As it stands today, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are one of America’s longest running and most beloved rock ‘n’ roll groups. Their incredible cohesiveness as a unit, 12 studio albums (and Petty’s 3 solo records), and relentless touring over the past 38 years defines consistency. At least three albums — Damn The Torpedoes, Full Moon Fever, and Wildflowers — are recognized as classics, gaining near-universal acclaim upon their respected releases and achieving only more praise in passing years for standing the test of time and influencing countless artists.
The band’s ability to create remarkable soundscapes and serve any given song perfectly without overplaying or stepping on each others’ feet has clearly served as a blueprint for so many groups since they became an inescapable force on rock radio in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The guitar work of Mike Campbell and keyboard work of Benmont Tench, in particular, have likely persuaded many budding virtuosos to learn when to step up and when to blend in.
Petty’s best melodies — and there are many of them — put him in the ranks of the best melodic composers in rock history, along with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Paul Simon, to name a few. Lyrically, while he has rarely reached the heights of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Bruce Springsteen’s early work in terms of long-form poetry, he has earned his spot as one of America’s best writers by expertly translating the most complex and frustrating human emotions into impressively straightforward and intensely relatable lyrics. His writing style has influenced some of the best songwriters of the past two decades, such as Jim James, John McCauley, and Jakob Dylan. For everything this group has produced, it’s hard to imagine a music world without Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
So, it’s interesting that it all starts here. Their 1976 self-titled debut is certainly not a bad record by any means; it spurned two hit singles (“Breakdown” in North America, “Anything That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll” in the UK), one of the group’s most revered songs (“American Girl”), and a few other songs that could generally be considered fan favorites. However, look at the best debut albums of all time: Music From Big Pink, The Doors, Are You Experienced, Led Zeppelin, Ten, Is This It, etc. These records announce each group’s presence with an jaw-dropping collection of songs: They demand repeated listens, flex the groups’ muscles, and kick total musical ass. Whether or not they ended up being the bands’ best albums (one could argue that at least Hendrix and Zeppelin made better records after their debuts), they were undoubtedly the best releases to announce the groups to the world. By comparison, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is a modest set of songs that shows the band trying to find its footing.
There aren’t many songs that foreshadow the classic Heartbreakers sound, and there are quite a few that stand out as completely unique from any other over the group’s history. Part of this is likely due to the fact that the original five members — Tom Petty, Campbell, Tench, Ron Blair, and Stan Lynch — originally formed while the album’s sessions were already technically underway in the form of a Tom Petty solo record. Mudcrutch — the pre-Heartbreakers group that included Petty, Campbell, and Tench — had been signed to Shelter Records in 1974, but subsequently broke up after their debut single failed to create an impact. Shelter retained Petty as a solo artist, though he insisted on keeping Campbell involved in the sessions.
Meanwhile, as detailed in Paul Zollo’s book Conversations With Tom Petty and Peter Bogdanovich’s excellent documentary Runnin’ Down A Dream, Tench put together a group consisting of Blair, Lynch, Mudcrutch drummer Randall Marsh, and guitarist Jeff Jourard. After Petty sat in on a session with them, he was able to pull some strings and get them into the studio, setting up the Heartbreakers’ lineup. While this was a good thing, of course, you can practically hear the musicians still getting used to each other. It explains the occasionally disjointed feel of the record and why some songs seem like black sheep in the Petty catalog.
One of these unique songs is the album opener, “Rockin’ Around (With You).” Many of the best rock albums begin with an upbeat and/or hard driving song, to ensure they grab the listener’s ear right away. If they choose to start with a slower tempo song, it’s because it retains the ear-catching quality, something that people won’t want to turn off. “Rockin’ Around (With You)” doesn’t particularly fit any of the aforementioned descriptions. Yes, the tempo is on the quicker side, but the overall feel of the song doesn’t quite match, say, “Good Times, Bad Times,” “Break On Through (To The Other Side),” or “Purple Haze.”
Lyrically, there isn’t much to dissect, as there are six total lines in the song, all short and simple. Tom’s got a girl he can depend on, and she can depend on him. He was waiting for her, she didn’t let him down, and he doesn’t want anyone else. And he can’t stop thinking about how he digs rockin’ around with her. This isn’t to knock the lyrics; simplicity is sometimes the best route to take, and many of Petty’s best lyrics are due to their directness. With this particular song, there just isn’t much to look into.
There are some positives to focus on, though. Ron Blair’s syncopated bass line is super tasteful, and musically, the best part of the song. It matches up perfectly with the straightforward drum beat and acoustic rhythm guitar, creating a very interesting rhythmic backdrop. Although the lyrics are not Petty’s most interesting, their drawn out, harmony-based delivery is strangely intriguing. It’s the one aspect that Petty touches upon when asked about the song in Zollo’s book: “[“Rockin Around (With You)”] was off a riff that Mike had. I remember he had this little guitar riff. And we got into this harmony thing, holding one note for a long time. [Laughs] But it worked, it was fun.”
It is pretty fun, and due to the brevity of the song, it doesn’t get old. It also helps that certain lines deviate from the standard melody to keep it engaging, especially the ascending “you” in “You know no one else will do.” Compare the verses with the rapid fire delivery of the choruses, with short punctuations of electric guitar, and there is more to the song than most listeners would probably catch on the first listen. It’s still not a remarkable song by any means, and it’s inclusion as the album’s opening track still might be questionable, but it’s not a useless song. Petty obviously saw something in it, as the group performed it in concert at least up until 1983; one such performance was deemed good enough for inclusion on the the band’s 1985 live album Pack Up The Plantation: Live!
And that’s how Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers kicked off their first album: a track two and a half minutes long, harmony driven, lyrically and musically uncomplicated, and unlike any other song they would ever create. Song number two also stands out as uncommon in comparison to the rest of their catalog; the difference is that the next song was the first of many that helped them to become a staple of rock radio, and the first one to suggest this was a band to keep tabs on.
Dylan Sevey’s ‘Into the Great Wide Open,’ an exploration of the music and legacy of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, will appear at Something Else! on every other Tuesday morning.
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