The next version of Jeff Lynne-produced solo music for one of his friends, all of which sounds strikingly similar, is “Full Moon Fever” from Tom Petty. As I noted with “Cloud Nine” from George Harrison as well as “Mystery Girl” by Roy Orbison, Lynne produced an album for nearly all of his Traveling Wilburys bandmates. They all have that lush E.L.O. sounding backing vocals, and even the melodies and guitar pieces trend in a similar fashion. That said, it was a successful formula, and this first album Tom Petty recorded without his band the Heartbreakers was a big hit, as he added some smoothness and softened the hard edges from his earlier days. For the first time, I felt like this record was a success because of Tom Petty’s vocals, not in spite of them.
“Free Fallin’” opens the record, and it was the warmth and hook of this song that prompted me to buy “Full Moon Fever” as one of my first compact discs. I always loved this song and its southern California imagery, even with its self-disappointed confessional of being inadequate for another.
If you didn’t know, I’m also a big college football fan, and one of my favorite traditions is at the University of Florida, which shares Gainesville, Florida as a hometown with Petty. Between the 3rd and 4th quarter, they play “I Won’t Back Down”, and it has turned into a major sing-along, particularly since Petty’s death. I have always liked this song, and even though I’m not a Gator fan and loved watching my UCF Knights beat them for the first time last year, it is an awesome spectacle to watch 85,000 fans sing anything in tandem, much less this perfectly selected and unique fan track.
“Love is A Long Road” has more of an early ‘80s feel with its synthesizer opening, but the vocal performance is classic Petty, and this is one of two songs on this album that feel like they could have easily worked with the Heartbreakers as well. The hits keep coming with the melancholy ballad “A Face in the Crowd”. I love this sad song, and it is one of the best collaborations ever between Petty and Lynne. Side one ends with the other Heartbreaker-esque track, the rocker “Runnin’ Down a Dream”. Now that I look at the songwriting credits, it all makes sense, as the two songs I noted as Heartbreaker-like were also co-written by his guitarist from that band, Mike Campbell. Every now and then, I actually get something right!
Side two doesn’t contain any of the big hits like side one, but there are some songs I really like. “Feel A Whole Lot Better” taps into his Byrds influence with the guitar and vocals sound. “Yer So Bad” is a soft country rocker, and “Zombie Zoo” is a perfectly odd ending to this great album.
Particularly when you consider his Florida roots, I really wish I had seen Tom Petty live, with or without the Heartbreakers. I never appreciated his music (other than this album) fully during his peak or prime, but I have really grown to enjoy his entire catalog with time.