The last several years have been brutal for rock musicians and their fans. Among many others—David Bowie, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Prince, to name a few—there is Tom Petty. We the hungry music listeners want our radio stars to play on, live forever, never fade away. In the case of Tom Petty, his songs were always a reminder of the good times, the party days, the days at the beach, hanging out by the pool, driving rolling country roads.
In 1989, when Full Moon Fever was released, I was 17 years old, a senior in high school. That year I was in the midst of discovering late Beatles, INXS, Buffalo Springfield, Cat Stevens and the like. I had my driver’s license, of course—passing the test on my 16th birthday—and though I couldn’t afford to purchase many albums with my minimum wage funds, I haunted the Howard County Central Library and its repository of CDs and albums. I was able to purchase ten blank audio tapes at K-Mart for five bucks or so; my bedroom was dub city. This is how I discovered Full Moon Fever. The library was forward-thinking enough to have a copy of the masterpiece and I was all over it.
All that year and into the summer before college I listened to that album. Correction—I didn’t just listen to it; I wore it out. I listened to it, then rewound the tape and listened again. For me, that album, thanks in part to Jeff Lynne’s production, brought the 60’s sound I was in the midst of embracing to my late 80’s speakers. But at the time, I would have never put it like that: I simply loved the melodies and the spirit of individual nose-thumbing. “Free Fallin’” and “I Won’t Back Down” were a one-two punch for a teenage fan. “Free Fallin” is in many ways the ultimate late-80’s cut—providing sly commentary on 80’s acquisitiveness (the video featured Petty wailing away on a L.A. mall escalator) while opening the door to something different. Where “Free Fallin” was replete with California references and a break-away-from-the-ties-that-bind attitude, “I Won’t Back Down” was all stiff-upper lip—a testament to interminable persistence. It didn’t hurt that George Harrison played rhythm guitar on the track and that Petty’s voice was especially nasally (rumor has it he was nursing a cold on the day he recorded the track).
But for my money, the middle cluster of tracks brought the album together —“Love is a Long Road,” “A Face in the Crowd,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” and “Yer So Bad” are the heart of the album. These songs stretched my young ears. In particular, I loved Mike Campbell’s resonant guitar solos on “Love is a Long Road” and, of course, “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” Though this was Petty’s first “solo” album it would not be the same without Mike Campbell on the haunting numbers. “Running Down a Dream” and “Love is a Long road” are all-time great driving numbers—as sprawling and wide-open as any other cuts Petty ever recorded. In addition, these cuts add to the psychedelic side already ushered in with “You Got Lucky” and “Don’t Come Around Here No More” from a few years prior. But Southern Accents was more hit and miss for me; with Full Moon Fever, it was all hit.
What also makes Full Moon Fever such a delight is Petty’s wonderful sense of humor deployed throughout. In Petty’s videos and concert footage he often displayed a Cheshire cat smile—he knew some little secret and he wasn’t telling. This is especially the case with the satirical “Yer So Bad,” the sly “The Apartment Song” and “Zombie Zoo,” the closing track. Though Tom Petty’s song-writing chops are in full display on Full Moon Fever, he was not one to take himself too seriously. Ditties like “Yer So Bad” would later appear on my college mix tapes as a kind of humorous interlude between more solemn numbers. Petty knew rock could be fun as well as self-expressive.
Full Moon Fever was one of the soundtracks to my late teenage years, always on the crappy speakers in my hand-me-down beat-up 1982 Mazda station wagon as I drove around doing my thing. In fact, I listened to this album so much then that for many years I simply could not listen to it anymore—at least not in one sitting. But in many ways it is imprinted in my brain now—part of my DNA. But just to be clear—I always sing along to a Full Moon Fever cut when it pops up on the radio. These songs are so catchy it’s impossible to dislike them. Though these days I listen more frequently to Wildflowers, Full Moon Fever was my gateway drug. It’s a true desert island disk—even more so now—one which I replay in my mind to this day.