There’s a tale of improbability somewhere in Tom Petty reigniting his career and becoming an MTV star in the late 1980s. Given the sound of the time, his smash album Full Moon Fever had no reason to succeed and stare its odds straight down. After all, Petty was a 39-year-old boy-next-door songwriter who seemed to have his best years behind him, peaking with the Heartbreakers on Damn The Torpedoes a decade before.
However, the power of the song prevailed, and the 1989, 12-song long player bristled with killer songcraft and a deft production, a period Petty acknowledges as a purple patch for him.
Free Fallin’, the opening track, must have blasted through pop and classic rock radio stations since it hit the circuit. The innocence of youth is encapsulated lucidly in a tale of living by one’s convictions and decisions.
Thematic of the album is the Florida son’s adherence to the lyrical style of early rock n’ roll’s less-is-more ethos, and it’s no surprise that he references Elvis, Del Shannon and Buddy Holly along the way. Likewise, I Won’t Back Down, a lyrically-snappy, jaunty shuffle that vaunts George Harrison’s textural acoustic guitar. In fact, fellow Traveling Wilburys alumni Roy Orbison also makes an appearance on the ridiculous, yet playfully delightful album closer Zombie Zoo, where mocking a punk rocker is nothing more than a joke.
Much of Petty’s solo debut is rooted in an autobiographical approach, yet the values resonate universally. Many of us have been in twisted relationships, and Love Is A Long Road chronicles a chap’s perilous life in the framework of an anthemic rocker.
There’s barely a note out of place from start to finish, and Petty unchained allowed him to indulge in ELO brainchild Jeff Lynne’s trademark of slathering tunes with lush synths and vocals, and layers of guitars. It was a formula which yielded many gems – Harrison’s Cloud 9, Orbison’s Mystery Girl, The Traveling Wilburys’ two volumes, among others. Granted, there’s a homogenous sheen caked over those albums, but it was a great time for a great retro sound to get an update.
Ask anyone who was at least 15 (I was 14) at the time and was hip to melodic rock of a vintage vibe, and they’d swear by Full Moon Fever. From the edgy swagger of Running Down A Dream to the somnambulistic sway of A Face In The Crowd, through the perfect copy of The Byrds’ Feel A Whole Lot Better, Petty’s greatest commercial success was never by accident, but purely by design.