Tom Petty: the rock star who was a music fan as much as a musician

Tom Petty on stage at the Isle of Wight festival in 2012
Tom Petty on stage at the Isle of Wight festival in 2012 Photograph: Jonathan Hordle/REX/Shutterstock

When Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers first emerged, they cut anomalous, even anachronistic figures in US rock. It was 1976, the year of The Eagles’ Hotel California and Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive!: not, on the surface, the ideal time to launch a band audibly obsessed with smart, snappy 60s pop, whose big idea appeared to be fusing the 12-string jangle of The Byrds with the tough swagger of the mid-60s Rolling Stones.

Their eponymous debut album more or less sank without trace in America. The best they could hope for seemed to be sort of the cult success afforded the Flamin’ Groovies, another Californian band who cleaved to the then-unfashionable belief that rock had reached a pinnacle between 1965 and 1966: like The Flamin’ Groovies, The Heartbreakers initially attracted more interest in the UK than at home.

But as it turned out, the closing track on their debut album, American Girl, was just the first of a string of songs that demonstrated Petty’s ability both to tap into something fundamental and undeniable at the heart of US rock and to write melodies that sounded timeless and instantly familiar: Don’t Do Me Like That, You Got Lucky, Here Comes My Girl, Don’t Come Around Here No More, I Won’t Back Down, Free Fallin’.

Indeed, so timeless and familiar were his melodies that other artists kept subconsciously stealing them: The Strokes’ Last Nite bore a striking resemblance to American Girl; The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Dani California seemed a lot like Petty’s 1993 single Mary Jane’s Last Dance; two years ago Petty and co-composer Jeff Lynne were given a cut of the songwriting royalties for Sam Smith’s Stay With Me, thanks to the latter song’s closeness to I Won’t Back Down.

Petty was always blithe and generous about other artists borrowing from him. On the one hand, he could afford to be. By the time of his death, he’d sold something like 80m albums and had long been part of the rock aristocracy, palling around with the kind of artists who had inspired him as a kid: by 1986, Petty And The Heartbreakers were touring as Bob Dylan’s backing band; the following year, he formed The Travelling Wilburys with Lynne, Dylan, George Harrison and Roy Orbison.

But perhaps his generosity had less to do with his vast success than the sense that Petty was a music fan as much as he was a musician, aware that the style that had made him successful was based at least in part on borrowing and paying homage, smartly synthesizing the sound of artists he loved into something entirely his own.

By his own account, the appearance of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show had illuminated a troubled childhood in Gainesville, Florida: for an artist whose lyrical themes tended towards the blue-collar, he was a dreamy, artistic child, something his violent father found difficult to accept. His first attempt as stardom was with the Southern rock-oriented Mudcrutch, who signed to Leon Russell’s label Shelter in 1974, but fell apart after releasing a solitary single.

The sense that Petty thought misfortune, rather than artistic failings, had unfairly scuppered Mudcrutch’s chances was evident in his decision to reform the band in 2007, finally recording a debut album of charming, loose country rock at odds with the sound he and two other former Mudcrutch members pursued in the Heartbreakers.

Heartbreakers’ songs were tight and taut. They weren’t punk by any stretch of the imagination, but they shared the Ramones’ penchant for snappy brevity: like the latter’s eponymous debut, the Heartbreakers’ first two albums were both under half an hour long; their most successful, 1979’s peerless Damn The Torpedoes, relatively indulgent at 36 minutes. It went triple platinum in the US and made Petty a star, big enough not just to wage war with his record company over the inflated price at which they planned to sell his albums, but to win (always a savvy operator, Petty was later one of the first artists ever to release a single as a free download, much to his record label’s fury).

The Heartbreakers floundered in the mid-80s – the slick Dave Stewart production of 1985’s Southern Accents didn’t really suit them; 1987’s Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) was a bit of a mess – and Petty spent time on his solo projects: his first album without the band, Full Moon Fever, was a masterclass in mainstream rock songwriting with heart and brains. That, rather than musical innovation, or constant eclectic shapeshifting, was Tom Petty’s métier: his songwriting was still as potent as ever on 2014’s Hypnotic Eye.

It seemed somehow telling that the artists who led the tributes to him after his death was announced weren’t his peers and contemporaries, but musicians from generations after his: Ryan Adams, members of Vampire Weekend and Kings Of Leon. If you wanted proof of the way Petty’s music rang down the ages, untroubled by the vagaries of fashion, there it was.