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Tom Petty Trades Intensity for Happiness: The History of ‘Full Moon Fever’

For much of 1987 and ’88, Tom Petty‘s career seemed to be stuck in a holding pattern, but his work with the Traveling Wilburys signaled a creative and commercial rebound — one that really shifted into high gear with the release of his first solo LP, ‘Full Moon Fever,’ on April 24, 1989.

By the time ‘Fever’ arrived in stores, fans had been waiting for it for months; in fact, it was originally supposed to see release in August of 1988, under its original title of ‘Songs from the Garage.’ As Petty explained to In the Studio, the delay was caused by a number of things, including the release of the Wilburys’ ‘Volume 1‘ in Oct. ’88. “The record companies weren’t really pleased with both of them coming out at the same time,” recalled Petty, adding that for once, music industry politics improved the end result. “I was writing more songs and I thought when the Wilburys got done I’d go back in and finish these other four up and put ‘em all together and put ‘em out … it came out much better by waiting, I think.”

Although ‘Full Moon Fever’ couldn’t help but sound a little like a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers record, Petty helped establish his solo sound by hooking up with producer Jeff Lynne — a fruitful friendship that not only heavily influenced ‘Fever’ and the Wilburys, but went on to have a major impact on the next Heartbreakers LP, 1991′s ‘Into the Great Wide Open.’ And as Petty later recalled, it all started because he decided to go shopping for baseball gloves on Thanksgiving Day of 1987.

“I wanted to play baseball real bad and the only place open was Thrifty Drugs,” Petty told BAM. “Now George [Harrison] had given me his ‘Cloud Nine‘ album (produced by Lynne –Ed.) just before it was released. I loved it and I’d been playing it all day before I went to get these mitts. So when I get to this light, and there’s Jeff, the next car over, it was like…He was going to produce Brian Wilson at the time. And he said, ‘Do you want to come to the studio with me?’ I said, ‘Nah, I’m going to play baseball.’ But we agreed to stay in touch and it turned out he lived in my neighborhood, just up the street.”

“I didn’t hear from him for about a month and then he started coming over,” Petty told Spin. “The first day I played a song for him that I had written called ‘Yer So Bad.’ He said he liked it, but how about if I tried a B minor here, and it instantly improved the song. We finished that song the first day and the next day we wrote ‘Free Falling.’ Most of the Heartbreakers were spread all over the country at the time so I grabbed Phil Jones, who plays percussion on some of the Heartbreakers records, and me, him and Jeff went to [Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell's] garage studio and made demos of these new songs. When I heard them, I thought, ‘Hey, these sound like a record. Hmmm. Why not release them as a solo album?’ And that was that.”

Even though the Heartbreakers were on hiatus, Petty’s decision to strike out solo ruffled a few feathers. “They weren’t in love with the idea when I told them. They were pissed off at first, to be honest. But they’ve been pretty big about it,” he told Bam, and by the time the Heartbreakers regrouped for a tour in the fall of 1989, those fences seemed all but mended.

“For years my last name was Drummer for T.P. and the Heartbreakers,” drummer Stan Lynch told Rolling Stone. “It was good for me to do some other projects. We all as band members have been allowed to do whatever we want. Tom just says, ‘Keep it clean. Do things we can all be proud of.’ But Tom’s never had the possibility. For fourteen years he’s been the faithful bandleader. Now that he did some other things, that in the end could keep the band together.”

And although ‘Fever’ was technically a solo venture, it wasn’t without its share of Heartbreakers. Bassist Howie Epstein contributed backing vocals to a couple of songs, keyboard player Benmont Tench made an appearance, and the whole thing went down with the assistance of Campbell, who handled various instrumental duties in addition to co-producing the sessions at his garage studio (hence the album’s original title). His presence is particularly strongly felt in solos like the one he tracked for ‘Runnin’ Down a Dream,’ which Petty laughingly recalled to In the Studio, saying, “He really ripped it up — I just was jumping around the room losing my mind over it.”

Audiences immediately responded to ‘Full Moon Fever,’ sending it to No. 3 on the Billboard album chart and granting it double-platinum status before the end of the year. In addition, the album’s first three singles (‘I Won’t Back Down,’ ‘Runnin’ Down a Dream,’ and ‘Free Fallin”) all hit No. 1 on the rock charts while breaking the pop Top 40. While Petty certainly had enjoyed his fair share of hits with the Heartbreakers, these songs had a looser, lighter, and even more radio-friendly feel — something Petty later chalked up to an emotional turning point experienced after a temper tantrum during the sessions for 1985′s ‘Southern Accents’ left him with broken bones in his hand.

“In therapy and in the hospital I started to realize that I had taken intensity about as far as it could go in my personal life and with the guys in the band and business people and everybody,” Petty told Q. “I realized I couldn’t go on living so intense and revved up and stuff. Because, with some kind of flash of realization, I realized that I had actually never really enjoyed myself. I’d done partying and I’d done work, but I’d never genuinely enjoyed myself. I’d been very reclusive and I didn’t know a lot of people and I didn’t ever see many people. I wasn’t very social at all, because I was revved up all the time. And I just was not very happy. It was time to calm down. And I made this great discovery: people are quite fun, you know.”

“This has been a very prolific time for me. It’s fairly magical, in a way,” he added during an interview with Bam. “I feel kind of revitalized, musically. There’s a lot of music going in my head now and it’s been an inspiration to have so much input from a lot of different artists, not only the Heartbreakers. In our little world here [in Southern California], it’s funny, but I’ve never seen a period like this where there are so many people trading ideas and so open to it. ‘Cause [the Heartbreakers] used to be awful about that. We didn’t let anybody into our sessions. If you weren’t in the Heartbreakers, you didn’t come in. It was a very closed club. We lived like that. And I don’t really want to live like that anymore.”

But that epiphany — and the raging success of ‘Full Moon Fever,’ which nabbed three Grammy nominations on top of all those hit singles and millions of albums sold — didn’t mean he was ready to leave the Heartbreakers behind. “I’m still very much in the Heartbreakers,” he told Rolling Stone just before the album was released. “I wouldn’t think of performing with another group.” He echoed those sentiments after it came out, telling Bam that “there wouldn’t be any point” to touring with a band other than the Hearbreakers.

“I mean, you can’t put together a band like that,” Petty pointed out. “I don’t think I’ll do many solo records, to be honest. We’ve been together such a long time, it’s really like dealing with your brothers, your family. We have our ups and downs with each other, but we all love each other, really. We’ll always stay together, I think, as long as we’re gettin’ better and gettin’ something out of it.”

Next: Top 10 Tom Petty Songs

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