The first thing that strikes you about Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers ’ debut album is how rough it sounds compared to the slick and streamlined made-for American roadtrips that their reputation has hung upon. With this in mind it’s perhaps not surprising that they were initially mistakenly considered to be part of the punk movement here in the UK, which where they found their first footholds on their eventual climb to success, as the USA was a little slower on the uptake.
For all the rough and ready sound, the vast majority of the band’s vital elements were already in place. Petty’s tuneful drawl had been honed from years gigging with his previous band Mudcrutch, while the keyboard work of Benmont Tench catches the ear, even this early into their career, as does the unmistakable guitar work of Mike Campbell. While the bare bones production doesn’t highlight the Ron Blair / Stan Lynch rhythm section as well as later albums would, they were evidently a well drilled duo and they certainly don’t disgrace themselves.
The basic production means that this self titled debut is inevitably the most raw sounding album that Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers have ever released, which inevitably means that it appeals to the type of rock fans who prefer their rock music with minimum of sonic polish. Having said that, even at this early stage in their careers, the band could still do subtle (“The Wild One, Forever”), commercial (“Breakdown”, “Anything That’s Rock N’ Roll” and “American Girl”) and generally display a certain finesse which found the band with a foot each in rock and roll’s established traditions, as well as the sleek future. For those that have always considered Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers to be a solid classic rock band, seemingly forever soundtracking generic Hollywood blockbusters (seriously, how many times can “Free Fallin’” be crow-barred into a film?), the energy levels of their debut could surprise you, as it’s an album that comes in, establishes exactly what a great live band they were, points to the fact that they were America’s imminent rock and roll future (or at least sharing the laurels with Bruce Springsteen) and then rocks out of the room with the door still swinging on its hinges and your ears ringing.
While Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers may not have been the Punk classic that the British music press of the late 70s hailed it to be, it’s a debut that proclaimed the arrival of one of America’s greatest rock and roll bands, who have since continued to remain several steps ahead of their contemporaries throughout the duration of their career.