For reasons that have never been explained to my satisfaction, the majority of rock fans this side of the pond never embraced Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers in the same way they did Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band. There seems to be no rhyme or reason for this, both are acts steeped in American rock & roll lore, both enjoyed critical acclaim early in their career, along with the patronage of their predecessors, hailed as heroes in the homeland, both were fully fledged talents pretty much from the very start of their careers, as well as a back catalogue with enough depth and breadth to make musicians from all walks of life take a sharp intake of breath.
1979’s Damn the Torpedoes had established Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers as a genuinely huge act in North America, so much so that their record label at the time, Backstreet Records, and their distributor, MCA, decided that it was worth slapping a premium price on their next album. Petty fought a hard-won battle against his paymasters to keep Hard Promises at standard price, thus re-affirming just how savvy and fan-friendly he and his band were.
Hard Promises opens with the album’s big hit, “The Waiting”, a song which is still a signature of the band to this day. It remains an ageless American rock & roll song and signals the rest of the album making the most of Jimmy Iovine’s production, just like Damn the Torpedoes had.
Iovine’s production is key to the success of Hard Promises, as many of the songs are solid, mid-paced, well-played, heartland rock affairs. The Heartbreakers were a well-drilled unit by this time, with superstar guitar player Mike Campbell acting as ever-reliable musical foil to Petty. It would be the last hurrah for the original line up of the band, as bass player Ron Blair would take a two decade hiaitus from the band before returning to them in 2002. Blair’s brother in rhythm, Stan Lynch would have left the band by the time Blair returned, but here on Hard Promises, he underpins the whole album with an understated flair. The Heartbreakers secret weapon has always been their piano and organ botherer, Benmont Tench, who has always added a lacquer of sound to the band which makes it absolutely unmistakable. It’s no accident that he’s been one of the most in-demand session musicians on the planet since the band rose to prominence.
While “The Waiting” was a big hit for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, it was absolutely dwarfed by the success of “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”, their much-celebrated collaboration with Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac fame. Originally recorded for Hard Promises, it was a monster hit single in North America, and acted as such an effective launchpad for Nick’s solo career, that it was included on her debut solo album, Bella Donna instead. In some ways this is a great shame, as it means Hard Promises lacks some of the commercial vigour it would have otherwise enjoyed. “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” wasn’t the only collaboration with Stevie Nicks recorded during the sessions for Hard Promises though, as “Insider” lends the second half of the album a subtle change of tone with Petty and Nicks duet.
“Insider” effectively rallies what would otherwise be a solid, but relatively standard Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers album, as it’s followed by “The Criminal Kind”, a taught and simple rocker that gives way to descending synth sound from Benmont Tench and pretty closer “You Can Still Change Your Mind”, closing Hard Promises with one of the album’s best tunes and leaving the listener on a high note.
In many ways Hard Promises was a missed opportunity for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers to establish themselves as a top-line act on a global scale, however the decision to leave off one of the accessible tunes from the sessions in order to promote their collaborator’s solo career was perhaps not the wisest move, as it would have strengthened the album and the band’s reputation. As it is Hard Promises is an album that confirmed their reputation as a great rock & roll band rather than enhanced it.