I was always faintly embarrassed by the Flying V guitar in the logo of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I associated the Flying V with cheesy early 70s glam rock, which was never my thing, and it was difficult, in that heyday of punk rock and amateur cut-up graphic design, to deal with that elaborate logo. It’s not even a good design, for a guitar. Too much wood, too much weight, a back-ache on a strap.
But Tom Petty was a lifeline to me. I was 14 in 1977, the Year of Punk, and standing firm against peer pressure to betray my true love, which was 60s rock, especially the kind with melodies and literate lyrics. My schoolfriends were beginning to buy albums, and there was a certain amount of scrabbling to prove something or other about how hip and happening you were. One kid had gone from extolling the virtues of Queen and their boast of “no synthesisers” the year before to popping into Woolies on our school camping trip to the Wye Valley in order to buy The Damned’s first album. It wasn’t that the pressure was hard to resist; it was just that I was continually called upon to justify my retro tastes. You wanted an answer to the inevitable question, a quick and easy, no-arguments answer, but it was hard to come by, because Modern Music Was Rubbish.
In 1977, I was in the first flush of my Beatles obsession, and exploring the thin pickings of the singles and albums around the house. It’s amazing to think, now, but the Beatles had only been split for 7 years back then: there were still regular reunion rumours, and for the next few years there would be “sightings” of the reclusive Lennon as well as compelling documentaries like Tony Palmer’s All You Need is Love and Rutland Weekend Television’s All You Need is Cash. I didn’t like Queen, and I’d always preferred Slade to T-Rex, and I really didn’t like Bowie. Over those years I discovered music that I would love for the rest of my life: the Mick Taylor Stones (but not the Brian Jones); The Who; the 1969 Velvet Underground; Bruce Springsteen with Max on drums; Bob Dylan; Buddy Holly; 60s girl groups (various); ’53-66 Frank Sinatra. Tried and rejected: Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, The Doors, Roxy Music, and many more. But there was always a feeling, ridiculous in hindsight, that the music I was listening to was old and unfashionable and out of touch. The seven-years-gone Beatles seemed like they came from an era as distant as music hall. I didn’t much care, but I did have the feeling that I needed something I could point to and say, see, there is some of your modern music.
But I didn’t like that stuff that sounded like one chord being slid up and down a fretboard, with frantic thrashing, with guitars held around your knees, with gobbing and moshing. A certain type of (sexually repressed?) bloke will manufacture excuses to be in close quarters and sweating with a bunch of other blokes: not my thing. I liked Jonathan Richman’s second attempt at recording ‘Roadrunner’, but not the first.
The difference between that thrashy punk stuff and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal seemed to simply come down to musicianship, and I didn’t like either. I still think that Never Mind the Bollocks sounds like an overproduced heavy metal album.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performed “Anything That’s Rock ’n’ Roll” on Top of the Pops in 1977. For me, Top of the Pops was a dire desert of disco and bubblegum, occasionally leavened by the presence of something half-decent. As thin as they sounded, with their re-recorded BBC version (because TotP was going through one of its periodic all-music-must-be-performed-live phases), they were still the most exciting thing I’d seen on there for years. And then, even better, I caught them performing “American Girl” on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1978. And I finally had an answer to an —incredibly, at the time — frequently asked question: don’t you like any modern music?
Of course, Petty’s sound was rooted in 60s rock, jangly guitars and all, but his sensibility was pure, late 70s angst, and their look (at the time) at least nodded to current rock fashion. Their songs and albums were also fairly concise. None of the self-indulgent fat and bloat that would come to characterise the CD era. And, in 1979, they changed everything by releasing Damn the Torpedoes, which is at number one in my list of Best Albums of the 1970s. In those years, 1978-79, the old guard had responded to the new energy of punk new/wave with some good music. Lou Reed put out Street Hassle; the Stones put out Some Girls; The Who did Who Are You; Springsteen, who wasn’t really old guard, put out Darkness on the Edge of Town. But Damn the Torpedoes was one of those albums that you can honestly say has no filler, and still has an immediate, visceral, power to raise my heartrate. That drum sound!
The great thing about the Heartbreakers was that they almost always kept a sense of humour about what they were doing. They embraced the video age in the 80s, but their first compilation of these videos was full of sarcastic captions about Mike Campbell’s awkward guitar playing pose, and their Alice in Wonderland “Don’t Come Around Here No More” is a classic. And in the CD era, Petty would include such moments as the interval on Full Moon Fever, which advised the listener that this would have been the moment to get up and turn the record over.
I saw them play live as support act and then backing band for Bob Dylan, and it’s fairly telling that of the six times I saw Dylan live, that was the only one that didn’t leave me disappointed. And I took my whole family to see them play at the Royal Albert Hall in 2012. I don’t think any band, apart from The Who, has a better two-hour set. Talk about no filler. Springsteen would leave his audience disappointed if he played just two hours, but the Heartbreakers’ set was a fantastic and satisfying romp through the absolute highlights of thirty years, with road-hardened versions of all the best songs. Mike Campbell must have played that closing solo on the live version of “American Girl” thousands of times, but it was always a joyful surprise. Their Super Bowl half-time show, too, was exemplary, adapting to the special requirements of that occasion with sheer magic. And it was watching that Super Bowl show, with my skin prickling with anticipation, that I finally had to admit that I fucking love that Flying V guitar.