Songs 85-71

Tom Petty explores mischievous preachers, loose women & pain of divorce as the countdown continues

Tom Petty explores mischievous preachers, loose women, pain of divorce

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Editor's note: CultureMap is counting down the Top 100 songs of Tom Petty's career in anticipation of his concert at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion Sept. 24. Stay tuned for the selections each weekend and for chances to win tickets to the show.

As we enter the second week of the Tom Petty countdown, it’s interesting to note just how much variety the guy’s music contains. Casual fans may fall back on the old, clichéd criticism: “All his songs sound the same.” They don’t know Petty very well, because this batch puts that comment to shame, with 15 songs that are all over the musical map.

In fact, you can download these songs and have yourself a nice little Petty compilation here. Things kick off, like an album should, with some high-energy rockers. The tempo shifts to some suit more contemplative material in the middle part, albeit with a few breaks for some lascivious rock and even a little blue-eyed soul. And then we’ve got a lovely, stately ballad to wrap things up. It’s hard to believe that there are still 70 songs in the TP catalog even better than this. Stay tuned for that, but, for now, enjoy a great 15-song run.

Song 85: ”Kings Highway”
Album: Into the Great Wide Open

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Jeff Lynne’s production style often takes a hit from rock critics, but I think that Lynne does what he does tremendously well.  The problem, if you can call it that, is that his style is more suited to some songs than others.  When the song calls for something gritty and earthy, Lynne is probably not your guy.

When you’re looking for something to shimmer like the sunlight off the ocean, then there is no one who does it any better.  “King’s Highway,” which is featured on Into the Great White Open, is just such a song.  The sheen that Lynne lays on the song is perfectly apropos to the optimistic lyrics.

As Petty sings, “There’s gotta be somewhere left for us to believe.”  That titular road might exist only in his character’s imagination, but it sure sounds inviting.  Both the songwriter and the producer deserve some credit for that.

Song 84: ”A One Story Town”
Album: Long After Dark

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Perfectly chosen to lead off Long After Dark, “One Story Down” kicks the album off with a blaze of guitars and never shows any sign of let-up.  While those lead guitars are hard to overlook, a closer listen reveals some clever work on bass by Howie Epstein, making his first official Heartbreaker appearance on record.

“One Story Town” features Petty going back to one of his most popular songwriting themes:  The individual’s struggle for personal freedom in the face of conformity.  It has informed a few of his most well-known tracks, and here it’s the impetus for a lesser-known but pretty accomplished one.

Petty has been candid about the fact that, while he thought that Long After Dark was a good record, it didn’t really make much of an advance from what the Heartbreakers had been doing.  Fair enough, and probably true.  Is this song a groundbreaker?  No.  But it continues on the excellence for which the band already had a reputation less than a decade into their career.

Song 83: “Money Becomes King”
Album: The Last DJ

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Petty has corporate rock and all of its trappings in his crosshairs on this track off The Last DJ, which really holds more sorrow than bitterness.  He’s sad that the music that he loved doesn’t mean anything anymore, that the unnamed artist that he once adored has become a karaoke act for his own hits, that the whole affair has become little more than a choreographed pantomime devoid of any feeling or surprise.

Is there a bit of grumpy-old-man in the lyrical assault?  Perhaps.  But Petty wields his sarcasm so effectively (“All the music gave me/Was a craving for lite beer”), and his disappointment is so heartfelt that it’s hard not to get swayed by his argument.  I’m not old enough to remember a time when every ounce of artistic territory wasn’t commercialized.  This song makes me want what I wasn’t around to experience.

Think of it as a rock fairy tale along the lines of “Into the Great Wide Open.”  In that earlier song, the hero, Eddie, fades out of the public eye due to his inability to keep the hits coming.  In “Money Becomes King,” Johnny has the hits and the money, and yet his fate may ultimately be worse than Eddie’s, at least in Petty’s eyes.  To TP, it’s better to burn out than to sell out.

