Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
November 23, 2009
POP CULTURE: Makin' Some Noise

The Wall Street Journal had an excellent look at Tom Petty as he prepares for the release of a live retrospective:

What at first sounded like drudgery, Mr. Petty says, digging through 30 years of concert recordings for the coming "Live Anthology," turned into an "adventure." Engineer Ryan Ulyate made the first pass through the recordings in the Heartbreakers' vault, including some old analog tapes that first needed to be baked in an oven before playing to prevent disintegration. He assembled an iTunes library of some 3,500 songs, then pulled out hundreds of potential highlight tracks for Messrs. Campbell and Petty to assess. "It's amazing how the best take really shines compared to everything else," the singer says.

While the recordings prompt memory flashes from each era, Mr. Petty says, it's tough for him to recall specific concerts. One, however, stands out as perhaps "the worst gig" his band ever played, which somehow yielded the standout version of "I Won't Back Down." In 2007, at a benefit concert for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Heartbreakers performed beneath the museum's giant blue whale. The posh audience ignored the band as they performed an acoustic set, capped with the defiant song which (to Mr. Petty's chagrin) has become a perennial fight song for campaigning politicians. Mr. Petty resented the indifference of the crowd of "billionaire kinds of people, many of whom you'd know," he recalls, acknowledging that this might have fired up the band. "At least I got a good track out of it," he says.

Read the whole thing. The Journal poses the question why Petty doesn't get the sort of reverence that follows Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan or other "rock gods," but to me it's kind of obvious: he's never been an innovator or influential; he's always been content with being a meat-and-potatoes rock n'roller making good records and putting on good shows (as I noted when I recently tallied up my concert-going experiences, I saw him live at the Worcester Centrum in early 1990 on the tour for his best album, Full Moon Fever, and it was a really good show). Plus, Petty's a wierd-looking guy with a quirky voice, so he never got the pop culture cache of being a matinee idol type (although he put both his look and sound to great use in his legendary video for Don't Come Around Here No More).

Anyway, there's nothing wrong with making lots and lots of really good music; not everybody has to be a pathbreaker. Within his own "roots rock" genre, I'd rate Petty ahead of the likes of Mellencamp and Bob Seger but behind Bruce; the artist he's probably most comparable would be Creedence (plus, I think of them together because Petty's a Southerner who sounds like a Californian and John Fogerty's a Californian who sounds like a Southerner).

Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:43 PM | Pop Culture | Comments (37) | TrackBack (0)

I like Tom Petty, particularly his Heartbreakers stuff. I don't love him, though. I have his greatest hits album, and that's enough for me.

"The Journal poses the question why Petty doesn't get the sort of reverence that follows Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan or other "rock gods," but to me it's kind of obvious: he's never been an innovator or influential"

Petty simply doesn't belong in the category of "rock gods." It's not because he's too popular, it's just that he simply is not "great." You are right, Petty certainly hasn't been innovative, then again, neither has Bruce, really. Some of it may just be that he's never written/played truly great songs. Petty is good songwriter, maybe even a very good songwriter, he never written a "great song." Where is his "Born to Run", for example? Mellencamp is great comparison in this respect; he and Petty are on the same level; though I happen to like Mellencamp better simply out of personal preference (except for that whole "Dance Naked" period - god, just plug the thing in and play.)

And I liked your Fogerty/Petty comparison. I was amazed years ago when I found out that Creedence was a southern CA band. I would put Creedence ahead of Petty by a long shot, though. Not that Creedence was any more innovative, but because of the sheer number and quality of their songs.

Posted by: MVH at November 23, 2009 3:20 PM

All time American rock bands???-Petty and the Heartbreakers has to be in the mix. CCR is probably #1. Sorry Crank, but I put him ahead of Bruce. Most casual rock fans couldn't name 10 Springsteen songs. Aerosmith, Doors are some others. Jimi Hendrix Experience.....

Posted by: dch at November 23, 2009 3:28 PM

Tom Petty has a blue-sy twang working for him. "Runnin' Down a Dream" is a great song. Fogerty sings blues as well as most any white man outside of Gregg Allman. Okay, and Leon Russell.

I just never "got" Springsteen. And I live in NJ. Maybe that's why...

Posted by: spongeworthy at November 23, 2009 4:10 PM

I'd say "American Girl" is Petty's 'Born to Run'. I think both songs pretty much define their artists.

Posted by: TanstaafLunch at November 23, 2009 4:26 PM


Songs like "American Girl" and "Running Down a Dream" may define Petty, but are they anywhere near as great as Born to Run, for example?

