Destined to be played next to his childhood heroes on the FM airwaves.
Chris Jones 2009-01-09
After 11 years as the undisputed driving force behind his band, the Heartbreakers, Tom Petty had become global currency. Nothing underlined this fact more than his acceptance into the ranks of rock's elder statesmen/buddies as a 'member' of the Travelling Wilburys (albeit by accident, due to George Harrison leaving his axe at Petty's house). It was while taking this lighthearted sojourn that he began to write songs that, to his ears, sounded 'nothing like Heartbreakers songs''. Forming an unlikely alliance with the king of Beatlesque soft rock, Jeff Lynne of ELO, he immediately set to recording what was to be his first solo album.
Petty had always worn his influences on his sleeve: like many of his American peers preferring to see himself as part of a lineage rather than a new order replacing worn out models (ironically the Heartbreakers had been seen in the more easily iconoclastic UK as something akin to New Wave). But Full Moon Fever was a chance for Petty to both take stock AND openly acknowledge his influences. Nowhere was this more evident than on his cover of the Byrds' Feel A Whole Lot Better. Of course everyone over the age of 25 knew that he sounded just like Roger McGuinn, but here the uncanny resemblance was made plain. Other songs addressed nostalgia while examining how he'd reached this level of success. Hit single Free Fallin' mistily looked back at a childhood sweetheart (''She's a good girl, crazy 'bout Elvis... I'm a bad boy for breakin' her heart") left in his wake as he left Florida for the West Coast in search of stardom, while Runnin' Down A Dream mentions the teenage years of listening to Del Shannon. The album's other hit, I Won't Back Down, similarly 'fessed up about the hard-nosed attitude needed to make it in such a cut-throat business.
What also marks this as different from previous work was the movement away from harder edged rock, using the production methods of new pal Lynne to coat more introspective songs with lush, multilayered acoustics and keyboards. It also marked the point where Petty knew he was a big enough name to step out sans a band moniker, even though both Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench appear on the album. From this point Petty was a 'classic' artist'. Whether with the Heartbreakers, playing with Dylan or even the Wilburys, he'd reached the apogee of his ambition: destined to be played next to his childhood heroes on the FM airwaves that blew through the Californian night.