Over a decade ago, I was fortunate enough to interview Tom Petty; it was 2002, and he was promoting his new album The Last DJ. I told him that I’d seen his tour a few months prior when it hit my local amphitheater.
I noted that in the parking lot, there were so many college and even high school-aged fans, one might have thought it was a Dave Matthews Band or Pearl Jam show. The audience was notably younger than what you would have seen at shows by his peers Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and Bob Seger during that era. Why, I asked him, did he think that he was able to pull such a young crowd?
“Because we don’t try to appeal to them,” he said with that drawl through his iconic grin.
“And,” he added, “because we don’t charge as much.”
Both of those things were true. But I’d add a third reason for his success with younger kids: Full Moon Fever, released 13 years earlier (and thirty years ago today) was that rare gem of an album that legitimately turns a legacy artist on to a new audience.
If you read a lot of interviews with artists who have a decade (or more) under their belts, they’ll often claim that their latest album resonates with newer, younger, fans. Sometimes it isn’t true. Sometimes it is. But few albums have made an older artist seem young again as Full Moon Fever did.
Compared to his peers, Petty seemed a lot more comfortable with the principal avenue to appeal to the youth in the ’80s: MTV. Sure, his peers made videos, but they often felt perfunctory. There seemed to be a joy to Petty’s videos: the songs were great, sure, but the videos were fun to watch. “You Got Lucky” from 1982’s Long After Dark took Tom and the Heartbreakers (playing post-apocalyptic land-locked pirates) to a Blade Runner-like world… where they find a tent on the side of the road. What do they do in the tent? They figure out how to hotwire the jukebox, watch ancient sci-fi movies, access archival Chuck Berry footage and Tom Petty performance videos. And — importantly for the generation who had obsessed over Atari and Intellivision — they played video games.
But the “You Got Lucky” video was downright down-to-earth compared to their next big clip, which came on their next album, 1985’s Southern Accents. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” teamed them with Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, one of the hottest new wave bands of the era. And the video dumped all of them into a psychedelic rock and roll version of Alice In Wonderland.
Even 1987’s Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), Petty’s first album of the ’80s that didn’t hit the top ten, managed to yield the inescapable and instantly iconic “Jammin’ Me.”
Having turned on younger fans via his inventive videos, he then worked on a project that appealed to older music lovers when he joined the Traveling Wilburys, featuring George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne. Here, he was the young guy. Surprisingly, “Handle With Care” was a hit single and video. Their album, Vol. 1 hit #3 on the album charts and went triple platinum. He took that momentum — and bandmate Jeff Lynne — with him when he started work on Full Moon Fever. By 1989, doing a solo album with the guy from ELO (Harrison and Orbison also guested on the album) wasn’t really a formula to stay current with the MTV crowd.
And yet, it’s like Petty said to me a decade later: he wasn’t bending over backwards to pander to younger audiences, but the songs on Full Moon Fever were so undeniably great, and yeah, he had fun videos for some of them. Our first glimpse of the album was his laid-back anthem, “I Won’t Back Down.” In the video, Petty is backed by three of the guys on the song: his right-hand man in the Heartbreakers, guitarist Mike Campbell, along with Wilburys Lynne and Harrison. And on the drums? Ringo Starr! Yeah, he had the half of the Beatles as his backing band.
Even though it was largely a performance video, watching Tom Petty just being Tom Petty (in a top hat) was fun, and Ringo’s clowning around almost stole the show.
It was a top 20 hit, and that seemed like a huge success for a guy thirteen years into his career. But the next single would get even bigger: “Free Fallin'” was a smash.
The lyrics were vague – were there really many teenage girls in ’89 who were “Crazy ’bout Elvis” (that’s Presley, not Costello)? Probably not, but it sounded cool when Tom sang about it. In the video, Tom is narrating, watching younger skateboarders. Never once does he hit the halfpipe. He wasn’t trying to be “down” with the kids, he was simply recognizing a new youth culture that he wasn’t a part of (although later on the album, he poked fun at goths on “Zombie Zoo”). Everything about “Free Fallin'” worked: the song hit #7 on the pop charts, his highest charting single ever. Being a pop hit didn’t take away the song’s “cool factor” though: later that year, Petty and the Heartbreakers performed the song on the MTV Video Music Awards with Axl Rose.
Those songs would be enough to qualify any album as a classic. But Full Moon Fever also yielded one of his most rockin’ songs in “Runnin’ Down A Dream” (a song which named dropped Del Shannon, featured one of Mike Campbell’s best riffs and one of his best solos, and sported a cool and underrated animated music video). Then there was “Yer So Bad,” a classic singalong jam. And the album goes even deeper than that. All twelve songs are perfect. How awesome are they? So awesome that Tom cut one of his great lost jams from the album, “Waiting For Tonight.”
The women you hear singing with Tom are Susanna Hoffs, Vicki and Debbie Peterson and Michael Steele, aka the Bangles, one of the hottest bands in the world at the time. One can only imagine how annoyed the record label might have been, knowing that their artist was on a song with the force behind “Manic Monday,” “Walk Like An Egyptian,” “In Your Room” and “Eternal Flame,” some of the biggest hits of the second half of the ’80s. And it was an amazing song, to boot! Even Rolling Stone agrees, placing it on their list of Petty’s 50 best songs ever.
All of those years ago, when I interviewed Petty, I had so many questions, and only 45 minutes or so. I wanted to ask about “Waiting For Tonight” and why it didn’t make the album (he’d finally release it in 1995 on the Playback box set). But I ran out of time. I imagine he might have said that having the Bangles on his record might have looked like he was trying too hard. It’s a song that any of his peers (or influences or disciples) would have killed to get on their album. And if you haven’t heard it, congratulations: now you get to experience a great Tom Petty song for the first time. Meanwhile, Full Moon Fever‘s twelve songs (plus the message “Attention CD Listeners”) stands as the rare perfect album, and it may be his finest moment.