Another way of looking at it is: would you place any Tom Petty song within the top 30 or so of any greatest hits of rock list? I wouldn't put any one of Petty's songs that high.

Posted by: MVH at November 23, 2009 4:49 PM

I'd think that "Refugee" would make the bottom half of a Top 30 American rock list.

Posted by: mikeski at November 23, 2009 5:05 PM

Tom Petty can also write lyrics as good as anyone. Springsteens second album is among the best rock albums ever. The rest of his stuff I can give or take.

Posted by: B Buckner at November 23, 2009 5:47 PM

MVH-I would go with Free Fallin/Won't back down/American Girl/Refugee as Petty's best.

Top American bands-Nirvana, Kiss, The Eagles(its probably between CCR and them for best American band)

Posted by: dch at November 23, 2009 6:47 PM

I've thought about Tom Petty's place in the rock pantheon and why he does not command the respect of a Springsteen or some of the others. Maybe because Petty never was too ambitious and did not try to make rock history like the others. Petty is sort of an accumulator, like a Paul Molitor or a Tommy John. No MVP or Cy Young, not always the best player on his team, but at the end of his career you say, "wow, that's a lot of hits (or wins)!" Enough to get you into the Hall of Fame.

Posted by: steve at November 23, 2009 6:50 PM

I've thought about Tom Petty's place in the rock pantheon and why he does not command the respect of a Springsteen or some of the others. Maybe because Petty never was too ambitious and did not try to make rock history like the others. Petty is sort of an accumulator, like a Paul Molitor or a Tommy John. No MVP or Cy Young, not always the best player on his team, but at the end of his career you say, "wow, that's a lot of hits (or wins)!" Enough to get you into the Hall of Fame.

Posted by: steve at November 23, 2009 6:51 PM

Good analogy Steve. BTW-Just finished watching them perform live on VH1 classics-doing their classics, some blues and Chuck Berry. I am a guitarist so I was really getting a kick out of their vinatge equipment.

Posted by: dch at November 23, 2009 7:30 PM

Springsteen's always had "I have seen the future of Rock and Roll and it's name is Bruce Springsteen" going for him, which doesn't hurt. Petty's best work was made after people had already come to think of him as a blue-collar plodder, and as in baseball, that impression can be hard to change once it's out there.

Posted by: Jerry at November 23, 2009 7:53 PM

I like Petty, but let's be real: he's not even close to Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Posted by: snide at November 23, 2009 8:51 PM

CCR had that great what 4-5 year run than pffft. Petty has been getting it done for 30 plus years.

Posted by: dch at November 23, 2009 9:18 PM

CCR, Eagles, Aerosmith, Petty, Hendrix, Grateful Dead, Springsteen, Nirvana, Kiss, Ramones, ZZ Top, .............

Posted by: amonesh at November 23, 2009 9:28 PM

MVH - I pretty much agree with you here, but I think 'American Girl' is a great song (Petty's BTR), immediately accessible yet hard to overplay. while I'm a big Petty fan, I'm also a huge Springsteen fan. Bruce pretty much paved the way for TP, but where Bruce's perfectionist streak kind of limited his output (until much later in his career), TP seemed more willing to roll with what he had (I don't think I could top Steve's analogy). Rock is way too big for a single list of 'greatest', unless somebody is looking to start an argument, so I'll leave it that AG would definitely make the top 20 for some rock genre.

Posted by: TanstaafLunch at November 23, 2009 10:30 PM

Yep, I agree. That said, the greatest list arguments are always fun though

Posted by: dch at November 23, 2009 10:51 PM

Greatest American Bands? Assuming it is a band and not just one guy (like Hendrix, Dylan, etc.). list (not in order):

-Paul Butterfield Blues Band
-Grateful Dead
-Allman Brothers
-The Band
-Doobie Brothers
-Mamas and Papas
-Three Dog Night
-Van Halen
-ZZ Top

BTW: I cut off after about 1975 (with some exceptions), so my regrets to newer bands

Posted by: Lee at November 24, 2009 7:13 AM

Oh, if you're going to create a list of the top 30, say, american rock songs, or genre rock songs, that's a different story. My point is that none of his songs would break the top 30 of an all-time, all genre rock list, which I posed as an informal litmus test of being a "rock god."

If I had to pick my favorite Petty song, it probably would be Refugee.

Posted by: MVH at November 24, 2009 8:58 AM

FYI, Van Halen didn't release an album until '78 (and has basically been dead for 10 years). They're really dead now, since Eddie fired Michael Anthony & are little more than a nostalgia band that only tours & sings 25 year old songs.. And any American band list has GOT to be headed by Aerosmith, IMO, which has been churning out songs (molasses laden chick songs, of late) for almost forty years.