Song 82: “Depending On You”
Album: Full Moon Fever

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Petty knows when he has a good thing.  In this case, it’s the driving refrain of this Full Moon Fever song.  So it’s no surprise he returns to it often here, and it’s a successful gambit.  The way the whole thing kicks into another gear at those points makes this some irresistible ear candy.

Notice how those refrains play off the verses, as Petty plays it coy with his talk-singing in those parts before powering into the choruses, like a conversation that starts simply before the intensity ratchets up.  It’s just a little touch that makes this otherwise humble little number sound downright powerful.

Effortless and concise, “Depending On You” shows how a good songwriter can make something sound breezy without sounding lazy.  It’s a fine line, but this track treads the right side of it all the way.

Song 81: “Cabin Down Below”
Album: Wildflowers

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The usual suspects are often named when someone tries to come up with artists whose sound proved influential to the Heartbreakers:  The Byrds, Dylan, and the Stones being the primary trio.  One that doesn’t get mentioned often, but should, is CCR.  The Southern rock ethos that they created is strong in Petty’s work as well, but, like Petty, John Fogerty was all about songcraft, eschewing fancy trappings for memorable melodies and strong lyrics within a tight, rock shell, always putting those qualities first.

That said, it would be a stretch to say that the swampier aspects of Creedence’s sound are often mimicked by Petty, but, lo and behold, this track off Wildflowers is Bayou-drenched all the way.  That murky opening riff sounds like one of Fogerty’s classics, so much so that “Cabin Down Below” sounds like it was situated right near “Green River.”

Wildflowers was technically a solo Petty album, but all the Heartbreakers are present and accounted for here (with Steve Ferrone on drums), and the band clearly relishes the opportunity to get down into the muck and mire.  So does Petty, dropping into his lowest register to savor every last bit of lasciviousness in the lyrics.  Mr. Fogerty would certainly approve.

Song 80: “The Dark Of The Sun”
Album: Into the Great Wide Open

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Inspired by some stargazing by its author, this track off Into the Great White Open is another from that album that wears the distinctively glossy production of Jeff Lynne on its sleeve.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that since those pristinely polished acoustic guitars suit the dreamy subject matter.

Petty nicely conveys the feeling of getting lost in one’s thoughts while looking skyward.  Check out these astral musings: "Past my days of great confusion/Past my days of wondering why/Will I sail into the heavens/Constellations in my eyes."

There’s a nice touch of poetic wistfulness about the whole affair, albeit tinged with Petty’s usual resilience.  After all, the song ends with the triumphant last line:  “We will stand as one.”  “The Dark Of The Sun” is a nicely understated and overlooked entry in the Petty songbook, perfect for anyone whose head strays into the clouds from time to time.

Song 79: “Can’t Stop The Sun”
Album: The Last DJ

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Maybe The Last DJ is a bit of a downer on the whole, but it ends with a hopeful wish fulfillment from Tom Petty.  After big business and corporate greed runs rampant over the narrative throughout, “Can’t Stop The Sun” depicts both the artists and their audience declaring that they’ve had enough.  

The title of the song is telling, because Petty is comparing the resiliency of music-lovers everywhere to one of life’s certainties, the presence of the sun.  And when you think about it, it’s not really that naïve to think that talent will eventually win out and find its way to an audience in spite of all obstacles.  After all, this man and his band are a prime example.

If the indefatigable theme of the lyrics doesn’t get the point across, then the thunderous guitar attack surely does.  Mike Campbell, who also helped out with the words on this rare occasion, is a virtual maelstrom here, seemingly attempting to shatter the forces of greed all on his own.  The Heartbreakers on the whole are in fierce form on this track, sending the album out on a note of triumph.  Even “Mr. Businessman” himself couldn’t help be impressed.

Song 78: “Room At The Top”
Album: Echo

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Opening up Echo, an album that comes as close as Petty has ever come to a dark-night-of-the-soul-style lament, “Room At The Top” sets the ruminative tone.  While Petty practically brags about the titular location as being a getaway from it all, we can read between the lines and tell that this room is more like a fortress of solitude.

