With his hangdog looks, droopy eyes and laconic manner Tom Petty was the unlikeliest small-screen star ever.
Storming the scene in the mid-’70s, when the overwrought pageantry of prog rock was about to give way to the shredded anarchy of high-energy punk, Petty was a calm, unflappable singer/guitarist fronting a band that worried more about how their 12-strings were tuned than how their hair looked. And yet, over the next three decades he and the Heartbreakers would produce some of the most lauded, iconic music videos in history.
They were average guys who wore bar band clothes and played rock music without frills, a seemingly deadly deficit as the decade changed and the flamboyant New Romantics of the 1980s — Duran Duran, A Flock of Seagulls, Culture Club, Adam and the Ants and others — paraded onto the scene with candy-colored suits and hair, helping to kickstart a music revolution with high-gloss videos that provided the DNA of MTV.
Right alongside them was Petty, who used his deadpan demeanor as an antidote to all the whizbang wizardy going on in the other videos that made it into heavy rotation on the video channel. From such early low-budget performance clips as “Here Comes My Girl” and “Refugee” from 1979 and 1980, respectively, in which Petty made constant eye contact with the camera like a seasoned pro, it seemed like the singer instinctively understood the importance of putting on a good show for his director.
From there it was just a short skip to the point where Petty and company fully embraced the majesty of making a cool, high-concept video that would help sell the song and their laid-back outlaw image. Here are our 12 favorite Petty videos:
“The Waiting” (1981)
Released just months before MTV’s August 1981 launch, this was the Heartbreakers’ first, tentative step into putting on a show in a video, albeit a modest one. With Petty still doing his full-on camera stare, the performance takes place on a white set with giant primary colored triangles on the walls and splashes of paint dripping down risers, with the big special effect consisting of Petty slashing through a construction paper wall with his Rickenbacker.
“You Got Lucky” (1982)
With a half dozen straight-ahead clips under their belts, the Heartbreakers went for it with this Road Warrior-inspired sci-fi adventure, based on an treatment they wrote themselves. With Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell playing post-apocalyptic cowboys who find a dusty cassette player that just happens to contain the music to the song, it essentially puts a future-shock spin on what is yet another another solid performance clip, spiked with a little bit of “acting” by the whole gang.
“Don’t Come Around Here No More” (1985)
With MTV in full flower, Petty and the gang embraced big-budget productions with this landmark Alice in Wonderland-themed video from their Southern Accents albums in which producer Dave Stewart plays the sitar-playing, hookah-smoking caterpillar, Petty dresses up as the Mad Hatter, and actress Wish Foley puts on the Alice outfit. The image of a grinning Petty in that giant giant crimson hat, black bowtie and square glasses cutting into the living Alice cake and offering up a polite burp remains one of the most iconic scenes in all of music video history.
“Make It Better (Forget About Me)” (1985)
For this horn-spiked Memphis soul track, the group extended the Alice theme, with Petty crawling into a giant ear that leads him into the brain of the video’s female star, where the Heartbreakers are rocking her cerebellum as she tries to dislodge them from her skull with a massive Q-Tip. Metaphor for the power of rock? You bet.
“Jammin’ Me” (1987)
The visual for the first single from 1987’s Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) found Petty and the boys lampooning the emerging 57-channels-and-nothing’s-on culture with a green screen classic featuring a quick-cut montage of headlines, news footage and old TV shows displayed behind the band. They also dialed up some cool effects that allowed Tom to paint with a handful of static, seemingly harnessing the full complement of then-cutting-edge video editing tricks.
“Runnin’ Down a Dream” (1989)
You’re nobody until you get animated, and that’s exactly what the gang did for this 1989 video directed by Jim Lenahan inspired by the early 20th century comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland. The black and white clip opens with a cigar-smoking Nemo rousing Petty from bed, and leading him up a ladder into the sky where the singer climbs up into the moon and has a series of wacky — and frankly, super trippy — adventures.
“Free Fallin'” (1989)
For the first clip off Petty’s debut solo album, Full Moon Fever, the singer matches the lyrical allusions to iconic Los Angeles locations with dreamy visions in which he sings while floating above a sweet 16 party and Ventura Blvd., strolls through a mall strumming guitar and watches some badass female skateboarders shred a half-pipe. Not much happens, but there’s something in the way Petty takes you on a tour of his adopted hometown that feels like a peek into another world.
“Yer So Bad” (1990)
The video for the fifth single from Full Moon Fever is notable mostly because it stars disgraced former Saturday Night Live player Charles Rocket, who famously got booted in 1981 for dropping an f-bomb on air. In this dramedy, Rocket is a loser-ish yuppie who gets wiped out in a bitter divorce, while Petty plays a wedding photographer, and serves as a kind of omniscent narrator floating in and out of the story as a typically cool, seen-it-all hipster playing his guitar. Rocking a black felt hat and peering in on the loser husband as he spirals downward while videotaping the divorcee’s new-money antics, Petty is our witness to the drama of lives torn apart.
The video tries to do a lot, with somewhat-subtle commentary on urban sprawl, divorce and tabloid newspapers, but the scene of a despondent Rocket playing sad drums in his bachelor pad is worth the price of admission.
“Into the Great Wide Open” (1991)
The clip for the title track from the Heartbreakers’ eighth album has what is perhaps the group’s most memorable, though confounding, storyline ever. With Petty playing another wise, top hat-wearing narrator (as well as a tattoo parlor worker and roadie), the Julien Temple-directed parable about fame-seeking in Hollywood stars Johnny Depp as a wannabe rocker named Eddie. The budding superstar lands a gig at a nightclub and an apartment with a landlord — a low-rent Faye Dunaway — who teaches him guitar and serves as a kind of momager before such things were cool.
With cameos from Terence Trent D’Arby, Matt LeBlanc and Chynna Phillips (and a small cameo by the Heartbreakers as a teeny, tiny house band) the rags to riches to rock star excesses tale is, essentially, Depp’s actual life story now.
“Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (1993)
Is it a blatant song about weed? If you ever saw Petty and the Heartbreakers live you know that no audience toked harder than their fans. But the video that won the 1994 Best Male Video VMA features Petty in one of his most bizarre roles, playing a morgue worker who tries to pull a Weekend at Bernie’s with a beautiful, but very dead Kim Basinger. Oh my my, oh hell yah things got weird in this one.
“It’s Good to be King” (1994)
Petty went all-in for the high-gloss visual for the single from his Wildflowers solo album with a montage of fancifully dressed men and women posing for the camera as if answering a cattle call for a photo shoot for a Fellini film. All the while, Petty, wearing a jean jacket and his usual thousand-yard look, just strums his guitar amid the women with moths for mouths, fake monarchs, tribal musicians, Elvis impersonators and goth girls in lingerie. What’s it all mean? It’s unclear, but Petty’s knowing look into the camera suggests he’s on to… something.
“Don’t Pull Me Over” (2011)
This collage-like animated clip for the reggae-esque single from the band’s Mojo album was created by Petty’s daughter, Adria Petty, and visual artist Patrick Roberts. “In his reclusive way my pop did not want to do any traditional promotion for Mojo. But with some nepotism and coaxing I was allowed to produce this strange and humble offering,” Adria wrote in an essay for HuffPo explaining her work, which mixes stop-motion footage of dad with a vague road trip-like story told in an explosion of Roy Lichtenstein-inspired Pop Art imagery.