"Free Fallin'" is Petty's opus, IMO. No one can hear that song while riding alone in their car without singing along. It's a law.

dch, Nirvana? Really?

Posted by: RW at November 24, 2009 11:12 AM

Nirvana is probably the most influential rock band from 1990-present.

Posted by: dch at November 24, 2009 11:18 AM

I thought they were grunge, which as a genre has pretty much disappeared. Many would argue that Pearl Jam has been the leading grunge-band, as well (my guess would be "most), or Soundgarden. The rest of the band has moved more towards pop than rock, IMO, in their incarnation as the Foo Fighters (Cobain's influence lacking, accepted).

Don't get me wrong, my 9 year old LOVES 'In bloom', but one of the greatest American rock bands, ever? Ahead of G&R?


And no one mentions Bon Jovi?

Posted by: RW at November 24, 2009 12:33 PM

They were the ones that started the whole grunge/seattle sound thing and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was a defining moment in rick history.

GNR is up there " Appettite for Destruction", Lies-incredible albums. Van Halen from 1980-1988 were huge. Bon jovi has been around for over 20 years.

Like I said its fun to make these lists-probably a better way of doing it is by decades.

Posted by: dch at November 24, 2009 1:23 PM

For me, I Need to Know is Petty's best song, although American Girl is definitely the most iconic. Never been a fan of Free Fallin. CCR had some great tunes, but Petty lasted a lot longer (and his best easily stacks up to CCR's best). Not a big Springsteen fan.

Nirvana is overrated, both on content and influence. While Nevermind was great, and In Utero was good (but uneven), that is not really enough content to get into the Great American Band discussion.

Posted by: Paul H. at November 24, 2009 1:23 PM

I never loved Free Falling myself. My favorites were always Running Down a Dream, Refugee, and American Girl. (A more obscure fave is the title of this post).

I'd say, semi-chronologically, and excluding Hendrix as not a band and Fleetwood Mac and CSNY as not entirely American, your contenders for best American band (rock or pop/rock - not looking here at country acts) would have to be:

The Beach Boys
The Doors
Grateful Dead
The Eagles
Van Halen
Pearl Jam

I'd actually be tempted to pick the Dead as the best of those, on the whole. The Dead are such a uniquely American phenomenon. The next tier would include people like

Lynyrd Skynyrd
The Allman Brothers
Bon Jovi
The Cars
Guns n Roses

although you could make a case for Skynyrd in the first tier.

Posted by: Crank at November 24, 2009 1:38 PM

I'd say a top ten would have to include:

The Beach Boys
The Eagles
The Grateful Dead
Springsteen/E Street Band (if you count them as a band)

The next four could be any of the several bands listed above, as well as other less-traditionally blues-based rock acts like The Ramones or R.E.M. or the Talking Heads.

Posted by: Jerry at November 24, 2009 2:50 PM

Nothing like this list to make you feel old. Not mentioned but influential enough that you would have to include R.E.M. Certainly led the way to Alt Rock (whether that is a good thing or not who knows but I think The Eagles blow, too so whatever) and pumped out relevant music for 25 years. I think of The Dead more as an act or phenomenom than a band. Their music aside from the event was not terribly relevant (or in many cases, very good). I'd ding Aerosmith down for their incredibly crappy music over the past 10 years dating to when Steven Tyler turned into an old lesbian. Do Nirvana and Pearl Jam count since they started as another genre? I guess it's just rock now. I don't think the Talking Heads did enough as a national act although that would be debateable

In any case, no matter what list was assembled here there is a lot of old music here and a lot of it I think time has passed by.

Geez, no one mentioned Jefferson Airplane/Starship? Heart? Pat Benetar? Boston? Rush? ZZ Top?

Posted by: jim at November 24, 2009 6:46 PM


Posted by: jim at November 24, 2009 6:48 PM

We're now talking bands here, not solo artists. And Rush is Canadian.

Boston would definitely be in your top 20 or 30 American bands, but not top 10.

Aerosmith's studio output has sucked since roughly 1990 or so - Permanent Vacation was a good album, Pump had some good stuff but was starting to get cheesy, but things went downhill after that.

