On July 14, 1978, with New York’s punk scene well into a second wave that wasn't all that punk, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers played the Palladium on East 14th Street, a nightclub that has since been turned into a New York University dorm. Two days later, music critic Robert Palmer wrote about the band in The New York Times: “They are too melodic and ’60s-influenced to be called punks, too intense and jangly to be labeled pop-rock, too basic in conception to fit into either the jazz-rock or art-rock categories. Perhaps they are new wave, although that term is vague enough to be virtually meaningless.”
Palmer’s inability to pick just one sound for Petty was not a failure but the evidence of close listening. Petty spent 40-odd years using the simplest iterations of voice and guitar to write what sounds like songs beneath other songs. Much of it was tagged as classic rock, which speaks to a world less optimistic than Petty, who thought rock was as eternal as theater. Who calls Shakespeare “classic theater”?
In a 1999 interview with Charlie Rose, Petty talked about his Echoes album. “I guess they would call this a classic rock album. I don’t really like the term ‘classic’ too much,” he said. “It makes me feel like there’s nowhere to go. I think there’s a lot of places to go with rock, still. I don’t think that the whole story has been told or the whole song has been sung. I still think there’ll be innovations within the form.”