ONE OUT OF EVERY 40 SONGS IS A TOM TUNE
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers is a strange anomaly in the music business.The band was hitting the scene out of Gainesville, Florida as our great nation was celebrating The Bi-Centennial with 1976 being a year in flux, musically. Check the BILLBOARD album charts and see how we the record buying public were all over the place: Chicago, Earth Wind and Fire, Bob Dylan’s DESIRE, Eagles Greatest Hits (71-76), Led Zeppelin’s PRESENCE, Wings,The Stones, FRAMPTON COMES ALIVE, FLEETWOOD MAC and Stevie Wonder’s amazing SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIVE. Who in their right mind would want to challenge that line up. Hey, I was enjoying shows by TODD RUNDREN who was morphing into UTOPIA at the time, Frank Zappa, Bowie, and The Stones of course.
Then 1977 has only two albums that control the charts for most of the year, HOTEL CALIFORNIA and Fleetwood Mac’s RUMOURS. 1978 was also stagnate in chart movement with RUMOURS continuing its long run at the top followed by two soundtracks SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and GREASE. Billy Joel ends the year with his 52nd STREET.
So, How does TP and The Heartbreakers get into the mix?
Kudos to Sasha Frere-Jones for her insightful VILLAGE VOICE piece of October 3, 2017 describing the radio audience that TOM PETTY walked into circa 1977-1980. Her article helped me further understand the music business/radio dynamics of that time.
This period was one of a changing environment in radio. Within months stations started the labeling of artists, categories which did not exist before. And Program Directors were pigeon holing artists as well as attempting to define their specific audience’s tastes. At this date we also witness the demise of free form radio hosts, my radio idols at the time, those willing to play anything and everything unconditionally. The pre Classic Rock format is slowing developing as stations were searching for identities, attempting to capture listeners by their tastes and grabbing the almighty advertising dollars.
Into this radio scene, albeit a confusing one, (1977) AMERICAN GIRL is released, a recording lost in the crossfire of the emerging “punk” rock and what Program Directors now defined as “rock”. How does one define this recording or better yet, WHY define it?
For me AMERICAN GIRL was a great record upon release, kinda catchy as they say and today it is still is a great listen. That Byrds Beatles genre which we were missing is somehow captured in 3 minutes and thirty five seconds: The twanging guitars, words that grab your attention. Quite a difference from RUMOURS, no disrespect intended, but hey, this AMERICAN GIRL record was different.
NY radio at this time, again in my opinion for my listening taste and again kudos to Sasha Frere-Jones for reminding me, had only two major players left.WPIX and WNEW. The PIX PENTHOUSE PARTY with Meg Griffin was a delight introducing newer music to us, not the standard Eagles or Frampton. Here at 101 FM we heard Talking Heads, The Clash, Elvis and Elvis Costello as well as the arrival of The B-52’s.
WNEW hitched its wagon to Springsteen (all day-everyday), Pink Floyd soon to all be labeled CLASSIC ROCK.
1979 we get DAMN THE TORPEDOES and Refugee which is another game changer.
So the question is: What’s your point?
According to data accumulated by FiveThirtyEight, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are the fifth biggest classic-rock group in the country, responsible for one out of every forty songs you hear on the radio.
That’s the point, TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS helped change the sounds which emulate out of that device Marconi made so many years ago.
Next up: TOM PETTY and THE HEARTBREAKERS versus THE HEARTBREAKERS