Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Warner Brothers, 1976

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


It’s hard to say what makes a great debut album great, in part because it’s different almost every time.  Sometimes it’s about capturing a moment of unusual intensity, or being on the leading edge of a musical trend.  Sometimes it’s about an exceptional set of songs, or a single track that takes the world by storm.  One thing’s for sure, though -- if you can manage to record not one but two stone classics for your debut album, songs that live on as musical legends more than thirty years later, you definitely did something right.

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers is one of the great debut albums of the ‘70s.  It was 1976 and bassist-vocalist Petty and his pals Mike Campbell (guitar) and Benmont Tench (keyboards) had moved to LA from Gainesville, Florida in search of fortune and fame.  Within weeks, though, their band Mudcrutch disintegrated, leaving the trio to start over.  When Warner signed Petty soon afterwards as a singer-songwriter, he struggled to find a sound using LA studio musicians before reconnecting with Campbell, Tench and their new rhythm section of fellow Floridians Ron Blair on bass and Stan Lynch on drums.  With that, one of the most respected and resilient bands of the 70s was born.

The group’s debut manages to be both of its time – an era when punk was exploding for the first time and if you weren’t angry and sneering, no one in LA would come to your show – and timeless.  It seamlessly fuses the Rolling Stones with Dylan with the Byrds with the Beatles, taking the best parts from each, swagger and lyricism and jangle and brilliant pop harmonies, and leading with Petty’s nasal drawl, a voice at once completely unique and immediately captivating.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers comes out firing with “Rockin’ Around With You,” a driving pop number whose frenetic rhythms and tight arrangement offer a frothy bed for Petty’s rather psychedelic vocals -- at least until the chorus, which busts out like a Ramones anthem with its shouts of “hey!”  Seconds later you’re deep into “Breakdown,” another tight, intricate band arrangement that’s delivered with a coiled, ferocious intensity that still burns bright after three decades of radio play.  “There is no sense in pretending / Your eyes give you away / Something inside you is feeling like I do / We’ve said all there is to say” -- oh damn.  Stone classic number one, right there.

The rest of side one on the original LP features the band letting its Southern roots show on a pair of numbers with distinct boogie undertones (“Hometown Blues” and “Anything That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll”), and delivering a “Born To Run”-styled slice of expansive romanticism in the memorable “The Wild One, Forever” (”I’ll never get over how good it felt / When you finally held me”).

Kicking off the second half, “Strangered In The Night” takes a chunky, Stonesy, guitar-heavy arrangement and adds a super-sweet Campbell slide solo with plenty of distortion for extra kick.  The kids and I joke about Tench’s one-finger synth part on the chorus to “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It),” but on this punchy number he also contributes his usual moody organ work, also much in evidence on the atmospheric ballad “Luna.”  In between, “Mystery Man” features country-rock accents that went largely dormant for 30 years until the recent Mudcrutch reunion.

And then you get to the other stone classic, Petty’s Springsteen-meets-the-Byrds anthem “American Girl.”  While I love the lyric and Petty’s urgent vocals and the magnificent chiming guitars – not a 12-string, but a pair of six-strings doubling one another -- the real secret to this song for me is the rhythm section.  Lynch drives the song relentlessly from the first hit on his snare, with Blair counterpointing and complementing his every move; it’s up there with Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” as one of the most memorable rhythm tracks of the ‘70s.  The final 80 seconds of breakdown-and-bridge-and-reprise-and-solo-your-heart-out still give me chills every time.

On later albums, Petty’s drawl would ease into a kind of laconic charm, but here he’s a leather-clad young punk out to prove himself, pouring attitude and charisma into his vocals and simply demanding the listener’s focus.  Beyond the timeless icons “Breakdown” and “American Girl” Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers might have a few rough spots, but as a debut album, it ranks among the 70s’ very best – raw, honest and full of furious intensity.

Rating: A-

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© 2008 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Warner Brothers, and is used for informational purposes only.