New collection unearths a wealth of lost classics from an American Treasure.
He was one of the good guys, Tom Petty, and while his death may not have had the global impact created by David Bowie’s passing, there’s a big hole left where he used to be.
It’s likely that his fans will immerse themselves in this career-spanning four-CD box set with mixed emotions. Lovingly compiled by his daughter Adria and his wife Dana, with Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench hands-on, this is no hasty cash-in.
The music is exemplary: rock’n’roll, southern gothic, serious stuff and downright fun tunes. It starts with
Surrender, an unreleased track from the 1976 debut, and sweeps across the following decades, offering stacks of live material, alternative versions, a pre-Heartbreakers Mudcrutch single with smart brass from 1974, Lost In Your Eyes (with shades of Kings Of Leon crossed with Van Morrison, this is a real find), the Western Swing demo recording of The Apartment Song featuring honorary member Stevie Nicks, and carefully chosen album tracks that avoid the bleeding obvious.
It isn’t a greatest hits with a few extras, quite the opposite. So, You’re Gonna Get It emerges with strings and a totally different staccato outro that’s even moodier than the known cut, and The Byrds in Floridastyled Here Comes My Girl, from unheard Damn The Torpedoes sessions, features
Petty’s magnificent redneck drawl and the Heartbreakers at their airtight, dynamically delicate best. Also from that era, What Are You Doing In My Life drags through the dirt, powered by Campbell’s bottleneck and a rhythm section that simply demands the singer rise to the occasion.
There are 63 examples of Petty’s art in total and they illustrate that his range was far wider than some think. The Dylanesque Louisiana Rain is down-atheel and morbid, a reminder that the Heartbreakers reinvigorated old Bob whenever they backed him up. God only knows how Keep A Little Soul didn’t make it to Long After Dark. An obvious Beach Boys circa Holland nod, this prime Petty is the set’s lead-off single.
The live material is impeccable too, proof that the highest standards were employed. Even The Losers, A Woman In Love (It’s Not
Me) and I Won’t Back Down all transplant the Deep South to the West Coast – this band had legs and lineage. The Long After Dark out-take Keeping Me Alive sounds like Petty and the ’breakers taking on Bruce Springsteen in his own backyard, and it’s a joy to behold. Maybe it’s a pity they didn’t include the group’s excellent version of the Grateful Dead’s Friend Of The Devil, or something from Dylan’s Temples In Flames tour of 1987, but let’s stay focused.
King Of The Hill is an early take of the high lonesome song that appeared on Roger McGuinn’s Back From Rio, with the pair meshing harmonies like the
Everly Brothers. That kind of American treasure is unearthed with pleasing regularity here, from the claustrophobic crowd riot at The Forum in Inglewood, California, in 1981 (you had to be there) to the panoramic tale of Eddie Rebel that underpins the skyscraping Into The Great Wide Open. Cowboys, losers and good-time gals drift through
Two Gunslingers and Lonesome Dave, but both transcend cliché thanks to a tight lyrical touch that emphasises Petty’s position as a great songwriter and a narrator with a keen eye for detail and an ear for voices other than his own.
Petty retained his roots, despite the wealth and fame that eventually made him a prisoner in his own Encino home, the one burnt down by an arsonist in
1987, destroying all his possessions bar his basement studio and many of these tapes. Bus To Tampa Bay, Down South, Southern Accents and another Nicks duet on Insider have that hot, swampy ooze that suggests these Floridians were actually outsiders in California.
Retrospectives can run out of steam on the home leg since new material rarely lives up to youthful nostalgia, but there isn’t a slow fizzle here. Two Men Talking, Fault Lines and Sins Of My Youth from Hypnotic
Eye are considered, mature pieces – no time now to be chasing that American Girl. Instead, the final straight sparkles on the Gosdin Brothers’-flavoured Save Your Water, from Mudcrutch 2; the sparse Like A Diamond from The Last DJ; and it bows out with the bleak Hungry No More, recorded at the House Of Blues in Boston, June 2016, completing an immaculate chronology.
“I hope we were musical for ya,” says Petty. He was far more than that.
‘Exemplary music: rock’n’roll, southern
gothic, fun tunes.’