Runnin' Down A Dream

He's not exactly the hippest name to drop but Tom Petty is an example to any young band with designs on a long-term career

Your correspondent mentioned Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers a couple of times on panel moderation duty at last week's Music Show extravaganza as an example of the kind of career trajectory we rarely see in the record business anymore: an act that receives sensible investment and is allowed to develop, make mistakes and find their own audience over the course of three or four albums – as opposed to being made the subject of a bidding war, hyped and dropped after the second.

The Heartbreakers had been on my mind all week, mainly because a friend lent me a copy of Peter Bogdanovich's epic four-hour 2007 documentary Runnin' Down A Dream. Bogdanovich was one of the stars of the 1970s New Wave generation of filmmakers, best known for The Last Picture Show (you might also know his face from cameo appearances as Dr Melfi's shrink in The Sopranos). In recent years he has focused his energies on a parallel career as a film historian and documentarian. Runnin' Down A Dream deserves to be considered amongst his finest work, and is certainly one of the most compelling rock-docs I've seen in years.

Petty may not be the hippest name to drop these days, but this writer is a lifelong fan. Like Warren Zevon, he was a '60s graduate who played FM radio rock with punk attitude. No matter how melodic the tune, Petty always sang like a man biting his lip. Runnin' Down A Dream is a portrait of a stubborn and sometimes volatile individual prepared to declare himself bankrupt rather than labour under an unfair publishing deal or go to war with his record label over album price hikes. It's also a hymn to comradeship, a family saga co-starring players like Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Stan Lynch, Ron Blair, Howie Epstein and Steve Ferrone (musicians with character enough to back Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash), plus cameos from Eddie Vedder, Stevie Nicks, Johnny Depp, Dave Grohl, Jimmy Iovine and Rick Rubin.

Artists like Petty are in danger of being put out to pasture when they hit 50, but over the past decade he has continued to make beautifully crafted records like Highway Companion, The Last DJ and this year's Mojo, at odds with a music business that feels like closing time at a Las Vegas casino. The band's 2008 Superbowl half-time show was a masterclass in how to dominate a stadium with little more than a handful of songs. And what songs: 'American Girl', 'Refugee', 'The Waiting', 'Free Fallin'', 'Here Comes My Girl', 'Southern Accents', 'Don't Come Around Here No More', 'Insider', 'You Don't Know How It Feels', 'I Won't Back Down'...

Long may they run.


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