But Petty isn’t the type to suffer in silence.  Producer Rick Rubin made the suggestion to shift the tone in the second verse away from the folky strumming of the first verse into full-out rock overdrive.  It turns out to be a good suggestion, as it keeps things from getting too maudlin.  Petty also gets in some moments of dry humor, such as when he suggests as having over $1,000 in the bank is more than enough to get him by.

Not only is the band locked in here as a unit, but there are some opportunities for individual brilliance, such as when Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench get involved in ingenious guitar-and-clavinet interplay during the instrumental break.  Ultimately, things return to the more subdued tenor of the first section, once again accentuating the loneliness of the protagonist.  Alternating between poignancy and raucousness, “Room At The Top” expertly encapsulates the tumult caused by the end of a long relationship.

Song 77: “Mystery Man”
Album: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

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I may have said it already in the course of this countdown, and I’m sure I’ll say it again, but Tom Petty doesn’t get near enough credit for his singing ability.  It’s fun to snicker and imitate him in a broad, caricature-like whine, but in reality his is a far more versatile instrument, capable of many shades and styles depending on the mood he’s trying to convey.

That instrument was already in fine form on the Heartbreakers’ opening album in 1976, as evidenced by this nifty, forgotten track.  Petty does some truly soulful emoting in trying to convince his intended target of his qualifications as a clandestine lover.  The lyrics, filled with “baby’s” and “honey’s," allows Petty to play the Soul Man role to the hilt.

The song stands out from the rest of the hard-drivers on that debut album, even featuring a bit of country twang in Mike Campbell’s guitar.  But it’s Petty who has the spotlight here, and you can practically hear him bending low with the mike stand in hand in a valiant effort to get the girl.

Song 76: “When the Time Comes”
Album: You're Gonna Get It

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Labeling Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers was a difficult thing to do in the early days.  The simplest answer would have been to call them a rock ‘n’ roll band.  But rock was fragmenting so rapidly at that time that it must have seemed ludicrous to expect one band to cover all those bases.

So Petty & Co. got stuck with all kinds of tags, and New Wave was one of them.  The band’s second album, You’re Gonna Get It, certainly contains a few songs that might have New Wave leanings, including this rip-roaring opening track.  

What this song shares with offerings by other New Wave bands is a certain rigidity of structure, every sound made by the instruments properly placed for maximum punch and impact, with nothing in excess.  But New Wave could also encompass the satiric robot-rock of Devo or the arch innuendo of the Cars, which have little to do with what the Heartbreakers were producing.

If one insists on labeling this song, and those similar others from the second album, then power pop a la Big Star is a comfier fit.  “When The Time Comes” comes from a similarly organic place, with the driving guitars (as well as a great bassline from Ron Blair) bringing the thunder while the silky harmonies in the refrain do the caressing.  The lyrics are chosen more for the way they punch up the melody than for any meaning they convey, but it all fits together seamlessly.  Call it whatever you want, man, just recognize it as an excellent piece of work.

Song 75: “Only A Broken Heart”
Album: Wildflowers

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This song off Wildflowers is one that grows on you.  At first listen, it sounds like a simple little acoustic ditty.  But repeated exposure allows the song to work its magic, casting a hazy reverie with basic elements woven together to create a powerful effect.

For instance, the languid style of the acoustic guitars is complemented by the woozy harmonium and mellotron effects produced by Benmont Tench.  Petty’s voice is ethereal throughout, giving the song a sedate, Neil Young vibe.

I personally love the title too, Petty’s humor again slipping in unexpectedly.  Saying “It’s Only A Broken Heart” is a bit like saying it’s only the end of the world, especially to someone going through it.  It’s just one more little touch that gives this otherwise unassuming track a surprising shelf life.

