Petty’s hallmark solo debut still hits home after all these years.
The opening chords of “Free Fallin’” fade into earshot at the start of Tom Petty’s first solo album—and, just like that, one of his most successful projects is off to the races.
Of course, there’s no “just like that” about any of the albums in the late rocker’s cannon. From his early years gaining traction with Mudcrutch in Gainesville, Fla., to the decades he spent in legal battles with record companies for royalties, Petty’s career was marked by a constant give and take between the talent he supplied and the forces of subterfuge that seemed intent on pushing him to the margins. But, as Petty reminded fans on “I Won’t Back Down”, the first single off his solo debut Full Moon Fever, he wasn’t one to give up easily.
Thirty years after Full Moon Fever’s release on MCA Records, it remains one of Petty’s strongest releases of his career. By the time the album hit record store shelves in late April 1989, Petty had logged a full quarter-century on the stage and nearly two decades in the studio. He spent a significant chunk of that time wading through the swamp that was the recording industry’s legal buffer, earning a reputation as a prizefighter for artistic rights and compensation. The experiences he picked up along the way also made him a seasoned pro when it came to touring and recording. He knew which chord progressions were radio friendly and which weren’t, and he knew how to pick out the lyrical truths that fans were interested in hearing.
This broad-stroke overview of Petty’s career paints a picture of someone strategic and calculating—which Petty was, in a way, but not to the detriment of his creativity. Petty wanted more success after the release of his biggest hit with the Heartbreakers in 1979, Damn the Torpedoes, but he wasn’t interested in sacrificing his artistic integrity to do so. “Our intention is to stay pissed off,” Petty famously told Cameron Crowe in Rolling Stone’s first feature on the Heartbreakers in 1978. Heeding the siren calls of success and comfort was not on his agenda.
There are plenty of great albums out in the world; there are even plenty of great Tom Petty albums. Full Moon Fever is one of them, but it’s also one that classic rock fans often forget when drafting their “best of” album lists. It’s easy to take Petty’s mastery for granted, partly because Petty himself frequently brushed off his accolades in the press, determined to stay humble. Even so, Full Moon Fever contains so many of the Petty songs that we still hear circulating on classic rock stations. “Free Fallin’” transitions into “I Won’t Back Down,” and big hitters “A Face in the Crowd,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and “Yer So Bad” follow. Less popular songs, like the sleeper ballad “Alright for Now” and the Gene Clark-penned “Feel a Whole Lot Better,” are solid fillers, though the latter received quick criticism for how closely it copycatted the original recording by Clark’s band the Byrds.
VIDEO: The Byrds – I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better
Full Moon Fever generated six singles, three of which climbed to No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Mainstream Rock Songs chart and two of which (“Free Fallin’” and “I Won’t Back Down”) hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Each of the album’s 12 tracks benefit from support by the Heartbreakers’ guitarist Mike Campbell and Petty’s Traveling Wilburys bandmate Jeff Lynne, who co-wrote seven of the songs with Petty. Campbell and Lynne aren’t the only ones from Petty’s past that appear on the album: George Harrison and Roy Orbison, both members of the Traveling Wilburys, play on one song each (Harrison plays guitar and sings backing vocals on “I Won’t Back Down” and Orbison provides backing vocals on “Zombie Zoo”), and fellow Heartbreakers Howie Epstein and Benmont Tench also pop up sporadically on the album.
There’s also an Easter egg hidden after the fifth track “Running Down a Dream.” Included on the CD versions of the album (now also included in streaming versions) is a 30-second interlude during which Petty notes that the album has reached its halfway point when LP listeners must flip the album over to hear the next song. It’s a simple moment, played for humorous effect with farm animal noises recorded by Del Shannon in the background, but it evens the playing field for Petty’s listeners, serving as a playful sign of respect for his fans.
In many ways, Full Moon Fever shows Petty at his best as a simultaneously talented and humble artist. He constantly worked hard on his own music and contributed often when friends like Stevie Nicks or Hank Williams Jr. requested his vocal or songwriting skills, and he fought for his work and that of other musicians to be recognized officially and monetarily. All that effort came to fruition on Full Moon Fever as Petty earned the recognition he’d yearned for—and without that much-needed bump of success, who knows if the Heartbreakers would have been able to continue performing together through the end of Petty’s life in 2017, as they did. Best of all, the songs on Full Moon Fever sound just as energetic, honest and enjoyable to play as they did 30 years ago. If that’s not success, it’s hard to tell what is.
VIDEO: Tom Petty – Free Fallin’