Tom Petty Won’t Back Down (3 of 4)

“Somewhere, somebody, somehow
Must have k
icked you around some”- Refugee

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were playing a fair number of opening slots at this time (late ’70’s), including one memorable night where Ray Davies wouldn’t give up the stage for a sound check. When Kinks drummer Mick Avory tried to put an end to it, he and Davies got into a fistfight. “The last thing I saw of them,” Petty says, “they were going out the loading door.”

Tired of this type of bullshit, Petty took Springsteen’s advice and stopped playing opening gigs. Bruce had decided he’d rather play to ten people in a club who wanted to see him rather than 10,000 who came to see, say, Kiss. Petty even turned down opening for the Stones, reasoning the band would be lost in that circus. (Personally, I would have jumped all over that.)

In May of 1978, the band released its second album You’re Gonna Get It! which – Wikipedia advises us – “includes tight melodic songs awash in ringing guitars and organ.”

Here’s a tight tune that I’ve always dug, “I Need to Know.”

Spotify link

But in our zeal and love for rock and roll, let us not forget that the music business is, in fact, a business. And so Petty’s management advised him that – with his being lead singer, songwriter and arranger –  his long-time agreement with the band to have an even five-way split made no sense. They advised them that he’d eventually feel “bitter and used.”

And so a meeting was held by the band’s management – Tom didn’t attend – and they were advised that Tom would be taking a larger slice of the pie. This went down like a turd in a punch bowl. But interestingly, not one of the guys really challenged it or even quit the band. “These are the guys you wanted to play with,” said Benmont. “But it took years to accept.” Did the band now feel bitter and used? “You always wanted to be Elvis, Tom,” said Stan Lynch. “Now live with it.”

But first Petty had to get himself and the band out of their shitty Mudcrutch contract with Shelter. (I’ll keep the obligatory “record company fucks over artist” part fairly brief.) Shelter was by now being distributed by ABC which was sold to MCA.

Petty refused to go over to MCA and so in 1979, in an incredibly unusual step for an artist at that time, filed for bankruptcy. The whole industry was watching. You can read about this elsewhere but suffice it to say Petty wouldn’t back down. And won.

But oddly he sort of wound up on MCA anyway, or at least a subsidiary named Backstreet where he had what he really wanted, full artistic control. So not only did his bankruptcy gamble succeed, he wound up on a label named for his buddy Bruce Springsteen’s song. (Springsteen had ended his own legal troubles just the prior year.)

Enter Jimmy Iovine. (Who probably deserves his own post.) Maybe you know him if you know him at all as the founder of Interscope Records and Dr. Dre’s partner in Beats. But by the time he met Petty he was an engineer who had already worked with John Lennon (Walls and Bridges) and Bruce Springsteen (Born to Run) and produced Patti Smith (“Because the Night.”)

Iovine managed to connect with Petty and convince him that he thought his new material was some of the best stuff he’d ever heard. And Petty and Iovine co-produced what was to be Petty’s breakthrough third album, Damn the Torpedoes.

Not, however, without some drama. Everybody said that Stan was a great drummer for the band live, but in the studio, Iovine could not consistently get the groove he wanted and always felt they should fire Stan. But the Heartbreakers were one-for-all and that wasn’t gonna happen.

But the whole attitude really poisoned the well. They did seventy takes of “Refugee” trying to get the feel of it. “On Refugee,” advises co-writer Campbell, “ I had a mental breakdown. I just couldn’t take it anymore. We kept playing it over and over and over. …It sounded like Nazis marching. There was no groove.“

They eventually figured out the groove. “Tell me why you wanna lay there revel in your abandon.”

Spotify link

Whatever Petty and Iovine as co-producers of Torpedoes did worked as, released in late 1979, it was a smash and like Born to Run for Petty’s cruising pal, kicked him and the Heartbreakers up to the next level. (It was only kept from Number One because of The Wall.) The torpedoes were damned and in early 1980, Petty found himself on the cover of the Rolling Stone (“wanna buy five copies for my mother”).

The late Seventies, early Eighties were a fervent time for the anti-nuke crowd. Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt, among others, formed a collective called Musicians United for Safe Energy and did a pretty popular concert that included Petty, Springsteen, Gil Scott-Heron and a host of others. They made a movie and soundtrack album as well.

My favorite anecdote from the flick is this:  In the 1979 No Nukes movie, Tom Petty is interviewed. Since he went on before Springsteen, he was told that if it sounds like people are booing they are actually yelling “Bruce.” Said Petty, “What’s the difference?” Bonnie Raitt said, “Too bad his name wasn’t Melvin.”

It was right about this time that the band started to get Stevie Nicks’ attention. Now she was already in one of the biggest bands in the world. But she said this: “I would laughingly say to anyone that if I ever got to know Tom Petty, if he were ever to ask me to leave Fleetwood Mac and join his band I’d probably do it.” Petty, for his part, ignored her calls to his management not wanting to get tied up with a California supergroup. (Me, I would have taken her calls in a heartbeat.)

