Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - History of the Band
Written by Steve - BONUSTRAX@aol.com
Tom Petty was born and raised in Gainesville, Florida. His interest in rock ‘n’ roll music began at age 10 when he met Elvis Presley. In the summer of 1961, his uncle was working on the set of Elvis' film "Follow That Dream" in nearby Ocala, Florida and invited Tom to come down and watch the shoot. He instantly became an Elvis Presley fan and soon traded his Wham-O slingshot for a box of Elvis 45's which he would play over and over again. His musical aspirations were triggered a few years later when The Beatles came to America in 1964. From the moment he saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, he knew he wanted to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band.
Petty’s first band in high school was The Sundowners and later he joined The Epics. In 1970, Petty and fellow Epic member Tom Leadon formed Mudcrutch with drummer Randall Marsh and guitarist Mike Campbell. Leadon left the band in 1972, replaced by guitarist Danny Roberts. The line-up was completed with the addition of keyboardist Benmont Tench.
In 1974, Tom Petty and his band Mudcrutch left their hometown of Gainesville, Florida for California in search of a record deal. Several record companies showed interest in the group and they decided to accept an offer from Shelter Records, a label run by Leon Russell and record producer Denny Cordell. A single "Depot Street" backed with "Wild Eyes" was released on February 24, 1975 but it didn't chart. Recording sessions for an album didn't go well and bassist Danny Roberts left the band, replaced by Charlie Sousa from Gainesville. Cordell then sent them to Tulsa for six weeks to work things out in the studio. Those sessions yielded the original version of the future Top 40 hit "Don't Do Me Like That" and the rocker "I Can't Fight It" but they were still unsuccessful in their efforts to complete an album and eventually the band broke up.
As 1975 turned to 1976, Petty was working on a solo album with session musicians Al Kooper (keyboards), Emory Gordy (bass) and Jim Gordon (drums) along with Mudcrutch guitarist Mike Campbell. The sessions produced an early version of "Louisiana Rain" and the ballad "Since You Said You Loved Me" but Petty was not completely satisfied with the music, preferring the sound of a working band as opposed to using studio musicians.
Meanwhile, Mudcrutch keyboardist Benmont Tench had assembled a group of Gainesville musicians for a demo session on the evening of February 10, 1976. The lineup consisted of Stan Lynch on drums, Ron Blair on bass, with Jeff Jourard and Mike Campbell on guitars. Tom Petty also dropped by the studio and when he heard them play he realized this was the band he wanted. The new band of old friends was soon recording a new batch of Petty songs to be released under the moniker "Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers".
Upon its release in November 1976, their debut album received little attention and only sold about 6,500 copies in its first three months. The first two singles "Breakdown" and "American Girl" failed to chart. The short, punchy songs were quite different from the bloated rock productions that dominated Album-Oriented Rock radio at the time. Even their record company hardly knew what to make of it and the album wasn't properly promoted. Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone seemed similarly confounded in his review of the album - "Who knows where these guys are from? What they look like is a tough teenage band, who maybe double as a car club on nights when they can't get dates. No part is particularly special - songs, singing, playing are all of primordial L.A. rock, like Love or the Seeds. But it's such a Sixties throwback, you can't help but fall in love." More often their music was described as heavily influenced by The Byrds, The Rolling Stones and The Animals but without sounding nostalgic or cloying.
The album's cover, a photo of Petty in a black leather jacket with a bandolier draped over his shoulder, gave the impression they were a Punk Rock group which certainly didn't help sales. Petty told Bam magazine "I don't understand why people call me Punk. That's caused me more shit than you can believe. It's caused problems with my record company and just about everyone else I deal with. It's like "This guy's a Punk. Bring him in here and he'll tear the room up." Where is that at? It seems as though anyone who's white, under 25 and in a band is considered a Punk these days. They don't know what to call you. They call it "New Wave" but that's bullshit. We're not the Black Panthers or a political wave, and there's not fire-spitting or back flips. Just rock 'n' roll. Hopefully good rock 'n' roll."
