When Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Cleared the Vaults on ‘Playback’
Why stop with a little old greatest-hits record when you've got six entire discs worth of goodness stored up in your vaults? Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers answered that question with Playback, a comprehensive — and impressively solid — look back at 20 years of rock and roll.
Released Nov. 20, 1995, Playback arrived a little over a year after Petty bolted his longtime label home, MCA, to release Wildflowers under a new contract at Warner Bros. — and roughly two years after Petty and the Heartbreakers closed the book on their MCA years with their 12-times-platinum Greatest Hits record. Despite the seeming glut of Petty product, and a new retrospective that went back to the well so soon after the first, Playback offered completists and longtime fans a can't-miss proposition.
Like their distinguished career, the set starts with the hits, which triple down on Greatest Hits by opening up the first three discs to Petty's singles with and without the Heartbreakers, arranged in roughly chronological order: Disc One covers 1976-81, Disc Two spans 1982-87 and Disc Three runs from 1989-93. Of the 50 cuts chronicled in this chunk of the box, obviously not all were smash hits, but unlike a number of rather defensively compiled boxes that cherry-pick tracks across an artist's career without regard for whether they were actually ever on the radio much, Playback serves as a powerful reminder of just how incredible Petty's early run really was, and how many of his songs became AOR standards even when they weren't necessarily huge Hot 100 hits.
Petty opened up his career with a solid string of radio-friendly records, but he never set out to be a singles artist — a point underscored starting with Playback's fourth disc, which gathers 15 b-sides that never made the cut on official Heartbreakers albums. A number of these recordings are obvious throwaways, and others are just the sort of live flotsam that used to be reserved for singles' flipsides on a regular basis. But others illustrate just how ruthless Petty could be when it came to trimming the fat from his LPs — like "Trailer," a highlight of the Southern Accents sessions whose omission from the final track listing still seems inexplicable.
Playback's vault dive goes even deeper with the fifth and sixth discs, which offered catnip to longtime fans in the form of 27 recordings that were either previously unreleased or unavailable on CD, dating all the way back to Petty's early days with his pre-Heartbreakers band Mudcrutch. Again, some cuts are of interest mainly to collectors and diehards — like "On the Street," recorded in 1973 in keyboardist Benmont Tench's living room — but there's also a wealth of worthwhile material buried in here, including the sunny, effortlessly catchy "Keeping Me Alive" and "Waiting for Tonight," a Full Moon Fever castoff featuring backing vocals from the Bangles.
It all added up to a whopping 91 tracks — and while Playback's imposing length, not to mention its price, meant it would never be heard by anywhere near as many people as Greatest Hits, that's exactly how it should be. Like any truly exhaustive career-spanning compilation of a veteran artist, it was meant for a smaller audience, and served as a reward for the faithful. But where many retrospective boxes have always tended to lard their later discs with less compelling material, this one offered every indication that Petty remained at peak power, and poised for another run of classic records.