It's very rare to love an album on your very first listen; let alone, connect with an album that you immediately know will be with you for the rest of your life. Like a reliable family pet always there to cheer you up, like a putter in your golf bag that has witnessed your highs and lows, like a friend you don't see too often; but when you do, it is as if no time has passed and the beers you share taste all the better. This is what having a great album in your collection feels like. It will always be there for you. It will become the soundtrack to some of the best road trips of your life.
This is how I felt the first time I heard Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever 25 years ago. To many fans of this album, the fact that this collection of amazing songs is 25 years old today will probably force you to the mirror to count your grey hairs. Twenty-five years ago none of us we're connected by Facebook, Twitter or e-mail. None of us were watching live footage of the concert we missed on YouTube and none of us were downloading 10 albums a night to fill up our iTunes catalog with more music that we may or may not get around to listening to.
Instead we owned our music -- physically held the tape or CD in our hands and if our friends wanted to hear it, we lent them the music. This musical bartering, if successful, made a new fan of that band or artist. That's exactly what happened to me; it was love at first track.
My older sister, whose musical influence on me cannot go unnoticed (Cure, Violet Femmes, Bowie) had the tape of Full Moon Fever. The cover alone got me, it looked like a concert poster from Laurel Canyon circa 1967.
One day I took the tape to give it a full listen, since up to this point I heard most tracks through the always-closed door of my teenage sis. Popping the tape in and pressing play instantly gave me a déjà vu that all great music gives you. This sounds so familiar, yet it sounds like nothing I have ever heard before. The clarity and production value of this album alone was so crisp and clean sounding that it had an aura of an older Beatles-influenced album remastered.
From Track One we learn right away that Tom Petty's mantra for this album is to "keep it simple." Like the minimalist guitar solo in U2′s With or Without You, Full Moon Fever starts with the simple chords of (what will soon be the albums biggest hit) Free Falling. In the first few lines of Free Falling we know the story's protagonist like we know our next-door neighbour. We see their public persona, but don't know their inner anguish.
"She's a good girl
Loves her Mama
And America too"
We know this girl and we believe that she loves all of these things in that exact order. Later, we learn of her love of her "bad boy" boyfriend who broke this horse-lover's heart and we feel for her desire to free fall out in to nothing; to leave this world for a while. The chorus alone acts as a cathartic release -- which Tom Cruise did a great job conveying in Jerry Maguire -- searching on the car radio to find a song to match his happiness, landing on Free Falling and singing that chorus at the top of his cracking voice.
Next, another song on strength and resolve. "I Wont Back Down" marks a "cut and dry" expression of standing your ground 'before the gates of Hell' and reminds us no matter how hard things are "there ain't no easy way out" -- sometime the greatest lines are said so straightforward.
"Love is a Long Road" is one of several tunes that make this album one of the greatest Road Trip albums of all time. With it's slow build up and descriptive lyrics that capture the age old analogy of the road you travel on being the best part or the journey.
Tom Petty has an amazing way of writing and singing ballads that you can't slow dance to. Their subject matter is heartfelt, yet tinged with sadness. Elements are sometimes dark and the characters are beautiful; but alone and damaged. You enjoy the mellow, broken story that unfolds hoping there's a happy ending. A Face in the Crowd is a perfect example of this blend of bitter sweet.
Soon after the last ringing note of Face in the Crowd fades out you will soon feel your foot become heavy on the gas pedal as the riff of Running Down a Dream kicks in. That electric, Rickenbacker decline of pull-offs lead you to an open door and an empty road for a drive with the late greats of our radio waves. This is the ultimate driving tune, allowing you to get lost in that feeling that something better for you is up ahead. It is also one of the numerous times on Full Moon Fever that Tom honours his influences.
