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.”
Rock only got to be classic because a writer like Petty could hear which parts of rock made it classic. His music endures because it never calcified, unlike that of so many legacy artists with whom he was pigeonholed in his later years.
So many of Petty’s songs sound like the elements themselves, uncut substances that could be used in almost any genre. The very first Petty single, “Breakdown,” from 1977, was one of the sneakiest things he released. The song has more electric piano than guitar, and when he played it live, Petty often interpolated Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road, Jack.” Play it alongside Boz Scaggs’ “Lowdown” or something from Tom Waits’ Small Change album, and you’d think Petty was angling to be a next-stage soul singer. Petty never wrote another song like it, but “Breakdown” placed a pylon on his road, making it clear how wide his field of vision was.
“Jammin’ Me,” from 1987, is a reaction to pop culture overload (more or less rewritten by Bruce Springsteen in 1992 as the lesser song “57 Channels [And Nothin’ On]”). At the time, it reminded many reviewers of The Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up,” but in 2017, hearing the guitars and drums line up, the AC/DC comes through clearly. This song could get much louder without any awkwardness.
1991’s “Learnin’ to Fly” lands far from “Jammin’ Me” on the style spectrum, showing again that three chords and a topline were fuel, not restraints, for Petty. If there is a bridge between Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” and Dixie Chicks’ “Wide Open Spaces,” this song is it. Move from the Rickenbacker to an acoustic, and the genre changes. It is this flexibility that a term like “classic rock” conceals.
“You Don’t Know How It Feels,” from 1994, paired Petty with someone else who studies the DNA of songs, carefully and repeatedly: Rick Rubin. Steve Ferrone’s drums are the loudest of any Petty recording, which doesn’t mean they keep Petty from his mission. He knew his territory, and it didn't share a border with dance or hip-hop. But he could easily cross into guitar-heavy areas without blinking. Those borders were his. Like new wave, though, “classic rock” is a fairly meaningless term without someone to complicate it every few years. That job is now open.