I am always doubtful of those who claim to like the full body of a great artist’s catalogue. For me the process of creating a great body of work involves exploring, sometimes turning back and sometimes failing. I have followed Tom Petty’s career from his first album, seeing him twice in the early years. Despite him having eschewed UK tours for the past two decades I have followed his work closely. The Live Anthology is an excellent way for fans living outside of the United States to catch up on what we have been missing. I confess to holding a mild grudge against Tom for deserting the country which recognised him first, and gave him his first significant commercial success!
On the face of it Tom came to the UK at the worst possible time, when Punk was breaking and the mob was assembling to storm the barricades of bloated flaccid musical self indulgence, so why did he find a place in the hearts of UK music fans when the absurd pomposity of rock generally, and US rock in particular, was being binned? His eponymous first album musically was trad rock, at the opposite end of the spectrum to what was happening in London and the backstreets of New York. The leather jacket on the album cover art the only nod to the emerging scene. But it did have one classic song on it (arguably his only cross-over hit and still his signature song) “American Girl” and that drew attention even though it was against the flow of the UK musical tide. Closer inspection reveals two other songs which are live staples 36 years on, “Breakdown” and “The Wild One”, a balance of strong material, and only one, “Mystery Man “ which has disappeared without trace. In retrospect, it was a stronger debut than was apparent at the time.
When the second album “You’re Gonna Get It” was released, the punk mob had stormed the barricades and taken over. Yet somehow Petty’s PR team stayed ahead of the game, moody black and blue cover art, an aggressive title, and a quasi-punk single, “I Need To Know”, all angular guitars, a catchy hook and under two and half minutes, were enough to get a pass from the New Music Commissars. Eleven of the songs on his first two albums were under three minutes, that met not only contemporary mores, they also reprised the snappy concise early rock n roll , Elvis Presley and Beatles songs that he grew up with.
Playing in front of 100,000 people with only two albums behind you is a daunting prospect, but that is exactly what I saw the band do, supporting Genesis at Knebworth, on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Of course by that time various incarnations of the band had been playing together for a decade so in truth this was a far more seasoned act than might have been assumed – and it showed. A festival setting and a 40 minute slot showed that the fleshed out versions of “Fooled Again” and “Breakdown” were far more representative of what the band were about than the short staccato album cuts. It was their coming of age as an international act, they showed that they had the material, skill and brio to handle whatever rock n roll was going to throw at them.
Some eighteen months later I caught them again at the Hammersmith Odeon in London on the “Damn the Torpedoes” tour which showed them in their true colours. The Punk tide had ebbed to allow a far more diverse New Wave to emerge in the UK. All punk paraphernalia was forgotten, instead we saw them in their true colours, a very good rock band with a strong canon of material. “Refugee” stood out as an instant cult classic. This time only one song was under three minutes, older material was fleshed out and the trademark 12 string jangling guitar sound, a feature of “American Girl” came to the fore, as did their debt to the Byrds. Yet I cannot say they were original, groundbreaking or cutting edge, their skill was in assimilating the sounds of others, and perfecting it, an art which has held them in good stead ever since. Live Petty is a great band leader, but not a great front man.
It is only when I saw Bogdanovic’s Heartbreaker’s documentary ,“Runnin’ Down a dream” that Petty’s place in the history of Rock, and his debt to others, became apparent. “Anything That’s Rockn Roll’s Fine” is a poor pastiche of the Rolling Stone’s “I Know it’s Only Rock n Roll”, “Refugee” a clever reheat of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and none of Petty’s best love songs can match the joy of neil Youngs “When You dance” or “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”. Yet although he can never emulate his heroes at their best he can work their themes as well as anyone, and better than most. The Anthology reveals Petty at his happiest covering others , from “Goldfinger” through “Oh Well” to “Something in the Air”. Previously “Needles and Pins”, “Cmon Everybody”, “Route 66” and “Shout” had been committed to vinyl with versions that outshone their original incarnations. Yet in reverse, for an artist with such a massive body of recording he is curiously little covered by other artists.
The last time I saw him live was in London in 87 supporting Bob Dylan, and then acting as Dylan’s backing band, first support was Roger Mcguinn. In perfect symmetry , Petty duetted with Mcguinn on Dylan’s “Tambourine Man “, then backed Dylan on “Like a Rolling Stone”. The superstar collective “The Travelling Wilbury’s epitomised Petty’s ability to hold his own , and synthesise with, musical greats like Harrison, Lynne, Dylan and Orbison without ever dominating. He got the best out of everyone, which is what he has always done with the hugely talented Heartbreakers.
The Live Anthology works because it isn’t a greatest hits collection, nor is it chronological, it simply picks out highlights from thirty years of live concerts, but without the “Sixth Heartbreaker” – Stevie Nicks. And there are some terrific moments. “Refugee” is faithful and grand, “Woman in Love” and “It’s Good to be King” a combined eighteen minutes of aural heaven with Benmont Tench’s keyboard work quite sublime, elevating him to Roy Bittan status
The song choices are fine, althoughI would have loved to see “Too Much Ain’t Enough” in place of the crass “Century City” and space found for the wonderful “Casa “Dega”.At some four hours, it still isn’t long enough and confirms through song quality, performance and longevity, that Petty is up there with Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen in the pantheon of US Rock Greats. It also explains his lack of cross-over classics, his songs take the very best from what you have already heard, and presents them in a familiar and appealing form. Petty would have killed to have written “Street Fighting Man”, “Sweet Home Alabama”, “Fire” ,“Only Love Can Break Your Heart”” or “If You See her say Hello”, but it is not in his nature. Instead we are left with a man who by a process of osmosis, and with consummate skill, has come to represent the best of what American music has had to offer over six decades , rather than be the personification of it. This four disc set is a pretty representative slice of that legacy.