Today, I have a piece on Tom Petty’s 12 greatest songs posted at The Federalist, the writing of which consumed yesterday’s blogging time.
Obviously, one of the main functions of compiling lists is that everyone has one, even if only mentally, so it’s unlikely you will agree. Indeed, I don’t know that I completely agree with myself, which is why I sneak another 9-12 songs into the column.
The big question whenever one writes a piece like this is how conventional to be versus how obscure. In this case, once I realized that Petty’s music is almost always in the air, it might be more interesting to mostly revisit songs most of you know, just because they are so ubiquitous that we tend to take their greatness for granted.
That said, it turns out that 4 of the 12 do not appear on Petty’s greatest hits album, and 7 are not among the top ten most streamed at Spotify. Again, it’s a form of tribute to Petty that you will probably have some passing acquaintance with all of them, with the possible exception of “King of the Hill,” which Petty co-wrote and on which he dueted with Roger McGuinn, a founder of the Byrds. Then again, maybe some of you will be less familiar — looking at the Spotify streams suggests that perhaps Millennials are less familiar with Petty’s middle period.
I could have written more about each of these songs, and about Petty, but it’s amazing how quickly the word count escalates with 12 subjects.
For example, while the column alludes to how Petty related to his Southern roots, and to Americana, but there’s an unexplored subtext about how these things manifest in Petty’s music. I briefly compare TP&H to Cheap Trick and “Refugee” to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” but I could write an essay comparing and contrasting these artists.
After all, Petty, Springsteen and Cheap Trick may sand alone as 70s rockers who overtly draw upon the influence of their Sixties predecessors, particularly their American predecessors. A band like Aerosmith was far more influenced by British blues-rockers like the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds. Cheap Trick had the Midwestern sound, but was also clearly influenced by The Beatles, The Who, and The Move.
Petty and Springsteen incorporated more from this side of the Atlantic, yet still differ by their choices.
Springsteen started with the “New Dylan” hype, became a phenomenon echoing Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound,” and eventually worked his way back to Elvis Presley, Eddie Cochran, Johnny Cash and Woody Guthrie. When Bruce went British, he tended to favor second- and third-tier British invasion acts like the Searchers and Manfred Mann.
Petty was far more into the Byrds, as I note at The Fed, tho I left out the story McGuinn tells about hearing “American Girl” the first time and asking himself when he wrote it. And some of Petty’s darker tracks have that air of the intro to the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Otherwise, the influences are usually subtler. You can hear the Heartbreakers as a sonic cousin to The Band, the swampier side of Creedence Clearwater Revival or even Lynyrd Skynyrd, but not necessarily as a direct descendant to any of them, primarily because of Petty’s commitment to Sixties pop forms.
On this last point, while Petty is rightly thought of as more rock than pop, his love of the latter also informs his songwriting. One of his hallmarks is economy. At the Fed, I mention the directness of his lyrics, but you can also see economy in the songs as recorded. The songs and the solos never wear out their welcome.
In contrast, other major rock acts of the 70s that we now think of a “classic rock” seemed to owe far less to the legacies of the Sixties. It is difficult to imagine Journey or Boston playing a Petty song, and vice versa.
Petty made good albums, includinga couple of great ones. But that lingering pop sensibility fostered an ethos drawn from the rock greats of making good albums with hit singles. This, as much as anything, is why I didn’t mind favoring those hits in assessing his legacy.
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