Into the Great Wide Open: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Anything That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll” (1976)

For as long as rock ‘n’ roll has been around, there have been songs celebrating the genre. In the ’50s, there was “Rock And Roll Music,” “Twenty Flight Rock,” “Rock And Roll Is Here To Stay,” “Seven Nights To Rock,” and “Rock Around The Clock,” among many others. Future generations of musicians would also join in on the festivities: The Rolling Stones proclaimed “It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll (But I Like It),” Zeppelin raved it up in “Rock And Roll,” and KISS cemented their place in history with “Rock And Roll All Nite.”

Tom Petty threw in his two cents with “Anything That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll,” a song that might have been partially inspired by KISS’ track. According to Mike Campbell in the Playback liner notes, the two of them went to see the group “at their height. … I made a comment to Tom that ‘All you have to do these days is put the words rock ‘n’ roll in a song and it’ll get on the radio.’ The next day Tom came in with this song, ‘Anything that’s rock ‘n’ roll’s fine.’ I can’t take credit for that, but I do remember saying it. Whether he heard me or not I don’t know.”

For his part, Petty suggests he didn’t hear him. “I never knew he said that,” he says in Conversations With Tom Petty. “I liked the phrase ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ and I was kind of afraid it was dying out at the time. I used it in a couple of songs around those days [referring to “Baby’s A Rock ‘N’ Roller,” from You’re Gonna Get It!]. That song’s really naive; it’s something I couldn’t sing now. It’s a kid singing that song.”

After 38 years and 15 subsequent albums, exploring numerous different themes and growing as a writer in every way, it’s understandable why Petty wouldn’t want to sing this song today. Lyrically, it is a typical tale of the wonders of rock ‘n’ roll. In the first verse, Tom is hanging out at night with some friends, “rockin’ pretty steady ’til the sky went light. Didn’t go to bed, didn’t go to work; I picked up the telephone, told the boss he was a jerk.” The second verse introduces his girlfriend who “don’t need school, don’t like [her] daddy and don’t like rules.”

The chorus consists of them listening to the radio, because “anything that’s rock ‘n’ roll’s fine.” The bridge explores the sexual connotations that have frequently been attached to rock ‘n’ roll: “Hold me, little baby, I’m a little bit shakin’, I’m a little bit crazy. But I know what I want, I want it right now, while the ‘lectric guitars are playin’ way up loud.”

It’s all very simple, but Tom had every reason to want to write this song. The beautiful, wonderful amalgam of blues, folk, country, jazz, and swing that is rock ‘n’ roll became an escape and lifestyle for so many when it rose to prominence in the early to mid-1950s. Artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and so many others were exciting, not only because of their songs and performances, but because of their style and messages. Whether it served as an inspiration to pick up an instrument, question authority, or let go of inhibitions, it was a very important thing that hit at the right time.

That is all common knowledge, but rock ‘n’ roll has evolved so much over the past 60-plus years. Even by the time this song was written, it had been a relevant music genre for more than two decades. In that time, there had been artists who introduced greater musical themes and theory (the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, etc.) and lyrical virtuosity (Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jim Morrison, etc.) to the genre. This is, of course, a great thing, as these artists produced some of the best music of all time, and because evolution is necessary in any style of music. But it is crucial to remember the history of rock ‘n’ roll, and to understand exactly how it began, what it meant, and what it can and should still mean sometimes.

This makes a song like “Anything That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll” still pertinent, regardless of if this ground had been covered before or how “naive” Petty may consider it. Considering that he was born in 1950, just before the big rock ‘n’ roll boom hit, and understanding his personal history (he got to meet Elvis when he was 10, and decided to become a musician after seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show), it’s clear that this is still a genuine set of lyrics.

To further pay tribute to the original spirit of rock, the Heartbreakers musically tap into the early days of the genre. Campbell’s dual solo (surprisingly his first on the album, and therefore, his very first on a Heartbreakers record) appears to be very influenced by Chuck Berry. Earlier in the song, he and Tom lay down a barroom blues rhythm that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a mid-1950s record. Ron’s rumbling bass line and Stan’s steady beat are both appropriate, and they both deviate nicely at the beginning of the bridge to break up the monotony of the groove.

Unusually, Benmont is absent on the track; whereas his absence on “Hometown Blues” and “Strangered In The Night” makes sense, given that those songs were written and mainly recorded before the Heartbreakers’ lineup was in place, “Anything That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll” was written and recorded near the end of the album’s sessions, by Mike’s approximation. Considering its theme and feel, the song would have benefitted greatly from some Jerry Lee Lewis-style piano playing.

Benmont did end up contributing something along those lines in live performances. Like “The Wild One, Forever,” “Anything That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll” only got better as the band performed it live, most likely due to their growing confidence and familiarity with each other as a group. In addition to Benmont’s playing, Mike’s extended solos at the beginning and end of the song give the song a little extra punch, especially as he stretches them out beyond merely imitating Chuck Berry. Stan and Ron contribute great backing vocals on the record, but the energy they convey in concert is even better.

There’s little to no chance that the Heartbreakers will ever perform it again, but “Anything That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll” is a perfectly self-aware song and a fine inclusion on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. And whether Tom actually heard Mike’s comment or not, Campbell was right about one thing: the song ended up becoming their first “hit,” reaching No. 37 on the UK charts in 1977.

Dylan Sevey

A Rhode Island-based writer and musician, Sevey is an avid listener of blues, jazz, folk, and rock 'n' roll. He serves as frontman for Dylan Sevey and the Gentlemen (www.facebook.com/ dylanseveymusic), and is the drummer for Smith and Weeden (www.facebook.com/ smithandweeden). Twitter and Instagram @dylansevey; contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.