Me and Del were singing
I was a driving
This track also marks a moment in time when albums and tapes were still a viable option and the transition to CD's was in full swing. Tom Petty highlights this fact by placing a hidden message on the CD version for us to take a moment and allow those listening on tape a few minutes to flip the tape to Side B. I love this musical Easter Egg on many levels; for one you get to have the artist talk directly to you in his Florida speaking voice, it documents a time when some of us had tapes and some had CD versions, but mainly I love it for the fact that you can see where that dived of Side A and B would occur. This gives the next track all the more weight since it would be the Album's Track 1 Side B.
*Super cool side note - Del Shannon actually does the noises in the background as Tom speaks.
This Side B killer track, is a tune so good, that my naive ears never even knew it was a cover. Soaked in clean, full, acoustic strumming this Byrds pop-gem fits side by side with all the other songs on the album. It also highlights the brilliance (mainly the production by Jeff Lynne and Mike Campbell) of the seamless blending of the sonic elements of harmonies, guitars and crisp snare hits.
Yer So Bad is a dark and humorous tale of modern love. We meet a lost and frustrated ex-husband. We learn that marrying a yuppie and their money does not equate happiness and we sing along with the chorus that reminds us sometimes the first thing you want is the last thing you need.
But not me baby, I've got you to save me
Oh yer so bad, best thing I ever had
In a world gone mad, yer so bad
The concept of 'trust' is the back bone of the next tune Depending on You. A plea from one to another to support and be there when times are tough. It's a plea for someone to realize how much they are needed; how important they are to the speaker in the song. Once again, a straightforward, cut to the chase lament on love and commitment.
Elements of pop, classic rock and bluegrass all find there way into the songs of Full Moon Fever, but no tune captures that rock-a-billy swagger and dance hall feel of The Apartment Song. With it's sing along chorus and frantic percussion breakdown near the finale of the tune, it acts as the jukebox chart topper of the album. It also becomes a one-two punch with the next track Alright for Now being that both songs clock in around that magic 2 minute mark. Short, sweet and to the point.
Things pick up with the full scale jam of A Mind with a Heart of it's Own. A strange weaving tale mirroring the absurd lyrics of a Dylan's B-Side. Nowhere is this absurdity more noticeable than its closing verse...
Well I been to Brooker and I been to Micanopy
I been to St. Louis too, I been all around the world
I've been over to your house
And you've been over sometimes to my house
I've slept in your tree house
My middle name is Earl
How do you close off an album that has taken you for a cruise in a 57′ Chevy through the smokey mountains, past the cornfields of the Midwest, into the land of fallen angels where freeways are running through our yards and for the last three days the rain was unstoppable? Well a full-blown, moral-free party where everyone is encouraged to let their freak flag fly. The radio-friendly hits on this album are amazing, but Zombie Zoo may win the fan favourite award for its unapologetic "fun" elements. This tune is strange, crazy and full of silly energy. Tom was singing about Goths before anyone even knew the term existed. Hell, he has the original Goth and fellow Wilbury to help him out on vocals; yes folks, that's our black haired, dark shade wearing friend Roy Orbison you hear in the chorus!
Cute little dropout, how come you pack a rod
Is your mother in a clinic? has your father got no job?
Sometimes you're so impulsive,
You shaved off all your hair
You look like Boris Karloff and you don't even care
Overall, this album gets my vote for the most complete Road Trip Soundtrack. It's a tour of America for those that may never see or meet the characters that make it such an amazing alternate universe. It is a musicians album -- with it's "tip of the hat" to past influences of rockabilly, country and golden oldies. It is a songwriters album- with its character driven songs and minimal, but descriptive landscapes of an American Dream that still exists; it's just a little further on down the road. It's a cinematic portrayal of America and all the wholesome, forgotten, heartbroken and strange characters that make up that country. It's about good girls and their bad boyfriends. It's about classic cars, glowing radios, empty apartments, open roads, broken dreams and faded memories; and it's all sung with the conviction and care of Tom Petty's laid back, Southern drawl.
Do yourself a favour; dust of that CD case with the wine stain and wax drippings and pop it in your car stereo. Take a drive at that magic hour when the sun bleeds into the horizon and see where those roads lead.
After all, Tom promises us all
"There's something good waitin' down this road"