Happy 30th Anniversary to Tom Petty’s debut solo album Full Moon Fever, originally released April 24, 1989.
Most artists see solo records as an opportunity to reinvent themselves in ways separate from their full-time bands. Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever, his first solo album, is an interesting departure from that concept, in that so much of that album has been integrated into the musical canon of The Heartbreakers, the band he was soloing away from.
Just how large does Full Moon Fever loom in Heartbreakers lore? Three of the seventeen previously-released tracks on their Greatest Hits album (credited to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) come from Full Moon: "Free Fallin'," "I Won't Back Down," and "Runnin' Down a Dream" (four others from Full Moon would chart: "Feel a Whole Lot Better," "Love Is a Long Road," "A Face in the Crowd," and "Yer So Bad"). The only album with more representation on Greatest Hits is Damn the Torpedoes, which some consider to be the definitive Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' album.
Petty's solo album actually had most of the Heartbreakers on it. Mike Campbell, the Heartbreaker's lead guitarist, played across the album and even co-wrote two songs. Benmont Tench, Heartbreaker keyboardist, played on one track, as did bassist Howie Epstein. The only Heartbreaker not on the album was drummer Stan Lynch, with whom Petty had an often-contentious relationship.
The album came about due to Petty's friendship with Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra. Lynne helped Petty write and produce "Yer So Bad," which wound up on Full Moon Fever. A day later, the two wrote and recorded "Free Fallin'," another iconic track from the album, at Campbell's home studio. Petty tried to make the album a Heartbreakers’ LP, but the rest of the band wasn't interested, as Petty recounted in Paul Zollo's Conversations with Tom Petty: “So I got to [Campbell's] and Howie [Epstein] was sitting outside the door of the bedroom. And he seemed kind of preoccupied, like he could be in those days. He was waiting, almost like a doctor waiting in the waiting room. And he said, 'You don't really need me for this, do you?' And he said, 'I don't like it.' I said, 'Well, if you don't like it, I don't need you.' And he said, 'Okay, I'm gonna go,' and he left. Right then I went, ‘well, this is going to be a Tom Petty solo record because I like it.’”
By this time, Petty and the Heartbreakers had made seven albums. One could see how Petty might be ready for a break. As much as he liked the band, he seemed invigorated by his work with Lynne, as well as by another guest on the album, Beatle George Harrison. Harrison sang backup on "I Won't Back Down."
A simple mimed performance on a sound stage with some random backgrounds, the video for that song revealed some interesting armchair psychological insights. There's not much to it, however, what's interesting is the band. Petty is singing and playing guitar, with Campbell on lead, and Lynne on bass. Harrison plays guitar and sings background vocals and none other than Ringo Starr plays drums, even though he had nothing to do with the song or the album.
Perhaps Petty was ready for a new band, if only for an album or so, and the solo record presented the opportunity to explore a Heartbreaker-less life. Or perhaps, like so many of us, he wanted to be a Beatle for a day.
Of course, the irony of the album is that it sounds so much like a Heartbreakers record. Petty ran away from home but chose a new family incredibly similar to his old one. But even if the new family was remarkably similar, there were still slight differences. Like Petty covered a Byrds song for the first time on a studio record, giving "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better" a Beatles-esque sheen. Perhaps he finally felt free to cover a band that very much influenced his sound because this wasn't a formal Heartbreakers release, but rather a personal, solo dalliance.
Petty seemed, on some level, tired of the Heartbreakers. Which is why it makes sense that the Traveling Wilburys, Petty's supergroup featuring Harrison, Lynne, Bob Dylan, and Roy Orbison, would come together after Full Moon Fever (although the Wilburys' debut, Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, was released before Full Moon).
Petty was on a journey of self-discovery and Full Moon Fever documents the start of that adventure.
The Heartbreakers, other than Campbell, resented Full Moon and didn't want to play the songs live as the Heartbreakers. Petty was well aware of the tension. When asked about if the Heartbreakers would perform this material, back in 1989, Petty joked to Billboard, "If I find some women and money for them, maybe. I haven't asked them yet."
But of course the band would perform these songs. They were too big to not play live. The songs were seared into popular American culture. Can you imagine Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire belting out any song other than "Free Fallin'" as he looks for a celebratory tune on the radio? And while there were two post 9/11 concerts, the only thing I remember from either is Petty's defiant "I Won't Back Down," played with the Heartbreakers, of course, from America: A Tribute to Heroes. Full Moon was just too good to exist only on the record; it needed to be blasted in stadiums and arenas. In fact, the Heartbreakers would add guitarist/keyboardist/backup singer Scott Thurston to help flesh out the sound on the Full Moon Fever tour. The Heartbreakers resented Full Moon Fever but their professional life was intertwined with the album, for better or for worse.
Petty's career was defined by his great songwriting. It should come as no surprise that his first solo album would be a hit machine. It should also come as no surprise that the success of Full Moon Fever created tension in the band. But things eventually cooled down. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would make six more studio albums after Full Moon Fever and Petty would do another solo album, Wildflowers (1994), before he died in 2017.
The world considers Full Moon Fever a Heartbreakers record. The Heartbreakers came around to accepting it as one, but at its core, it’s a Petty solo work. In 2018, Campbell wound up touring with Fleetwood Mac after their guitarist, Lindsey Buckingham, was fired. On that tour, Fleetwood Mac singer Stevie Nicks performed a Tom Petty song every night as a tribute to her friend and colleague (Petty and Campbell had written and recorded "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," which became a hit for her). The song she picked? "Free Fallin'."