A four hour documentary about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I thought the TV guide had misprinted. Nothing against the band, I’d always liked the sound they made coming out of the radio and an old friend had introduced me to songs like Refugee and Here Comes My Girl in the early 80s. I’d even seen them live – supporting and backing Dylan in 1987 (have to say I remember it more for a scary walk home the night of the great storm than a Wembley Arena show with bad tickets) All the same, a four hour music doc is a tough ask even for an avid TP fan – for someone who never bought a Tom Petty record, you’d think it way above and beyond. Not so.
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich (Last Picture Show, Paper Moon) and released in 2007, TomPetty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream showed exactly why this is a band who have outlasted virtually all their contemporaries. It’s more than a collection of great shirts, ace songs, judicious use of Rickenbacker guitars, and a cast list taking in Dylan, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Johnny Depp, George Harrison (I could go on, but you get the picture). What kept me hooked until the end was watching Petty’s singular vision take on all-comers. As Heartbreakers’ keyboard player Benmont Tench says, “He takes no shit.” This is a man who took on his record company on more than one occasion and won, who has fought for what he wanted for himself and his band and came out on top pretty much every time.
What really sold the film was that Petty also has that Dylanesque instinct for music biz bullshit. It’s summed up in a short sequence at around 2hrs 50mins. Captioned The Bottom Line, it sees Roger McGuinn, former Byrds front man and an old friend of Petty’s, making an album. At the time (around 1990) McGuinn hadn’t made a record in a while and his record company had given him the songs they wanted him to record for the album. McGuinn, visibly low on confidence had invited Petty down to sing.
In the studio’s control room are: Tom Petty (TP), Roger McGuinn (RM), and a couple of record company A&R guys (A&R1 and A&R2). This is what happens (italics are real time footage, non-italics are contemporary cuts):
(TP: The song was terrible, it wasn’t a song he wrote. And I was very suspicious as to why he was being encouraged to record material like this.)
TP: It sounds very commercial, like planned commercial. (Reads lyric) “Gonna love you, gonna need you, this time I’ve got both feet on the ground.” I could smoke a joint and come up with three better lines than that. (to A&R1) You could too. “Gotta hold on, it won’t be long…”
A&R1: It’s simple.
TP: This is the man that sang Turn, Turn, Turn. Let’s go get him a fuckin’ song.
A&R 1&2: Laugh nervously.
TP: Y’know this is a great man sittin’ here, that’s done great things and these guys (the song’s writers) are just students of what he’s done. I don’t think that’s what he should sing.
(TP: The A&R guy, the guy from the record company seemed awfully young to me. I don’t think he understood the depth of the artist he was working with.)
TP: Sorry, Rog, I just can’t –
RM: No I appreciate it.
TP: I can’t hold it any longer … I love you too much I can’t see you get fucked around—
RM: You’re doing what you’re doing, that’s great.
A&R1: We’re not trying to fuck him around.
TP: You’re not trying to fuck him around, but you are if you make him do this song. Y’know, sometime the commercial road, thinking that’s the road to take isn’t always the road to take. Sometimes doing stuff from your heart and being really honest with people works much better.
A&R1: Well let’s change the lyrics.
TP: Why don’t you just get him a song.
A&R1: Let’s change some lyrics. The music’s good.
TP: What are you getting a kickback on this? I mean, this is a bad song. Get another song. Have you got the publishing on this or something?
A&R1: I don’t have anything.
TP: Yeah you do, you got two points.
A&R1: I do not.
TP: Ah, don’t bullshit me.
A&R1: Those days of the record business have long been over.
TP: Yeah, and so’s payola. This is just perpetrating the depth of shit we’re in with pop music.
RM: You think it’s a sell-out right?
A&R1: I knew when I heard it, some people might think that.
TP: Then it’s not worth doing.
RM: I can say I’m not that crazy about it either.
(TP: They were trying to make the artist into something he wasn’t in order to sell him a certain way. And in truth they’d have been better off letting him do what he did naturally and, to his credit, he didn’t do the song.
RM: He was like my hero, like he was standing up to these guys and I was being a little too passive. I was - I’ll do what the producer wants, what the company wants, go along with the flow not to make trouble.
TP: I went home thinking, I’ve never done that in a session, I was really outta line.
RM: Tom was right, it was my album and my name was going on it. Who was gonna know who these guys were and why they wanted that song on there?)
I went into HMV yesterday and bought a copy of Damn The Torpedoes It sounds great, really great.
Tom Petty andThe Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream is available to view on BBC iplayer for the next week or so.