Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Debut: Two Hits, Several Classics

By Brian Ives

Forty years ago this week, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released their self-titled debut album. It wasn’t a huge hit at the time, but it contained two of his biggest classics, and a deep track that has sadly been mostly forgotten by all but the most die-hard fans. Here, we look back at the album that started it all for one of America’s most enduring bands. 

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tom petty and the heartbreakers Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Debut: Two Hits, Several Classics

First, there was the album cover: Tom Petty looking a bit defiant, a bit nonchalant. Was he part of the Ramones’ school of stripped down rock? Or part of a new generation of southern-rock bands, following the path of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band? Was he “new wave?” He kind of looked like all of the above. His face told the story: “I don’t give a s— where you categorize me.” As he explained in the title of one of the album’s strongest tracks, he was about “Anything That’s Rock and Roll.” That’s the attitude he’d carry with him over the next four decades. He’d laugh, or sneer, at the music industry’s latest trends, while consistently selling out arenas, decade after decade.

The album  kicked off with “Rockin’ Around (With You),” introducing itself with an updated rockbilly beat, but sneering group vocals, “Whyyyyyyyyyy be lonely/Whyyyyyyyy be blue?” It was a perfect combination of American rock and roll, filtered through the lens of the British invasion, with just a hint of punk flavor.

Petty’s first top 40 hit came with “Breakdown,” a song that documents a painful breakup. It transcended Petty’s influences and announced a unique new talent to rock radio. Because his voice was so distinctive and he was difficult to pin down stylistically, he never really seemed to be a part of any movement, and was able to appeal to fans of punk and new wave as well as the more straight-ahead rockers.

There are no bad songs on the debut, but one that may have been unjustly ignored over the years is “The Wild One, Forever,” a soulful ballad worthy of Van Morrison. It’s one of the songs where the sometimes removed Petty sounds a bit anguished. The backing vocals, courtesy of drummer Stan Lynch (as noted by Something Else), gives it an almost-Band like feel, if Roger McGuinn was the Band’s guitarist instead of Robbie Robertson.

Speaking of McGuinn, the head Byrd famously asked upon hearing “American Girl,” “When did I write that?” (He later covered it.) “American Girl” closed the album with one of Petty’s most iconic songs, and yes, it was a loving tribute to the jangly Bryds sound. But is also instantly identifiable as Petty and the Heartbreakers (which was often noted when the very-hyped New York indie rock band the Strokes released their single “Last Nite” in 2001). And therein lies one of the great things about Petty: his influences are often on his sleeve, yet he always sounds totally distinct.

Early next year, a number of legends and current stars will gather to pay tribute to Petty as he is presented with NARAS’s Person of the Year Award: the Foo Fighters, Gary Clark Jr., Norah Jones, Elle King, Regina Spektor, Stevie Nicks, Lucinda Williams are all on the bill. And while a tribute to all of Petty’s great songs could take seven hours, it’s likely that this show will probably only go two. It’s likely someone will do “American Girl.” The Foo Fighters may play “Breakdown,” as they’ve covered it in concert. But here’s hoping that the deep tracks don’t get overlooked: “The Wild One, Forever,” is one that stands the test of time, alongside the album’s more famous songs.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, in retrospect, is a rather low-key beginning to an extraordinary career. The two ubiquitous radio hits don’t tell the whole story: every Petty album that followed would have a number of deep tracks that most artists would die to have written, songs like “The Wild One, Forever.” The debut set the precent for the rest of his career: sure there are a lot of huge radio hits in his career, but some of his best songs are the deep tracks.

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