Posted by: Crank at November 24, 2009 6:53 PM

Lee, with the exception of Levon Helm, the Band were Canadians. They were one of the half dozen best live acts I've seen in 40 years of concert-going. I'd put them on any list of best "American" bands. Good choice, too, with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band- I never saw them, but was lucky enough to catch Paul Butterfield's Better Days.
Others who deserve consideration: the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield (without who there would have been no CSNY), Little Feat, the Mothers of Invention, Parliament/Funkadelic, the MC5 & the Stooges (two of the very few bands who brought more energy to the stage than the 70's Springsteen), J Geils, Velvet Underground, Sly and the Family Stone, the Rascals, the New York Dolls, and Jefferson Airplane.
There's three working "American" bands at the present who also belong on that list and whose live shows I would recommend checking out- the Roots, Wilco, and Los Lobos.

Posted by: rs at November 24, 2009 6:54 PM

The problem with Aerosmith's later work was that the single releases were almost always the ballads. There were some rocking songs on their CD's ("Just push play" rocks, as does "Drop dead gorgeous" but the rest of the CD sounds like the top release from it, "Jaded" - which I couldn't stand). Same with 9 lives, the title track & Attitude adjustment is classic Aerosmith, but - other than the catchy "Falling in love is hard on the knees" (Aerosmith was Brad Paisley before there was Brad Paisley, I guess?) the rest was a collection of ballads or the schmaltzy "Pink". I do know that some of the band members didn't like the direction that they were being taken & pointed in the direction of the record execs, who were pushing for more "hits" and there was a short rift between Tom Hamilton & Steven Tyler, but apparently the band's revolt wasn't to release hard rock but an homage to the blues with "Honkin' on bobo", which was simply atrocious.

All that said (Larry David flashback), Steven Tyler is the pre-eminent American lead singer for rock, period, and the guy can still hit those freaking high notes.

Plus, if anyone told you back during their "Toxic Twin" days that Joe f'n Perry and Steven Tyler would out themselves as Republicans, each of us would have laughed.

BTW, as a Georgian do I have enough cred to say that REM should be disqualified from mention for "Shiny Happy People"? Haven't we suffered enough?


I remember years back, when I was still blogging, posting about the best rock guitar riffs & Crank reminded me of "Runnin' down a dream". I'd completely forgotten about Tom Petty's work until that mention & I later went out and got his greatest hits. Yeah, a lot like Molitor, wasn't ever going to be on my workout playlist or for any sort of 'mood' music (like, say, Sinatra), but darned if the guy hasn't put out a catalog like few others. And, like Springsteen (and Jagger, Rod Stewart and others), he's sold a gazillion records with a voice that wouldn't get him past the auditions of American Idol.

Whatever "it" is, he's got it. In spades.

Posted by: RW at November 25, 2009 9:29 AM

"BTW, as a Georgian do I have enough cred to say that REM should be disqualified from mention for "Shiny Happy People"? Haven't we suffered enough?"

I'd overlook that and include REM, though that's a tough song to swallow.

Crank's band list looks pretty good, but I would include the Allman Brothers in the top tier without reservation and ahead of Skynyrd. I would also throw in the Black Crowes in the bottom tier on the basis of their first three cd's alone.

Posted by: MVH at November 25, 2009 3:30 PM

I'm stunned in a 30+ comment thread centered on Tom Petty there's nary a mention of Wildflowers, one of the best mainstream guitar albums of the 90s.

Posted by: jbm at November 25, 2009 7:32 PM

Aarrgh. Battling between Tom Petty and the other dead as doornail guys is a fool's errand.

I got out some paste and made my own grid over here

Posted by: Carl from Chicago at November 27, 2009 12:47 PM

Are The Beach Boys "rock"? I realize when they came out it was rock or surf rock but does it count as "rock" now? They don't play them on regular rock stations these days. They pretty much are on "Oldies" stations sandwiched between Neil Diamond and Elvis ballads. If they came out today with that music they would be considered pop. If Pearl Jam and Nirvana get moved to the "rock" category because that was the evolution of their bands or "grunge" in general, shouldn't bands that started as rock that would now be considered pop (or whatever) be excluded from the rock list?

Posted by: jim at November 27, 2009 1:03 PM

By today's standards, Elvis Presley, the king of rock and roll and along with Frank Sinatra the most important person in modern music - with the exception of about 6 songs - would be considered "pop".

Rock music changed forever when Jimi Hendrix played the guitar.

Heck, I consider Springsteen more a folk singer or a pop singer than a rock singer.

Posted by: RW at November 30, 2009 12:10 PM

I classify the Beach Boys as pop/rock. In their early-60s heyday before the Beatles arrived, they were as rock as anyone, and into the mid-60s they were still influential on other rock bands.

Posted by: Crank at November 30, 2009 12:36 PM
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