Music: He's still the one

From bluegrass to boogie and bankruptcy to backing Bob Dylan, Tom Petty has taken his Heartbreakers through the whole American rock'n'roll tradition. And he's always done it his way. By Andy Gill
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The Independent Culture
As anyone who attended last Monday's Shepherd's Bush show could attest - well, anyone except the half-wit who did his level best to ruin everyone else's evening by vainly calling out for "Two Gunslingers" after each and every song of a huge 150-minute set - there is currently no better rock'n'roll band on the planet than Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.

At this very same venue a few weeks earlier, the justly celebrated Wilco had struggled to project beyond the first few rows of the audience. Yet from the moment The Heartbreakers strode onstage and swung into "Reelin' And Rockin'", there was an utterly compelling sense of focus and control about the way they cruised smoothly around the Petty catalogue, with occasional detours to take in such scenic rock'n'roll landmarks as "Lucille" and "Guitar Boogie Shuffle", and nods to pre-rock bluegrass legends such as Ralph Stanley and The Delmore Brothers.

Everything, it goes without saying, was note-perfect, right down to those peculiar Stanley Brothers harmonies: it was like watching a six-man human jukebox whirr into action, seamlessly switching styles with the aplomb of seasoned rock classicists.

"It keeps you aware of where we come from, what we're about," says Petty of the band's range of covers, "We like all of that American music, from The Beach Boys to The Delmore Brothers. I liked The Everly Brothers so much, and went from them, by way of the Louvin Brothers, to the Stanleys, with those strange swoops and improvisations within the harmonies. And I've always liked R&B, always had to play it - though it's hard to tell from our records!"

So wide-ranging is the band's grasp of pop-music modes that when they played 20 nights at The Fillmore in San Francisco a few years ago, Petty reckons they played over 150 different songs: whatever took their fancy on a given night. It was this residency, rather than any Spinal Tap notions that their appeal might be getting more "selective", which inspired The Heartbreakers to return to more intimate venues such as the Shepherds Bush Empire - though they still somehow manage to cram all their stadium- sized power into the small theatre. It's an extraordinary experience, like having a little six-seater plane powered by jumbo-jet engines.

Petty's worked long and hard at his craft, with a career stretching back three decades to teenage Top 40 covers outfits such as The Epics and The Sundowners, on through his band's first recordings as Mudcrutch - a name, he assures me, that he has no regrets leaving behind - to the various Heartbreakers line-ups. Every stage, though, has been a learning process, whether it's figuring out how to fight draconian record-company contract machinations by declaring bankruptcy (as he did when, several hits into his career, he found he apparently still owed MCA over half a million dollars), or boning up on Bob Dylan's extensive back catalogue in order to be Bob's backing-band for a couple of years in the Eighties.

"We had to learn a lot of songs!" he recalls. "We came out of that tour much better musicians than when we went in, because we worked so hard. We'd never backed up anybody before, and we wanted to do it well. Then at some point, Roger McGuinn joined the tour, and somehow he talked us into backing him up on all the Byrds songs, too. So we'd do that, then all of our show, have an intermission, and then we had to come back and do all Bob's show. We played all night, every night."

The results of such graft and application can be heard on the immaculate copy of The Byrds' "Feel A Whole Lot Better" on Petty's multi-million- selling Full Moon Fever, the first of a couple of albums produced by Jeff Lynne. Since then, the band have settled into a new relationship with Rick Rubin, better known as a rap and hard-rock producer. Petty views the difference between them in essentially visual terms. "Jeff is more of a painter. He deals in layers, and thinks that way - he's a great arranger. Rick's more of a photographer, setting it all up and snapping it. He's more immediate, he wants to catch the moment live, and you've got to be able to do that with this band, because they won't play good for very long - they're going to give it to you in the first one to three takes, and after that it's going to get a little bit studied. They're way too good musicians, they quickly know what they want to do, then some of the soul goes away and we end up playing parts, rather than playing from the heart."

In recording, as on stage, the band's breadth of pop knowledge proves invaluable, not least as a kind of shorthand musical language. "That's our whole frame of reference when we talk about music - 'I want some "Across The Universe" guitar here, Leslie'd like that'. It's the only lingo we know - we don't know 'obbligato' and all that," Petty admits with a smile. "Though Ben [Benmont Tench, keyboard maestro] would probably know. Claims he can read music!"

An in-demand session player with a huge list of album credits, Tench is responsible for many of the subtle textures in the Heartbreakers sound, apt to suggest a harpsichord part, or something weirder still. "We've collected all these weird keyboards over the years," says Petty. "Pump organ, mellotron, chamberlin... and we had an optigon from a hire place once. We encourage Benmont to bring in the weirdest ones he's got." But there are limits, roughly corresponding to the band's classicist attitude to rock'n'roll: "We won't allow synthesiser, or anything like that. Well, he can have a synthesiser if it's an old analogue one, maybe, but even then it comes under close scrutiny!"

Like so many of his contemporaries, Petty was originally inspired to try his hand at songwriting after hearing The Beatles. "They were the first people I heard of that wrote their own songs," he explains, "and that interested me, because I thought it would be easier than learning an instrument! You could just make up your own shit!" Unsurprisingly, Ray Davies of The Kinks was another big influence - "I thought he was the cat's pyjamas" - and a good case could be made for regarding Petty's tightly crafted vignettes of American lives as the Californian equivalent of Davies' languid English social realism.

It was probably his gift for sketching succinct narratives that landed Petty the commission to score Ed Burns' romantic comedy She's The One, for which he eventually wound up contributing the entire soundtrack when the movie company suggested filling it out with other groups. "That sounded like a shitty idea to me, so I said I'd rather just finish the record myself," Petty explains. "So I took a few pieces of the score, added some stuff I had left over from Wildflowers, and had an album in about six weeks."

Despite his obvious interest in the visual side of the industry - the Alice In Wonderland video to "Don't Come Around Here No More" remains a landmark of the medium - the experience disabused Petty of pursuing any deeper connection with the movies. "It was a complete lesson in working with Hollywood," he says. "The movie company went on and on about deadlines - 'the album's got to be out the week of the movie' - so I made my deadline, but they didn't make theirs. I have no interest in getting into that side of the business, because I like to control everything - I can't bear a situation where I'm not going to have any say in what the hell goes on. They won't even let you in to cut your own music - it's 'Oh no, composer out,' and slam!, the door shuts, y'know?"