Thursday, January 26, 2023


This was written as a potential chapter in my long-threatened book The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1), but it is not part of that book's current blueprint. Volume 2!

An infinite number of tracks can each be THE greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Today, this is THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE!

Written by Tom Petty
Produced by Denny Cordell
Single from the album Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Shelter Records, 1976

God, it's so painful for something to be so close
And still so far out of reach

I know I've written several times about Phonograph Record Magazine, a rock 'n' roll tabloid that meant quite a lot to me when I was 17. I discovered the magazine when I was a 17-year-old high school senior in 1977, and even though I only saw a mere two issues of PRM, it was enough to open up a whole new world of possibility within my fevered teen brain. Punk rock? What the hell is that? And why am I suddenly so intrigued by it?

Among PRM's regular features was Pipeline, a determinedly silly column by writer Mark Shipper. And it was in Pipeline that I first heard of a new act called Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Granted, it was just in a humor piece about punk groups, referring to Eddie and the Hot Rods as a singer named Eddie backed by a combo of classic cars revvin' up, and referring to the Heartbreakers as a beleaguered band bullied by a leader so (wait for it!) petty that he required 'em all to wear matching underwear beneath their trousers on stage. You might find the idea of considering Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers a punk group funnier than Shipper's jokes (though I would disagree). But Petty and company were indeed swept up in the punk hype initially, spoken in the same breath as the Ramones, even though they sounded more like the Byrds. Nonetheless, the common ground was there. It was new. It was exciting. It belonged to us.

I don't have any real recollection of hearing Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' first hit "Breakdown" on the radio in '77, though I must have. I did hear "American Girl," and adored its glorious channeling of Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark taking flyte on my FM dial. But it was really the group's 1978 TV appearance on Midnight Special that set me higher. "Listen To Her Heart." "I Need To Know." The album was You're Gonna Get It. I got it. I got it as soon as I possibly could.

The American record-buyin' public caught up with this mob in short order; their third album Damn The Torpedoes shot full speed ahead into the charts, onto the airwaves, and deep within hearts that would not be broken. Their success was proof that great stuff could sell, sell big, and remain great, remain true to itself. 

No one would ever dare to call Tom Petty a sellout. He was an everyman, one of us, yet still a superstar, the kind of star we wished we could be. When Petty helped to form the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, his self-assured cool guaranteed him an easy fit; but somewhere far under his skin, I guarantee there was still a starstruck kid from Gainsville, Florida, pinching himself while saying I'm pals with George HarrisonBob Dylan, and Roy OrbisonAnd Jeff Lynne. His success was deserved. His fame and acclaim were well-earned. But he never forgot the long road he took to get there. His unbreakable heart was made of gold, but forged in rock 'n' roll.

"American Girl" recalls the best of the Byrds so effortlessly that there's no question that the similarity is an accident; Petty said he didn't even realize it sounded like the Byrds until someone pointed it out. It was organic, the result of creation nurtured by inspiration. "American Girl" is also arguably deeper, more emotional than most of the Byrds' sublime recorded work, painting a portrait of a woman dealing with her own desperation, her own regret, and determining her next step in moving on to something better.

"Something better" for this American girl may be an American boy who can try to understand her and help her; it may be even simpler than that, as she seeks the path to understand and help herself: an American girl, raised on promises, who couldn't help thinking that there was a little more to life somewhere else.

Tom Petty knew all of this, whether first-hand or as an observer. He told the story with a chime of guitars and an earnest commitment to seeing things through. Oh yeah. All right. A great big world with lots of places to run to must offer sanctuary somewhere. 

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This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio with Dana & Carl airs Sunday nights from 9 to Midnight Eastern, on the air in Syracuse at SPARK! WSPJ 103.3 and 93.7 FM, and on the web at You can read about our history here.

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