Friday Night with Guitar George: Tom Petty Edition


On a Saturday morning in the summer of 1978 I walked into Wally’s Record Store on Mount Meigs Road in Montgomery and plopped five bucks on the counter for a copy of You’re Gonna Get It, the second album by a promising new band from Florida that was led by a singing, songwriting, guitar-playing whiz kid named Tom Petty.  The previous night it had taken precisely two minutes and twenty seconds for me to go from being vaguely aware of who Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were to wanting to rush out and buy their record first thing the next morning. They had appeared on The Midnight Special on Friday night and played “I Need to Know” from You’re Gonna Get it.  Two minutes and twenty seconds of straight up, straightforward, no-bullshit rock-n-roll, the way God and Buddy Holly intended it to be. I bought the album hoping that at least a few other songs would be as gut-punchingly good as “I Need to Know.”  Holy crap, the entire album was loaded with straight-up, straightforward, no-bullshit rock-n-roll.  A couple of weak tracks, but even they were better than ninety percent of what was being played on the radio around that time.  Bassist Ron Blair and drummer Stan Lynch thumped away with authority, Benmont Tench’s piano and organ were there when and where needed but otherwise stayed out of the way, Petty slashed out rhythm guitar while singing with urgency and confidence, and lead guitarist Mike Campbell immediately became a hero of mine and remains so to this day.

A year later Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released their breakthrough album Damn the Torpedoes to a punk-weary and disco-fatigued American audience that was ripe for a no-nonsense, grass roots rock band.  New Wave had been all fine and good, but Blondie was too slick, the Cars too gimmicky, the Police too quirky, and Elvis Costello too sardonic for those of us who craved the kind of guitar-fueled musical immediacy and streetwise lyrical sagacity that Petty and his mates were doling out in abundance.  The hit singles “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Refugee” helped propel Damn the Torpedoes up the charts and suddenly I wasn’t the only Tom Petty fan in the world.  Although not released as a single, “Here Comes My Girl” is the centerpiece of the album.  It is such a beautifully crafted song I almost wept when I first heard it (still almost do, to be honest).  Even though Petty either talks or yells most of the lyrics, the song exudes a certain gracefulness as it moves along at a stately, almost elegiac pace. The arrangement of the musical parts in the mix is such that the song’s underlying power lies in the spaces in between.  Petty and Campbell knew they had something special on their hands with “Here Comes My Girl”, as they beautifully describe in this video.

Damn the Torpedoes was the tip of an iceberg—Tom Petty went on to have a very successful and impressively prolific career both with the Heartbreakers and as a solo artist, thus it is quite likely that we will visit him again on FNWGG.  For this week, apart from the video of the band discussing “Here Comes My Girl” that is linked above, I leave you with only the aforementioned two minute twenty second Midnight Special performance of  “I Need to Know.”  If you aren’t already a Petty fan, I can just about guarantee that you will be two and a half minutes from now.

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