Released as a solo album in 1989, Full Moon Fever is nothing short of a masterpiece. Petty interrupted his Heartbreakers’ career of album, tour, album, tour, repeat, and downshift into an album he wanted to make outside of the band. He brought along Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, and connected with Jeff Lynne, who had worked with George Harrison on his comeback album. Harrison and Roy Orbison would contribute to Full Moon Fever.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had released Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), in 1987, and previous to that, had toured has Bob Dylan’s backup band. Petty and Dylan had co-written “Jammin’ Me” along with Mike Campbell, which appeared on the last TP & Heartbreakers album. As you can see, all of the stars are aligning for the Traveling Wilburys. In fact, the recording of Full Moon Fever was started and then paused for the Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 to be recorded.
Part of the charm of Full Moon Fever was it’s unpretentious nature, it’s laid-back and easy, and the way the songs quickly embrace you. There are songs here that TP wouldn’t have asked the Heartbreakers to do. This is not a thunderous, collections of anthems, that command your attention. You could imagine these songs being performed for you in your living-room instead of an arena. The songs on this album are distant cousins to the Byrds in the mid-1960s, very airy, jangly guitars, almost a folk-rock thing going on. The songs also have linage to the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, lots of acoustic guitars and layered electric guitars to give it a rock and roll edge. The album has a familiar, but fresh appeal, partly a result of the Petty/Campbell style, and because Lynne keeps the songs relaxed instead of coming to a full boil. All of these songs are radio-ready, perhaps the main contribution of Lynne.
Petty and Lynne wrote most of the songs together, with help from Campbell on two of them, and Petty authoring several. There is also one cover of a Gene Clark (Byrds) song.
The main band consisted of Petty, Lynne, Campbell, and Phil Jones on drums. Petty, Lynne and Campbell handled the bulk of the guitars, bass and keyboards. Harrison, Orbison and members of the Heartbreakers added background vocals and a few instruments here and there.
The album sold over 5 million copies just in the U.S. and reached number three on the album chart. Five singles were released from the album. Successful? You bet.
“Free Fallin'” 4:14 A mid-tempo anthem of sorts, lots of ringing guitars with that infectious “Free Fallin'” chorus. The song has a great melodic hook, and has that George Harrison-type electric guitar solo, very tasteful. This song hooks onto you quickly.
“I Won’t Back Down” 2:56 This kicks it up a notch, great guitar rhythm beat keeps it going. The chorus is where the guitars blaze a bit more and the background vocals sound like a party. TP writes memorable song titles that become catch-phrases. Three minutes of pure pop-rock delight.
“Love Is a Long Road” Tom Petty, Mike Campbell 4:06 Built on a riff, then forceful electric guitars, you can imagine TP and Campbell riffing their guitars and having a great time. This song is built to be played live. It rocks.
“A Face in the Crowd” 3:58 A slower, more downbeat song with acoustic guitars, augmented by electric guitar fills and a dobro for solos. The Eagles used to write haunting songs like this on their early albums.
“Runnin’ Down a Dream” Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Mike Campbell 4:23 This song is the most similar to a TP & Heartbreakers song. It’s a hard-charging, guitar-riff heavy song. Nothing wrong with sounding so close to the band. It’s an upbeat song with a great arrangement, layered instruments, and it builds to a great end.
“I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” Gene Clark 2:47 When you are compared to the Byrds, why not pay homage by doing one of their songs, with jangly guitars. TP does a great version.
“Yer So Bad” 3:05 An electric folk song, foot-stomping, a story song in the style of Dylan. Enough said.
“Depending on You” Tom Petty 2:47 A straightforward beat that turned into something special on the chorus. Don’t be fooled at how the song begins, it’s a solid but average groove, but the guitar work and vocals kick kick the sing into overdrive. Even a slice of familiar becomes quite interesting in the hands of TP.
“The Apartment Song” Tom Petty 2:31 A 60’s type song, very fast guitar riff. Maybe the least special song on the collection. The guitars and drums go berserk at the bridge.
“Alright for Now” Tom Petty 2:00 Finger-picking, slow, acoustic guitar song. A very pretty song, very sparse arrangement, the melody really shines.
“A Mind with a Heart of Its Own” 3:29 A fast, skiffle-type song, jamming with a lot of guitars. You can hear Jeff Lynne’s hand on the production controls.
“Zombie Zoo” 2:56 A Wilbury-type song, quirky and lyrics that don’t make a lot of sense. The production reminds me of the Traveling Wilburys, very packed with guitars, change of pace style, lots of background singers.
Petty would return the Heartbreakers for more albums, another Wilbury project, reconnect with his old group, Mudcrutch, and release two more solo albums. Tom Petty has a lot to say, and needed different ways to express of his music. Ten years earlier TP & the Heartbreakers released Damn the Torpedoes (review coming soon), their best album. These two albums stand above all of his other work, and that’s saying a lot.
With Tom Petty, we got lucky.