Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

It’s funny how out of place Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers first sounded, given how quintessential and ubiquitous the group would eventually become. When the band’s self-titled debut album arrived in 1976, it was hard to know exactly where it belonged on the FM dial: You could hear a little Southern rock on “Strangered In the Night” and “Mystery Man,” but Petty and his bandmates certainly weren’t Lynyrd Skynyrd. And as faithfully as “American Girl” and “Rockin’ Around (With You)” channeled the harmonic shimmer of The Byrds, the Heartbreakers’ energy was too antsy and cranked-up to sell the band as preservationists. So who were these guys, exactly? Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers didn’t offer much in terms of clues. And neither did Petty himself: Asked what kinship he felt with punk, Petty, then in his mid-twenties, shrugged and said they must be part of the New Wave because they weren’t part of the old one. What is clear is that, despite the power of a song like “American Girl”—inexplicably buried at the end of side two—listeners weren’t quite ready to accept these scraggly-looking, topless-bar-playing Elvis fans from Florida. And at a time in which rock radio was embracing Frampton Comes Alive!—with all of its flair, hair, and hour-and-a-half-long runtime—the concise, torpedo-fast brilliance of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers failed to find a fanbase in America. But much like The Strokes a quarter-century later, Petty and his bandmates would quickly be embraced in England, where they were viewed as a defibrillating jolt to the fading art of simple rock ’n’ roll. And Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers was early proof that, while the band would need some time to conquer America, at least the band had a winning formula—one best summarized by guitarist Mike Campbell: “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.”

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