Over in England in the music scene was quite different and fans and critics were quick to appreciate this new, spirited American rock 'n' roll band. The January 1, 1977 issue of Sounds magazine proclaimed their album was "purely and simply the best mainstream rock debut by any American band this year and anyone who doesn’t rush out and buy the booger immediately don’t know nuthin’!". Opening for Nils Lofgren on his UK tour, there was a near riot 15 minutes into their first show when enthusiastic fans rushed the stage. After the Lofgren tour the band stayed in England for its own tour as headliners and the album soon reached #24 on the UK chart.
Growing up during the heyday of AM radio in musically rich 1960s, Petty was sometimes critical of the state of the radio and music business he was trying to break into. In his first major interview with the Los Angeles Times (April 26, 1977) he said "I want to give the radio back to the kids. That's one thing I'd like to see. I remember a time when you could turn on the AM radio and just set there all day and listen. Now I keep punching the button and hope something will come on that's worth listening to. There's nothing. They don't play the young bands. Boston is just MOR as far as I'm concerned. There's no threat there. And disco just ain't right."
Speaking of Disco, Tom had this to say to Bam magazine: "The success of Disco infuriates me. It's a bad joke. It's a sick trip. The point of rock 'n' roll is to make you feel. Disco is trance music. It puts you in a trance so you don't have to feel...so that you just move. It's an ugly business. It's a rip-off. The money people...the people behind Disco...are trying to convince the kids they can't dance to anything else. Fuck. People have danced to rock and roll for 20 years."
News of the band's success in England finally brought it some well deserved attention back home. Ten months after its release, the debut album entered Billboard's Top LP's & Tapes chart for week ending September 24, 1977. Realizing they could indeed sell records, Petty and manager Tony Dimitriadas demanded a commitment from ABC for more promotion and recording of the next album was put off until Petty's contracts were re-structured. The single "Breakdown" was re-issued with the popular album track "Fooled Again" as the b-side and debuted on Billboard's Hot 100 chart the week ending November 5, 1977.
In May 1978, Tom appeared in the movie "FM" and the song "Breakdown" was included on the hit soundtrack album. That same month, their second LP "You're Gonna Get It!" was released. Right away the album was a strong seller, going Gold in just two months, and two standout tracks “I Need To Know” and “Listen To Her Heart” became AOR radio hits. Although slowly shedding the New Wave label attached to him early on, Petty’s fresh, energetic approach put him in company with other newcomers like Patti Smith and Elvis Costello but his classic rock ‘n’ roll style and lyrical themes invited comparisons to Bob Seger and Bruce Springsteen. During this period, Tom said “There’s a lot of changes in music today. When we came up in ’77, we couldn’t even get an agency to represent us. People thought our sound was uncommercial. But the success of ‘Breakdown’ and the success of bands like The Cars and Blondie and Cheap Trick shows there’s a market for this kind of rock ‘n’ roll.”
Recording sessions for the third album had already begun when, on January 31st, 1979, American Broadcasting Companies Inc. announced the sale of ABC Records to entertainment conglomerate MCA Inc. which assumed immediate responsibility for pressing and distributing ABC records and its affiliated labels. In March, Petty made it clear he didn't consider himself under contract to MCA, citing a provision in his contract re-negotiated last year with Shelter that he could not be switched to a different label without his consent. Feeling he hadn't gotten enough support from ABC early on, Petty had legitimate concerns about his records being handled by a new label where he didn't know anyone. More importantly, he needed to get out of his original recording and publishing contracts which were grossly unfair. His original publishing contract with Denny Cordell’s Skyhill Publishing provided a $10,000 annual advance in exchange for all publishing royalties. This was re-negotiated before the second album was released, giving Petty 50% of the publishing royalties but not until after his fourth album.
Meanwhile, a young MCA executive named Danny Bramson had booked their prize act for two dates at MCA's Universal Amphitheater in late July. But negotiations with MCA turned contentious and Shelter and MCA sued Petty for breach of contract claiming he owed $575,000 in unrecouped advances which would be automatically repaid only if he remained with the label and made another six albums. Petty responded by filing for bankruptcy protection in May, claiming $575,000 in debt, assets of $56,000 and previous year's income of $38,000. Petty’s lawyers argued that the royalty rate in his recording contract was so low that it would be impossible repay the amount owed to the record company. If Petty succeeded in proving bankruptcy, the contract would be voided. Other record companies were interested in signing the potential free agent. Rumors surfaced that Petty had signed a multi-million dollar deal with Epic Records but MCA had obtained a temporary restraining order preventing any such deal.
