Tom Petty (interview compilation) | 2005
Benmont Tench: The 40th Anniversary Interview | Keyboard Mag (March 2017)
40 Years Ago: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Release Their Debut Album | Ultimate Classic Rock (November 2016)
Tom Petty On Cheap Speakers And George Harrison | NPR (August 2014)
Tom Petty: Rolling Stones Were ‘My Punk Music’ | Rolling Stone (July 2014)
Tom Petty Knows ‘How It Feels’ | NPR (July 2006)
Mike Campbell Is More Than Just the Guitarist For Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers | The Georgia Straight (August 1999)