Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' music sounds distinctly "American," a matter made curious by the fact that the now-iconic band's first big break came in London, not Beverly Hills or Greenwich Village.
The quintet emerged and evolved out of Mudcrutch, an early iteration that reached moderate local success as a mainstay in the college town bars of Gainesville, Florida. Once in Los Angeles, though, record executives demanded branding and personnel changes; Petty was the songwriter and face, they maintained. It was him, and only him, they wanted.
Such begins Runnin' Down a Dream, a 2007 documentary by lauded director Peter Bogdanovich, which in the 10 years since its release has maintained savvy insight into the band's mystery. The film -- in just under four hours of running time -- uses archival footage and first-person interviews to properly mythologize a group that arose at the wrong time and wrong place only to become one of popular music's longest burning, ever-enduring successes. Forty years after its formation, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers features four of its five original members. They still tour. And they have little difficulty filling arenas like Dallas' American Airlines Center. They land there on April 22, with a cache of hits honed over 40 years of live performances.
But let's go back to 1975 -- before they were showered with adoration even from the nosebleed section.
Mudcrutch's dissolution was a cold blast of water for a guy who just wanted to be in a band. That's all Tom Petty craved since the day he (and the rest of the country) sat mesmerized as the Beatles had a carefree laugh on the set of The Ed Sullivan Show.
Disheartened by studio executives' roadblocks, Petty reconfigured the group. He held on to what he says in the documentary are two of the best musicians he has ever met -- lead guitarist Mike Campbell and pianist Benmont Trench, both of whom he'd brought from Gainesville -- before adding bassist Ron Blair and drummer Stan Lynch. He tossed around a few bad names for the new band, "Nightro" among them, before settling on the then-seemingly ironic "Heartbreakers."
At the time, the five of them seemed more like awkward young men with instruments than rock 'n' roll heartthrobs, but the name fed into Petty's dream. He'd grown up in the 1950s, obsessing over movie cowboys and Elvis Presley. He'd wanted to play guitar because they did. Over the course of the next four decades, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would perfect the complicated imagery of mid-century American life: pristine and idyllic as a shining silver Airstream trailer on the surface, but containing multitudes of raw emotion, sexuality and anger just beneath.
That retro American sound and thematic lyricism makes early chapters of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' success particularly mystifying. American audiences, initially indifferent, saw a spark during the band's appearance on the BBC's Top of the Pops.
Pop music history insists the band must have been completely out of place in late 1970s England. Rock was dead -- or so it seemed -- especially the extravagant machismo of luxurious guitar solos and Messianic frontmen that dominated radio airwaves in the '60s and early '70s. Petty and co. landed on TOTP at a time when teenagers were buying records from pale singers with coal blackened eyes and backcombed hair, not a blue-eyed cowboy hell-raiser with a kerchief around his neck.
No matter. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were a hit both in the U.K. and on the subsequent tour of Europe in the late '70s, confirms the documentary and Petty's book Runnin' Down a Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Back in the U.S., the band had a harder time making the sell. That is, until Petty became embroiled in a headline-making lawsuit over publishing rights. He became one of the first to take a stand against a record label for artistic control, which bolstered the band's reputation of musical authenticity and integrity. The band's third album Damn the Torpedos! -- produced by Jimmy Iovine, who notably mixed masterful third albums for Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith -- soared to platinum sales, catapulting the Heartbreakers' success at home. It contained the band's first top 10 single, "Don't Do Me Like That" and the hotly defiant "Refugee."
What's fascinating, though, is that unlike so many of its peers, the band didn't stop there. Name a decade and it is easy to find inspired work with the band's touch, whether it is as a formal unit or individual members lending musical expertise to Petty's solo projects. Because the songs sound so fresh, they are as radio-ready today as at their inception. Children of the 1990s may be quietly stunned upon learning the songs that filled their Walkman headphones -- "Last Dance With Mary Jane," "Learning to Fly," "Into the Great Wide Open" -- is what a Gen X-er calls "the new stuff."
Petty's songs stay with us namely because the very best of them dial in on an unchanging quality of Apple Pie à la Quiet Desperation that is as stirring in 2017 as it was in 1977, the year "American Girl" was first released. They sound innocent and romantic; their pithy hooks are unpretentious and easy to dance to; yet they carry an enjoyable element of danger, or something like it. It's music of the body -- the heart, the guts, and, sure, various other parts -- enjoyed by teenage rebels and free-falling "bad boys" we want or want to be.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform April 22 at 8 p.m. at the American Airlines Center, 2500 Victory Ave., Dallas. Details here.