Song 74: “Hometown Blues”
Album: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

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You’ve got another example here of Petty throwing changes of pace at his audience even before they knew what his pace was.  Found on his first album, “Hometwon Blues” was recorded in piecemeal fashion, with the legendary Duck Dunn on bass and Mudcrutch drummer Randall Marsh handling the skins.  The Heartbreakers polished things up for the album.

The chunky rhythm isn’t what you would associate with a Petty song, but, considering it was his first album, there weren’t any real expectations to confound.  It was just the songwriter’s muse taking him into new territory.  

What is consistent with Petty’s later work is the nuance in the lyrics.  “Hometown Blues” is a striking dissection of small-town life and its inherent ennui.  Even romance doesn’t quite shake up the doldrums:  “Said it’s so good, said it’s so real/Might not last but it’s no big deal.”  If nothing else, though, it serves its purpose:  “Honey I really need you/To help me kill a little bit of time.”  Petty’s outlook was already realistic and world-weary beyond his years, but the bouncy music keeps things from getting too depressing.  Just like a small town, some bits of fun eventually surface to keep the monotony at bay.

Song 73: “Rhino Skin”
Album: Echo

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I don’t know what it’s like to be divorced, but I would imagine that anyone who goes through it has to be at their most vulnerable in the immediate aftermath.  So I guess it’s not unexpected that Tom Petty, in the aftermath of his own divorce, would envy the survival techniques of wild animals in this moody offering from Echo.

Not just rhino skin, but elephant balls as well, are necessary to make it on your own.  Petty’s lyrics may be talking tough, but his voice sounds raw and wary.  It’s a performance that he probably didn’t have to think too much about to pull off.

The music is taut and spare, all tension with very little release.  Some intertwining guitars at song’s end set free a bit of the pent-up frustration, as do the drums which eventually come to the fore after the itchy opening parts.  It’s a delicate performance that’s expertly pulled off by the band, an impressive rendering of tough material.  “Rhino Skin” isn’t really catharsis as much as it is exposing the wounds for all to see.

Song 72: “The Trip To Pirate’s Cove”
Album: Mojo

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Filled with mischievous preachers and loose women, “The Trip To Pirate’s Cove” is a quasi-mystical road trip to Santa Cruz that enlivens Mojo.  It’s an odd combination of Springsteen’s “Spirit In The Night” and the Doors’ “Riders On The Storm”, but it works in spite of those seemingly clashing elements.

The relentless groove has a somewhat sinister edge to it, echoing the dead ends that Petty and his buddy seem to encounter in the song.  But it’s the spooky keyboard parts of Benmont Tench that give the song its distinctively eerie edge.  

Striking out in a Defender, Petty and his pal run across all sorts of unsavory characters and bizarre situations, and you can tell that the songwriter has his tongue partly in his cheek throughout.  He drops a few killer lines  (“She was a part of my heart/Now she’s just a line in my face”), and somehow, in spite of the unusual events, seems almost nostalgic for this trip to nowhere.  I guess I can see why; if it was half as fun to experience as it is to listen to, “The Trip To Pirate’s Cove” must have been a blast.

Song 71: “Wake Up Time”
Album: Wildflowers

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I’m not sure that anyone ever thinks of melodic genius when they think of Tom Petty, but this gorgeous offering that closes out Wildflowers makes a strong argument for that case.  It is achingly pretty, and you can hear why Petty is so fond of this song.

The beautiful tune called out for a unique approach, something that a typical band couldn’t have offered.  When all was said and done, Petty played those stately piano chords himself while Mike Campbell and Steve Ferrone provided the gentle rhythm section on bass and drums.  Most notable of all are the stately strings, arranged by Michael Kamen, which caress every last inch of beauty from Petty’s tune.

The song itself is about the disillusionment that we all face as we grow older, as promises are dashed and youthful dreams are left behind.  I’ve always been lukewarm on Petty speaking the refrain instead of singing it; while I understand that it was TP’s way of highlighting the importance of his message, I feel like it takes away from the power of the music somewhat.  But it’s a small quibble, and one that doesn’t in any way match up to the positives in this truly lovely song.