Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

  • Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers [MCA, 1976] B+
  • You're Gonna Get It! [ABC/Shelter, 1978] B
  • Damn the Torpedoes [Backstreet/MCA, 1979] B+
  • Hard Promises [Backstreet, 1981] B
  • Long After Dark [Backstreet, 1982] C+
  • Southern Accents [MCA, 1985] B-
  • Let Me Up (I've Had Enough) [MCA, 1987] B+
  • Into the Great Wide Open [MCA, 1991] *
  • Greatest Hits [MCA, 1993] A-
  • She's the One [Warner Bros., 1996] Neither
  • Echo [Warner Bros., 1999] Neither
  • The Last DJ [Warner Bros., 2002] C+

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers [MCA, 1976]
Addicts of updated nostalgia and rock and roll readymades should find this a sly and authentic commentary on the evolving dilemma of Harold Teen. The songs are cute, the riffs executed with more dynamism than usual, and the singing attractively phlegmy. And like they say at the end of other cartoons, that's all, folks. B+

You're Gonna Get It! [ABC/Shelter, 1978]
". . . might sound strange/Might seem dumb," Tom warns at the outset, and unfortunately he only gets it right the second time: despite his Southern roots and '60s pop-rock proclivities, he comes on like a real made-in-L.A. jerk. Onstage, he acts like he wants to be Ted Nugent when he grows up, pulling out the cornball arena-rock moves as if they had something to do with the kind of music he makes; after all, one thing that made the Byrds and their contemporaries great was that they just got up there and played. Thank God you don't have to look at a record, or read its interviews. Tuneful, straight-ahead rock and roll dominates the disc, and "I Need to Know," which kicks off side two, is as peachy-tough as power pop gets. There are even times when Tom's drawl has the impact of a soulful moan rather than a brainless whine. But you need a lot of hooks to get away with being full of shit, and Tom doesn't come up with them. B

Damn the Torpedoes [Backstreet/MCA, 1979]
This is a breakthrough for Petty because for the first time the Heartbreakers (his Heartbreakers, this L.A.M.F. fan should specify) are rocking as powerfully as he's writing. But whether Petty has any need to rock out beyond the sheer doing of it--whether he has anything to say--remains shrouded in banality. Thus he establishes himself as the perfect rock and roller for those who want good--very good, because Petty really knows his stuff--rock and roll that can be forgotten as soon as the record or the concert is over, rock and roll that won't disturb your sleep, your conscience, or your precious bodily rhythms. B+

Hard Promises [Backstreet, 1981]
Hard to gainsay the class solidarity of a rich rock star who sues his record company to keep his list price down to $8.98. And glancing at the lyric sheet, I was pleased to note that the antiboho number--"Kings Road," in which a Pakistani tries to sell Tom funny-looking English underwear--had a lighter touch than usual. The reason I hadn't noticed, unfortunately, is that Petty clobbers the thing like he's singing about how much he hates the road. Elsewhere he's more understated, fortunately, but it just goes to show you--no matter how much they respect the working fan, rich rock stars do tend to fill up on themselves. B

Long After Dark [Backstreet, 1982]
Petty's been complaining that he's tired, and this holding action--from a guy not noted for vanguard engagements when he's fit to fight--shows all the signs. In case you were wondering, he can't live with them and he can't live without them. C+

Southern Accents [MCA, 1985]
Petty's problem isn't that he's dumb, or even that people think he's dumb, although they have reason to. It's that he feels so sorry for himself he can't think straight. Defending the South made sense back when Ronnie Van Zant was writing "Sweet Home Alabama," but in the Sun Belt era it's just pique. The modernizations of sometime coproducer Dave Stewart mitigate the neoconservative aura somewhat, but unmitigating it right back is Petty's singing, its descent from stylization into affectation most painful on side one's concept songs. Side two is less consequential, and better. Note, however, that its show-stopper is "Spike," in which a bunch of rednecks, I mean good old boys, prepare to whup a punk. It's satire. Yeah sure. B-

Let Me Up (I've Had Enough) [MCA, 1987]
For such a downhome guy, Petty has a major instinct for the news hook. Here, after defying premium pricing, reconstructing the South, and touring with somebody famous, he exploits the Dylan connection once again. In the tradition of his new hero, Petty's plan was no plan--he and the guys just went into the studio and these songs came out. And whaddaya know? Stick the thing in your playback mechanism of choice and these songs come out--for the first time in his career, the man sounds like the natural he's worked so hard at being. B+

Into the Great Wide Open [MCA, 1991]
grant him this--he's a hooky sumbitch ("Into the Great Wide Open," "Two Gunslingers) *

Greatest Hits [MCA, 1993]
Sometimes it's hard to remember what a breath of fresh air the gap-spanning MTV figurehead was in 1976. So revisit this automatic multiplatinum, a treasury of power pop that doesn't know its name--snappy songs! Southern beats! gee! Like Billy Joel, say, or the Police, his secret isn't that he's a natural singles artist--it's that he's too shallow to merit full concentration except when he gets it all right, and maybe not then. Petty is the formalist of the ordinary guy, taking his musical pleasure in roots, branches, commerce, art, whatever gets him going without demanding anything too fancy of his brain or his rear end. Footloose by habit and not what you'd call a ladies' man, he often feels confused or put upon, and though he wishes the world were a better place, try to take what he thinks is his and he won't back down. He has one great virtue--his total immersion in rock and roll. A-

She's the One [Warner Bros., 1996] Neither

Echo [Warner Bros., 1999] Neither

The Last DJ [Warner Bros., 2002]
The guy who once revealed on national television that rock and roll died with Buddy Holly steps up and confronts the key social issues of the day: radio, stardom, and record executives, plus don't forget teen violence, child abuse, and satyriasis. His hero "don't want to change/what don't need to change," and fuck you if your needs are different. Does Petty have the tunes? Sure, he always has the tunes. Does he whine them in that weird, self-pitying child-drawl? Sure, he regresses every time out. So which would I rather hear, catchy good-guy cant or a Clear Channel jock hyping some mythical Svengalified "angel whore who could learn a guitar lick"? More angel whores, please. Hell, I'll even take an angel. C+