Full Moon Fever

Full Moon Fever

Whether he was explicit about it or not, you got the sense that Tom Petty always wanted to carry the mantle of the classic-rock artists of the 1960s. So when Bob Dylan adopted the Heartbreakers as his opening act and backing band on a 1986 world tour, the sense wasn’t just of personal and professional validation, but of a historical continuum ensured: Here was one legend giving the nod to the next, seeing to it that rock should—and would—live another season. A year later, on tour in London, Petty got a birthday visit from Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and others just as hurricane-force winds settled onto the coast: A cataclysm, yes, but for Petty, who had lost his home to arson earlier in the year, the biblical signs of a new beginning. A solo album mostly in name and spirit (the Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell can be heard throughout, and there are also contributions from Benmont Tench and Howie Epstein), 1989’s Full Moon Fever reestablished Petty as an inescapable presence on radio and MTV, thanks to back-to-back-to-back hits “I Won’t Back Down,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” and “Free Fallin’.” But it also gave new angles and fresh paint to a now-familiar sound. When it came to the studio, the Heartbreakers had always been realists, a live band who treated recording equipment as tools to capture, not conjure. Full Moon Fever producer Jeff Lynne—who’d crafted FM magic with Electric Light Orchestra, and who’d help fine-tune Harrison’s sounds for the 1980s—was, by contrast, a stylist: The playing mattered to Lynne, of course, but it was always second to the sound, texture, and character of the recording. Nowadays, Full Moon Fever sounds unmistakably like a late-1980s album. But as slick as the record gets at times, its creation (and subsequent multi-platinum success) prevented Petty from treading too close to the rusticism of neo-traditionalism, at a time when it would have been easy for him. Pair it with The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1—his collaborative album with Dylan, Harrison, Lynne, and Roy Orbison, and arguably the most enjoyable big-ticket goof in rock history—and you can almost feel the wind of a great hand as it takes the chip off Petty’s shoulder.

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