In Praise of Mike Campbell

While Mike Campbell might not make many people’s lists of greatest rock guitarists, he has been at the top of my list for many years. He is in fact at #79 on the Rolling Stone list of 100, though the so-called readers of so-called Guitar World didn’t include him at all. As for those who float to the top of the Google search for “best rock guitarists”, Campbell doesn’t get a look in, though, ahem, David Bowie, Elvis, and Bob Dylan do. Riiiiiight.

(Can I just add as an aside, that – without exception – all of these rock guitarist listicle web pages are absolute shitshows in terms of ads and trackers and load times, with stuttering scrolling and graphic design that makes me want to shoot myself in the face.)

George Harrison often makes these lists by dint of his being one of those guitar players who ‘plays for the song’ rather than his ego. And that’s fair enough, although it has to be said that it was very often Paul who was playing for the song. Campbell, too, subsumes his ego for the benefit of the music, but if you know his work, whether with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers or session work (Tift Merritt’s Tambourine, for example), you know how excellent he is. Consider the list of people who have called him in over the years, from Bob Dylan and Don Henley to Aretha Franklin and Stevie Nicks. But for me, the only evidence you really need to understand just how good Mike Campbell is comes from Tom Petty, his long-term friend and bandmate. When Petty made his solo album Full Moon Fever in 1989, he could have called anyone. Remember, every musician had the highest regard for Petty, and most would have jumped at the chance to work with him. Who did Tom Petty want to play guitar on his solo album? Mike Campbell.

Campbell has just released an album (Wreckless Abandon) with his band, the unfortunately named The Dirty Knobs, and it is very good. He does, of course, sound so much like Tom Petty that it’s uncanny. Not quite the versatility and range of TP, but an almost identical timbre, accent, and phrasing.

In recent years, the Heartbreakers had turned to a kind of swampy bluesy sound (on the Mojo album or Hypnotic Eye, for example), and there’s a little bit of that here. But there are also hints of Campbell’s older material, from the 70s and beyond. ‘Irish Girl’, for example, just sounds like a long-lost (and great) TP/Heatbreakers song, perhaps from the early 90s. ‘Pistol Packin’ Mama’ features a guest appearance from Chris Stapleton, on whose latest album Starting Over Campbell guests. Stapleton also co-wrote ‘Fuck that Guy’, upon which Campbell talk-sings just like Tom Petty on ‘Refugee’.

For the most part, this sounds like classic riff driven rock, with the occasional bluesier number and, it has to be said, a little of the boogie. ‘Southern Boy’ and ‘Sugar’ are both driven along with riffs, while ‘I Still Love You’ has an arpeggiated guitar like The Beatles’ ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’. I wonder if Donovan was involved. ‘Don’t Wait’ is like a late 60s British Blues Boom track, while songs like the aforementioned ‘Irish Girl’ and ‘Anna Lee’ sound more like Wildflowers era Tom Petty.

At 57 minutes, it loses points for being too long for an album, but there are a couple of six minute plus tracks, so that will happen. I’d be happier with my culture if films were under two hours and all albums were about 42 minutes, but what can you do?

The length is a minor quibble, though. Overall, Mike Campbell and his band have gifted us with new music in a style we thought was lost to us with the death of Tom Petty. It’s great.

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