RIP Tom Petty: The troubled triumph of 1993’s Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers Greatest Hits

Tom Petty died today, aged 66. Jonny Potts remembers his 1993 Greatest Hits album, one of the best single-disc greatest hits compilations ever released.

I still have my copy of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Greatest Hits on CD. It was one of the first CDs I bought after acquiring a shitty boombox from an older kid at school. Up till then, it had all been tapes: The Rhythm Volume 3, Joyride, Use Your Illusion II, The Simpsons Sing the Blues.

With a CD, you could skip the tracks. That was the big selling point. Sure, the sound quality was supposedly immaculate, but what the hell did I know? CDs were big, beautiful objects to own. They were an investment which promised, in the excessive ‘How to Care for your CD’ notes which frequently accompanied the early ones, ‘a lifetime of listening enjoyment’. No more spooling the tape back in with a pencil! For a modest investment of $33 today you can guarantee that when you’re on your deathbed you’ll be able to skip straight to ‘Informer’ on Snow’s 12 Inches of Snow.

In 1993, the massive singles from Tom Petty’s Into the Great Wide Open were still current, with the videos being played alongside Green Jelly and C+C Music Factory on RTR Countdown. But they were already classics. ‘Free Fallin’’, ‘Into the Great Wide Open’, ‘Learning to Fly’ and ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’ were rich and fully formed capital R Rock; they seemed to belong to another generation. The guy had a weird mumbly non-voice like the old dude off Dire Straits. The songs were kinda like Bruce Springsteen but without the bombast. And he looked like a skeleton. How old were these guys? Is it OK to keep the video recorder going to catch the creepy ‘Mary Jane’ video when all I wanted was the ‘In Bloom’ one? Brendan says this song is about drugs. Have I ever liked a song with a harmonica in it before?

The hugeness of those hits did not suggest a backstory. They were the story: massive, singalong standards that your friend’s older brother’s friend could play on guitar. They belonged to everyone. Because of this, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers did not seem to fit anywhere. In 1993, they were not canonised, like the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd, nor were they ushering in something new like Pearl Jam and Nirvana. And Tom Petty was in a band with one of the Beatles? What is he, like, 60? Was there anyone else making music this restrained and commercial that we all agreed on?

But though we all liked that stuff, Petty wasn’t ours. This was Older Brother’s Music. The idea of risking $33 on a copy of Full Moon Fever on CD was prohibitive, especially when you’re saving up for the Spin Doctors’ Pocket Full of Kryptonite.

The songs were insistent. They were everywhere. They became mixtape staples. They were used to score cricket highlights. You heard them coming out of builders’ radios and student flats. Nobody could change the station when they heard the chime of that opening chord of ‘Free Fallin’’. You could make a decision to not like Paul McCartney or Neil Young: with Tom Petty you had no choice.

So the release of a greatest hits album was, as the sales figures bear out, a smart move. The album was massive. There were 18 tracks on it – great bang for your buck – and I knew about six of them. The great thing was, I could skip straight to those bangers. And by not buying four CD singles, I’d saved myself about $7.

OK, I am now going to ask you to try to imagine what it is like buying a CD with ‘American Girl’, ‘Refugee’, ‘The Waiting’ and ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’ on it having never heard those songs before.

That is an ugly cover. And the rest of these guys look like geography teachers. Except that one who looks like he’s in a Deep Purple covers band. One of the dudes is named Benmont Tench. BENMONT TENCH. The earliest song on this CD is ‘American Girl’ from 1976. 1976! Before Star Wars! And what kind of name for a song is ‘American Girl’ anyway? Springsteen-style stadium rock bullshit, no doubt. You put the CD in the player, there is the satisfying sound of the mechanism recognising the picture disc (bonus! But still ugly). You press the fat PLAY/PAUSE button and the disc whirs into action.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers Greatest Hits is one of the best single-disc greatest hits compilations ever released. I still believe the only thing that truly gives it a run for its money in this regard is The Cars Greatest Hits. It arrived at a time when you could sell huge numbers of expensive discs, and it acted as an introduction to and complete education on a band who were, as a zillion obits will point out, far more storied than the acoustic-driven mega-hits would suggest. You’d see the CD besides the first Rage Against the Machine album and Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle at parties, or splattered with acrylic in the art room.

But though the songs were everywhere and everyone’s, Petty himself was an enigma. You could sense an anger there, a weirdness. There was humour too. The eyebrow raise at the start of the ‘Free Fallin’’ video attested to that. So did the costume he wore in ‘Into the Great Wide Open’. But he wasn’t a weirdo. He was too straight for that. His songs are tough, built to last. Built to be played on the radio. He’s angry, sure, but he’s no punk. He sounds like Dylan and the Byrds, but no way could those trad dads ever pull off something like ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’. Musically, he doesn’t point the way anywhere, but he’s clearly uncomfortable in the classic threads that fit him so well. And how can you say a man with a 12x platinum album just wasn’t made for these times?

Warren Zanes’ recent Petty: The Biography leaves no doubt that Petty was one troubled guy. He did indeed yearn for something which eluded him, maybe wanted to be something he couldn’t. He’s regarded as a ‘small g’ genius. Not a Bruce, not a Neil. Not a consistently underrated songwriter’s songwriter like Randy Newman or Warren Zevon. He’s the guy behind those massive hits, but pop stars today are much more likely to cite Paul Simon, Elton John, Joni Mitchell or half a dozen more singer-songwriters ahead of Petty as an influence.

But you can still hear him in some unlikely places. You certainly hear him in bands like Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters, both of which have adopted the full-throated harmonies and big, generous chords that characterise a lot of Petty’s most satisfying work. It’s just that they’re pretty shit at it. Having shot their bolts early, this approach feels like a retreat. Tom Petty made confident, catchy MOR that remains vital and enduring.

Tom Petty will largely be remembered for the 17 originals on Greatest Hits. ‘I Won’t Back Down’. ‘Breakdown’. ‘Learning to Fly’. Whether you realised it or not, he was always there. But only ever in his songs.

The Spinoff’s music content is brought to you by our friends at Spark. Listen to all the music you love on Spotify Premium, it’s free on all Spark’s Pay Monthly Mobile plans. Sign up and start listening today.

The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.