One 1987 fall day in L.A., Tom Petty went out on a drive to play some baseball — and had a run-in that would define his career. Driving to the Thrifty Drug store to pick up a mitt, he pulled up to a red light — and caught a glimpse of Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne in the next car. Petty waved for Lynne to pull over.
Lynne, then in town to produce Brian Wilson’s solo debut album, began stopping by Petty’s house to woodshed new material. Together, they seemed to reignite each other’s mojo. Over the first two days, they wrote “Yer So Bad” and one of his signature songs, “Free Fallin’.”
Thus, the ball got rolling for Petty’s first solo album, Full Moon Fever, a bold step outside the Heartbreakers that shot to No. 3 on the Billboard 200. Wednesday (April 24) marks the album’s 30th anniversary.
Petty was deep into stardom with the Heartbreakers, but by 1989, what looked like a holistic gang was disrupted. After the tour for 1987’s Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), the band was scattered around the country — and Petty was on-edge and paranoid from an arson on his home in May 1987.
Lynne, too, was ready for a change. ELO had disbanded in 1986; in the producer chair for Petty, he could flex his creative muscles in a new way. His Beatles-tuned approach — radiant keys, dense harmonies, outsized choruses — buffed Petty’s sound to a gleam.
This drew mixed reactions from the Heartbreakers. Guitarist Mike Campbell stepped up as his sidekick and co-wrote “Love Is a Long Road” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream”; keyboardist Benmont Tench, though credited on “The Apartment Song,” felt burned. “I was pissed off and hurt,” he told Rolling Stone. “We were supposed to make a Heartbreakers record.”
Bandmate drama aside, the sessions foreshadowed a new union: the Traveling Wilburys. One year before Fever, the tongue-in-cheek supergroup released its first album, Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1. Listen closely, and you can hear George Harrison and Roy Orbison singing backing vocals on “I Won’t Back Down” and “Zombie Zoo,” respectively.
When Petty suddenly passed away Oct. 2, 2017 of an accidental overdose, Lynne’s tribute was one of the simplest and most touching: “Tom was the coolest guy I ever knew.” Full Moon Fever reflects that brotherly respect — and remains the zenith of Petty’s solo career.
In honor of the 30th anniversary of Full Moon Fever, here’s a track-by-track retrospective of the album.
Petty’s most recognizable song is his ultimate work of magical realism: cosmic flights, vampiric marches and out-of-body experiences set against mundane San Fernando Valley geography. Never had he worked in such dualities: references to many Angelenos’ daily commute set to sky-high suspended chords. We don’t know what became of the good girl and the bad boy, but it hardly matters — “Free Fallin’” is magic. And at No. 7, it was Petty’s highest-charting Hot 100 solo single.
“I Won’t Back Down”
In 1987, Petty waged and won a courtroom battle against B.F. Goodrich, a tire company that ripped off his song “Mary’s New Car” in a TV ad. Eleven days after the decision, an unknown assailant burned his home to the ground. These tribulations led to “I Won’t Back Down,” a clear-eyed song of resilience; its bracing simplicity made Petty second-guess its value. “That song frightened me,” he said. “I thought it wasn’t that good because it was so naked.” But, as always, he stood his ground.
“Love Is a Long Road”
This co-write between Petty and Campbell was inspired by the lead guitarist’s motorcycle; like the Beach Boys on “Little Honda,” Campbell wanted to write a rock song that continually upshifts like a manual transmission. Petty sings of a tempestuous romance that leaves him desperate and dizzy; Campbell plays like he’s burying the accelerator. Despite its dated production, “Love Is a Long Road” truly flies.
“A Face In the Crowd”
A mid-tempo jangler that foreshadows 1994’s Wildflowers, “A Face in the Crowd” takes a very simple concept — a stranger becoming a lover — and shines it to perfection. Drummer Phil Jones plays so tastefully it’s like he’s invisible; Campbell answers every line with a purring arpeggio. Written by anyone else, “A Face In the Crowd” would sound like a first draft; from Petty’s pen, it’s soothing and philosophical.
“Runnin’ Down a Dream”
A high-octane favorite that has appeared everywhere from NASCAR to the Super Bowl halftime show, “Runnin’ Down a Dream” is the best of Petty’s songs about small–town escape. Campbell’s Dick Dale-like motif adds a lick of danger; he nailed the song’s string-popping coda in one take. “He looked like a stone statue,” marveled Petty. “He didn’t even blink or move.” Petty sounds blissful, name-dropping his buddy Del Shannon, at home between the highway dividers.
“Feel a Whole Lot Better”
Petty’s connection to the Byrds runs deep, from Roger McGuinn hearing “American Girl” and playfully asking, “When did I record that?” to the two trading sandy drawls on McGuinn’s 1991 track “King of the Hill.” Petty’s cover of “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” itself ground zero for power pop, shows he was the next step in a jangly, heartfelt lineage.
“Yer So Bad”
“Yer So Bad” was the first tune Lynne and Petty worked on after that diverted ballgame; Lynne’s contribution was one crucial B-minor chord. “It instantly improved the song,” said Petty. It’s not the most substantial of his works, just a throwaway riff on his sister “marrying a yuppie” and her ex-husband moping around, “dog-faced and hurt.” But by lacking any pretension or overthinking, “Bad” is a rascally good time.
“Depending on You”
Petty doesn’t stray from the formula one iota on “Depending on You,” which makes it the Fever deep cut you may immediately reach for. No departures — just Tench’s starry-eyed synth, a first-position progression and Petty begging a girl to not let him down. “You used to be such a sweet young girl/ Why you wanna be somebody else?” sings Petty.
“The Apartment Song”
The rollicking “The Apartment Song” takes place in a crash pad with noisy neighbors and a tight bank account. Whether he’s referring to his converted attic in his hometown of Gainesville, Florida, or his Encino digs by the freeway (made famous in “American Girl”) remains to be known. “I don’t want to knock it/ I don’t miss it much at all,” he yowls over the Buddy Holly-like backing. It’s a brief glimpse at a pre-fame Petty; mostly, it’s just to kick up the tempo of Full Moon Fever.
“Alright for Now”
Petty wasn’t all just power chords and hard-luck stories; he excelled in tender, acoustic works that cast him as a caring guardian. “Alright for Now” is a wonderful example of such, a heartfelt lullaby that could either be for his then-wife, Jane Benyo, or daughters Annakim and Adria.
“A Mind With a Heart of Its Own”
Sadly, “Alright For Now” is the last gem on Full Moon Fever, which seems to sputter to a close rather than end with a bang. “A Mind With a Heart of Its Own” is a goofy mess, from its anatomically confused title to its seemingly improvised lyrics (“You’ve been sometimes over to my house/ I’ve slept in your treehouse/ My middle name is Earl”). It mostly foreshadows future lovable, knuckleheaded throwaways.
In his final 2017 interview with Rolling Stone, Petty expressed dismay at the closing track of Full Moon Fever. “I hate ‘Zombie Zoo’,” he declared. “What frame of mind produced that, I don’t understand.” He has a point; in the punk club-inspired “Zoo,” Petty highlights a “little freak with the lunch-pail purse/ Underneath the paint, you’re just a little girl.” This was an unconventional ending — especially one for Roy Orbison to sing on.
Whatever umbrage Petty may have taken with “Zombie Zoo,” it speaks to a truth about Full Moon Fever — he was having the time of his life. “It was the most enjoyable record I’ve ever worked on,” said Petty. Thirty years on and over a year without Petty with us, this Fever still hasn’t subsided.