His death was unexpected, but the outpouring of reactions shows that Tom Petty embodied a special place in rock ‘n’ roll history. Petty’s intelligent lyrics and simple melodies moved people around the globe.
The premature news saying that he had died caused a massive shockwave. But when hisactual death was confirmed, Tom Petty broke hearts across the world – one last time.
There was an outpouring of grief on social media and down the ages of rock. Mick Jagger praised Petty’s songwriting on Twitter, saying it felt “sad about Tom Petty, he made some great music.”
The Strokes’ guitarist Albert Hammond Jr also paid homage to the man to whom he clearly owed a lot: “I grew up with your music,” he tweeted. “I’m going to miss you.”
Influenced by some of his greatest contemporaries
These tributes are not at all surprising. Tom Petty had a knack of spitting out hits as a solo artist as well as with his band Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: “Free Fallin’,” “Learning to Fly,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “American Girl” and many more.
Born in 1950, Petty was part of the teenage scream that woke up America with the opening chords of “She Loves You” when the Beatles played on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. Like millions of others across the US those “yeah yeah yeahs” in the chorus inspired him to pick up a guitar and make his own music.
But it wasn’t just the fab four who helped him in shaping his rich signature sound. The raw energy of the Rolling Stones and the jangly guitar sound of the Byrds were key strands in the rich melodic tapestry that became his trademark style, as were a number of country music influences.
The embodiment of rock ‘n’ roll
Tom Petty’s skill was in being able to fashion simple melodic lines, back them up with sharp chords and then infuse the line with lyrics that appealed to both a sense of nostalgia and defiance. “I Won’t Back Down” is an anthem written for stubborn youth – or in fact for anyone who might feel a need to rally or rail against the world:
“I know what’s right/I’ve got just one life/In a world that keeps on pushing me around/But I stand my ground/I won’t back down.” This is a true rock ‘n’ roll sentiment.
His songs have a timeless quality too, with a feeling of freshness while appearing as if they have already existed forever all the same. Perhaps that was why they accidentally appeared in other artists’ work:
“Last Nite” by The Strokes is a dead ringer for “American Girl;” the band did admit that they stole the opening off Petty. Furthermore, the similarity of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” to “I Won’t Back Down” led to Petty getting a share of the royalties and a songwriting credit on Smith’s hit.
He was pretty sanguine about the theft, if theft it was, saying that he laughed when he heard the Strokes had admitted to borrowing the riff, and also stressed that he cast no blame on Smith for the seeming plagiarism. Perhaps it’s because he understood the process of how songs and music come to a musician.
A collaborative genius
Tom Petty described music as a magical thing that can transform you, whether playing in a band on a stage in front of an audience, or writing a song. He described once how he didn’t know how his songs arrived; he would just play his guitar and the shapes would come. He thought it best not to analyze it too deeply.
His openness to music and the process of making it also explains why he collaborated with so many people. He opened for Bob Dylan on one of his tour. That connection later brought the two together as songwriters for “Jammin Me,” a great example of spat out lyrics punctuated by powerful chords. He also worked with Stevie Nicks, and Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics later produced his music too, co-writing the hit “Don’t Come Around Here No More” with Petty.
But surely the greatest partnership for him must have been with George Harrison’s troupe, The Traveling Wilburys. The supergroup of Harrison, Petty, ELO’s Jeff Lyne and Roy Orbison must have been something of a dream for the boy in the man whose musical talent had once been awoken by the Beatles.
Regardless of that, Tom Petty’s own unique sound will resonate long after he’s gone – and surely inspire many more musicians to come.