I have found myself on a late 80s early 90s rock kick. Which, outside glam metal I find is an often overlooked era for some great pure rock ‘n’ roll records and albums and maybe one the best of the era, decade, and possibly all time celebrated it’s 30th Anniversary in 2019 when I originally started writing this review. Full Moon Fever, the unofficial Traveling Wilburys record that gave Tom Petty his biggest hit, “Free Fallin’” is that rare album that when I am TRULY honest with myself, I can say it has ZERO filler. Every song is great, every song has a great hook, every song would make for a great sing-a-long, and most importantly every song is fun on some level! And it is one of the few rock records I’ve heard that sounds great in all kinds of environments; frat parties, backyard barbecues, alone with headphones, driving through the city at night, driving towards the highway horizon in Nevada or Idaho. This album works! “Free Fallin” is a great summer anthem but really the whole album is a summer anthem.
Just looking at the track listing I can hum something from almost every song on here. Now in full disclosure this is not my favorite Petty record, that is Into The Great Wide Open, where the production and songs feel like they have wider scope and great sense of open road adventure. But, “Full Moon Fever” is hands down a better party record. As I said it’s fun and less heady than some of the other Petty and Heartbreaker records. Almost as if he made this album for his kids, or your kids if you have any. Or hell, he made it for anybody who wants a good time. I have yet to meet somebody who does not like something off this record. And I think that has to do with the help he had behind the scenes. For as is often the case when a band member first goes solo they end up using their band mates as the studio musicians. For featured on many of these songs are members of his original band The Heartbreakers. Why play with new people when you already have a rapport with your usual suspects? But make no mistake this is not a Heartbreakers album. This is a Petty record. It doesn’t have that largess feel of a true Heartbreakers effort. I believe that is because of the co-stars on the album, mainly Jeff Lynne on production. But also features from two other Wilburys George Harrison and Roy Orbsion. Petty said it was the most fun he had making a record and it shows! It feels loose and laid back even on, “Runnin’ Down A Dream”. As I said before it is a fun record top to bottom.
And if we fuzz the definition of what a power-ballad is I think we can rightly argue the album opens with a Petty “power ballad” and his biggest hit, “Free Fallin’”. One of the great sing-a-longs people forget is a great sing-a-long. But put it on the jukebox at a bar and just watch the place erupt. Now that I am listening again, I see where the line, “The A&R man said I don’t hear a single” came from in the song, “Into The Great Wide Open”. The labels wanted another mega-hit after this.
“I Won’t Back Down”, fits in the lineage of other great outlaw/drifter songs bands like Bon Jovi, Posion, and others were releasing at the time. But unlike those other songs it never directly states such facts. It doesn’t have to because it shows us. And it is another GREAT sing-a-long. A few beers and everyone is belting, “Heyyyyyyyyy babyyy…” Or if you happen to be driving this is when you start to risk getting a speeding ticket.
Those first two tracks are really building to the first all high-octane pedal to the medal track on the album, “Love Is A Long Road”. And aside from just letting myself purely rock out. I am reminded of the lost skill that is album track order. Bold move to start with a ballad but it builds perfectly to this moment where I picture a haze of wheels and dust clouds long like the road of love.
For the next track, “A Face In The Crowd”, we make a pit stop at a roadside BBQ before we bring in even more horse power with. “Runnin’ Down A Dream”. How this is not a classic rock radio staple at this point is blasphemy. Also, I now realize this one of the great, what I call “manthems”. It preaches a chasing success and doing your own thing ethos in that stereotypical manly way the best rocks songs do. And it comes with an extended guitar solo outro for the ages all the time emphasizing that the “runnin’” will never end.
This leads us to side 2 for you vinyl people. And this is where the record “settles down”. We are no longer running but where we have settled is no less rockin’. The themes shift from those of exploration and journey to what we deal with when we arrive at the destination. “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better” is a great “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” track. Followed by “Yer So Bad”. Again track order matters. After just sending somebody off we now concede that despite all their flaws it could be worse.
But not me baby
I’ve got you to save me
But Yer so bad
Best thing I ever had
In a word gone mad
Yer so bad
Take bad however you choose.
This is followed by, “Depending On You”, which sort of completes a love trilogy combined with the first two tracks of side-b. And it sends us into “The Apartment Song”. We tried to settle down but instead settled for moving out on our own again. Here is a great rock shuffle two-step beat.
Oh yeah, I’m alright, I just feel a
Little lonely tonight
I’m okay, most of the time
I just feel a little lonely tonight
There is a story here for sure in the track order but each song stands on its own. The average track length is 3:00 minutes so no song sounds like it overstays or hogs the limelight.
“All Right Now”, feels like an acoustic lullaby written for a child. And it is our little breather before we’re back in love and back in the car of love driving past speed limit signs. “A Mind With A Heart Of Its Own” is one of my favorite tracks on the album. Fun quirky lyrics and well, “a mind with a heart of its own”? Yeah, I’ve had that problem MANY times.
Now the previous song, “All Right Now” would be the kind of song many other rockers would choose as an album closer. Send the listener off with a soft goodbye. But Petty gets even more playful with “Zombie Zoo”. As I often say, “If you’re not dancing, you might want to see your doctor and have that looked at”. Is the song about a retirement home? Is it about The Mall? It is really just a fun Halloween romp? Who cares. I also enjoy that the closing track has some prominent pumped-up bass drums. Fabulous. And when it all ends- It is just SO easy to get back in the car and start free fallin’ all over again.