The new album, originally due in May, remained unfinished while work on it stopped because he had run out of funds. MCA threatened to take the tapes and release whatever had been recorded so far. Fake names were put on the tape boxes and at one point they were placed in the trunk of roadie Bugs Weidel’s car to elude the U.S. Marshals who had a court order to seize the tapes. Ultimately the judge had to come to the studio with lawyers for both sides to determine exactly what constituted a finished album.
Without an album to promote, Petty considered pulling out of the Universal concerts but wanted to get out and let fans know what was happening with the group and also to make some money just to pay the bills. But first, he had to appear in court to ask the judge for permission to play because an injunction prevented him from performing in concert. MCA argued that they, a creditor in the bankruptcy case, should get the money from the tour lest Petty used it to finance work on the album. However, Petty convinced the judge he only needed the money to live on. A few warm-up dates were added and it was dubbed the "lawsuit tour".
After the lawsuit tour, Danny Bramson approached Petty's managers (Tony Dimitriadas and Elliot Roberts of Lookout Management) about signing him to the MCA subsidiary Backstreet Records which he headed. When Cordell, fearing Petty would succeed in bankruptcy court, accepted a settlement, MCA was able to reach an agreement that had Petty signed to Backstreet but with the stipulation that he would always be the top artist on the label. Also, by arguing that he was coerced into signing the publishing contract as a condition of getting the original Shelter recording contract, Petty would also gain control of his publishing but for now the songs already written for the third album would be under Skyhill Publishing. In the end, Petty racked up over $1 million in legal fees and witnessed some seldom seen aspects of the music business (lawyers fighting the parking lot, lawyers caught in collusion and forced to leave their firm).
"Damn The Torpedoes" was released on October 19, 1979 and quickly became a break-out hit. In its second week on the Billboard chart it jumped 84 spots to #30, one of the biggest jumps in chart history. The album soon reached the #2 spot where it remained for seven weeks behind Pink Floyd's "The Wall". Don’t Do Me Like That #10 and Refugee #15 rock ‘n’ roll regained its place in the Top 40
The supporting tour got off to a rocky start in November with Tom suffering a sore throat from tonsillitis. He lost his voice after the second show of the tour and had to postpone the next night's concert at the last minute. Another show was postponed and three others were cancelled before the U.S. tour ended in January. In February 1980, the troublesome tonsils were removed and Petty was back on tour again a few weeks later.
In early 1981 the upcoming Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album (working title: Benmont's Revenge) was slated to be the next MCA release with the new list price of $9.98, following Steely Dan's Gaucho and the Olivia Newton-John/Electric Light Orchestra Xanadu soundtrack. This so-called "superstar pricing" was $1.00 more than the usual list price of $8.98. Petty voiced his objections to the price hike in the press and the issue became a popular cause among music fans. Non-delivery of the album or naming it Eight Ninety-Eight were considered but eventually MCA relented and Hard Promises hit the stores a month late on May 5, 1981 (where you could buy it for $5.99 at most places). Now firmly established as one of the top American recording acts, the band embarked on their first arena tour but not without a glitch. The tour was scheduled to start June 1st in Toledo but Tom injured his knee while working out on a trampoline and the early dates had to be re-scheduled. In Chicago, radio station WLUP "The Loop" bought all 15,000 tickets for the Petty concert there to be given away to fans as a promotion. Rival station WMET responded by boycotting Petty's music in protest.
Peeples, Stephen. “Hogtown Boys Make Good” Rock Around the World, October 1977
Hilburn, Robert. “Petty Courts Fans on Lawsuit Tour” Los Angeles Times, July 27, 1979
Gilmore, Mikal. “Tom Petty’s Real-Life Nightmares” Rolling Stone, February 21, 1980
Marsh, Dave. “Tom Petty” Musician, July 1981
DeYoung, Bill. “Full Steam Ahead” Goldmine, July 13, 1990
Flanagan, Bill. Playback liner notes 1995