I was actually kind of surprised to know that Nicks and Petty were so tight. I knew they had done “Stop Dragging my Heart Around” together. (This track, essentially, is the Heartbreakers. They had already recorded it and Nicks and Petty sang over the track. It had never been intended for Stevie.)

But if the Petty bio can be believed, she really hung out and ingratiated herself with the band, even with Petty’s wife. And Petty’s producer, Jimmy Iovine, with whom she got into a relationship.

Tom worked with her on her Bella Donna album and is listed as co-producer. But Petty found it overwhelming and left most of the work to Iovine. (All this, perhaps, explains how Mike Campbell recently wound up on the road with Fleetwood Mac. Stevie’s known him for years. And he is integral to the Heartbreakers’ sound.)

By the early ’80s, Ron Blair* had started to become the outsider in the band, drifting off in his own private Idaho. Life on the road started getting to him. It had become a job. He brought his wife on the road sometimes which no one else did (bands can be boys’ clubs) and which they resented. Essentially he distanced himself. He got a call from management one day. They agreed to part company. “Everything,” said Blair, “was just life or death, and it took its toll on me.” He opened a bikini shop (!).

The last full album Ron played on was Hard Promises. My buddy Bill was a night watchman for a time. I called him up once long ago and sang “Nightwatchman” to him. He’d never heard it before. It amuses us because we are, frankly, simple folk. There are bigger hits. But I love this tune:

I’m the nightwatchman
I make the rounds
I’m the nightwatchman
I gotta keep my nose to the ground

Honey this ain’t no job for a man like me
I got potential, I could be just what you need
You got to think about the pros and cons
You could be right, you could be wrong

Spotify link

Around this time, Tom’s management convinced him to produce an album for one of his ’50’s heroes Del Shannon (“Runaway.”) Tom really dug Del’s bass player Howie Epstein and wanted him to replace the now-departed Blair. According to the Ultimate Classic Rock site:

“Petty recalled the phone call he got from Shannon. “[Del’s] furious and says, ‘Don’t take Howie. You cannot take Howie. I count on him so much. You can have anybody you want, but don’t take Howie. Why would you take my guy, we’re friends?’ I said, ‘Del, I love you, but I’m taking Howie.’”

In addition to his bass playing skills, Howie brought the high harmonies that Petty loved. His first full album as a Heartbreaker was 1982’s Long After Dark. Here’s the Petty/Campbell composition “You Got Lucky.” This is not a song about Howie but it almost sounds that way in retrospect:

Spotify link

Stay tuned for the final chapter of the Tom Petty saga wherein I shove 40 years of Petty history into a 10-pound bag.

Petty: The Biography. Warren Zanes; Runnin’ Down a Dream (documentary), Peter Bogdonavich; Rolling Stone Tribute to Tom Petty, Ultimate Classic Rock site. 

*Ron Blair’s sister Janice was one of Gregg Allman’s seven wives. There is a picture her riding a horse on the sleeve of Gregg’s album Laid Back.



6 thoughts on “Tom Petty Won’t Back Down (3 of 4)

  1. Tom wasn’t only a terrific but also a gutsy artist. I have no doubt it had much to do with his tough childhood. He wouldn’t take no shit from nobody!

    I believe taking on a record company the way Petty did was unheard of at the time. Initially, these blood suckers didn’t take him very seriously. Of course, it was a risky gamble, but ultimately the powerful record company blinked, returned his publishing rights and gave him his own label. I think their only condition was that they would distribute Petty’s music.

    Ultimately, I suppose it was a win-win!


    1. I’ve been in – and won – a few legal issues/small claims myself. Predators rely on people not fighting back. And so they figure they’ll lose a few (to those who fight) but win most of them (to those who don’t). It’s like the house in gambling, right? Some dude will win $100,000 but in that same time frame, others will lose $1,000,000.


  2. I remember going to “No Nukes” movie just to see Springsteen. Back before we were swamped with anything we want on the web. I remember a lot of the artists were pissed at him for not making a political statement. He just said he was making a statement by being there. Tom and him have always had a connection. I didn’t know it was as deep as you have let me know.


    1. They had a great photo that showed Springsteen standing on one side, all the other artists on the other side. Couldn’t find it. Always that that was more because of his larger-than-life persona than anything else. I think Bruce has made up for that by committing to do good stuff, say the right things over time. As to he and Tom, as with Stevie Nicks, I wasn’t aware of the deeper connection. I thought they were ships that passed in the night. But I love the idea of them cruising around together. And there is a lot of commonality in that both are great rockers with regular guy appeal.

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      1. I’m with you on the last sentence of your comment. Bruce has always done good stuff. I just liked his lower profile style better. I knew about Tom’s connection to Nicks but it never prompted me to head in her direction even though I really dig his musical ideas. Basically he’s a rocker like you say. That’s my connection.

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