But my journey takes me now to one of my favorite albums ever that turns 30. And I declare Into the Great Wide Open one of the GREAT road trip records of all time. I mean… let’s be real… It’s called Into The Great Wide Open. An album that starts with a song called, “Learning To Fly”. If that doesn’t make you feel like getting in some dusted up hooptie of your choice and driving ANYWHERE you must not have a pulse.
The reason I love this album is because I heard it when I was at the age that albums latch onto your DNA. I was probably 13 or 14. But while some albums from that era of my past don’t hold up even if nostalgia still hits my soul, Into The Great Wide Open is rockin’ ‘n’ rollin’ me to this day.
“King’s Highway” is one of my favorite driving fast on the highway songs ever. And may be my favorite Heartbreakers track ever. The hopes of and dreams in the song. And for all intents and purposes I grew up in a “six gun town” and certainly don’t want to grow up to be “someone I don’t even know”.
Much like Full Moon Fever, Into The Great Wide Open keeps moving. But unlike the former, the latter is not about the destination but the journey. “Into The Great Wide Open” was one of the big hits off the album and certainly seems to be telling Petty’s own rock story in many ways and his fight with the labels.
This cut is followed by Two Gunslingers a story song about, well, two gunslingers. But the line, “I’m taking control of my life” is clearly the real story. Whatever fight Petty was heading into he decided to go his own way and do it how he wanted.
What I noticed now about both these albums is how classic Petty and CO stay with the rock. No sax no rambling of solo wizardry. In many ways this record takes less chances than Full Moon Fever in terms of song styles. All the songs complement each other. It’s like a BBQ sandwich that has all the trimmings but the sauce doesn’t override everything and make is soggy. And AGAIN, track order people. Track. Order. “All or Nothing” comes dead center on the album with a blazing guitar intro. All the songs that come before lead to this moment. Do you take it all back home or do you continue on and go for it all. I never realized how this album plays out almost like the kind of concept stroy records that are a tradition in country music. The way each song builds on the previous ideas. This rock has none of the “ramblin’” like say, The Allman Brothers or Grateful Dead… it is all “rollin’”, forward.
The one lone ballad “All The Wrong Reasons” could be passed off as “Free Fallin’” 2 but it has bigger sound, I mean we’re in the great wide open. “Free Fallin’” was hanging out with “Vampires on Ventura Boulevard”. It’s as if the protagonist in “Free Fallin’” grew up and got the hell out of Dodge.
If I had to single out a track for least favorite it would be “Too Good To Be True” but yeah that isn’t saying much. And if we follow the narrative the album is telling well… uh… track order. It is also interesting to note that the male protagonist of, “Into The Great Wide Open” has not been present since “Two Gunslingers”. Was the male protagonist a side of Petty he had to reckon with and let go? And is this female protagonist a side of Petty that is easier to handle within the struggle of surviving. I don’t know but I never really noticed the strong female component in the lyrics on this album before. It creates a very cool duality to the tone of whole album.
And as if to answer my question about the male protagonist, “Out In Cold” comes exploding out of the speakers.
With some age and a deeper listen I am struck but how this album really is almost a short story or short film. It all plays to a narrative so damn well without ramming the idea down your throat or being super obtuse. It’s there if you want it, if not you can just rock out like always. Also, I find myself thinking about AC/DC because Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers like AC/DC picked a lane and stayed in that lane to the end of the line. Petty almost strayed into pure pop with, “Don’t Come Around Here” a song originally intended for Stevie Nicks but that’s one song out of a catalog that from the first to last records were straight ahead rock ‘n’ roll. Even his longtime friend Bruce Springsteen got remixed for the clubs but Petty was a rock classicist all the way to the grave. I think that’s in part why I LOVE this record so much. I also believe that is why Petty and the Heartbreakers (like AC/DC) lasted so long, reliability. They didn’t try to reinvent anything. They just get down to the dirty business of rock.
Speaking of which, “Makin Some Noise” is another favorite from the Heartbreakers catalog and another song I might call a “manthem”. All that rollin’ and sweatin’ in the great wide paid off as we’ve finally made it on our own terms. And we’re back to the thing we love doing most, makin’ noise. This song just hunkers down and gets into the barroom Saturday night groove. And that piano slamming through the outro let’s us know we will continue to make noise.
The album ends with, “Built To Last” an almost ballad that, sonically, is very open with the drums doing most of the lifting. And it seems the male and female protagonist of the album have joined together again and we get that happily ever after off in the sunset ending. Petty, making the point that the journey is not over and he, the Heartbreakers and therefore the listeners are “built to last” and soldier on into whatever wide open spaces we choose to occupy either literally, metaphorically, or both.
When Petty passed I didn’t mourn like some did for Bowie or Prince, it doesn’t seem to be in my nature to respond that way. I respond mainly by playing the music loud. And listening again to both of these albums, I was moved. They are a part or my youth but more importantly they just make me SO DAMN HAPPY. At the end of the day music is at its best when you can just put it on at a high volume and let it overtake every blood cell in you. I’m so deep into pop and dance music most of the time that to just put on an album, a rock album, and let it run wild is a real pleasure. It is also a reminder that rock originally was dance music. Not just music to help you break speed limits on flat lanes. But in the case of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers when it comes to breaking speed limits or dancing… Well… to quote a popular meme, “Why not both?”
The entire lot of them, all 24 from both albums.