Tom Petty, who has died aged 66, was one of the most distinctive and important voices in rock and roll.
Tom Petty made his Royal Albert Hall debut in 2002 when he appeared at one of the most famous events in our history – fronting the house-band at Concert for George. In 2012, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers took to our stage as a headliner for two nights for the first, and last, time.
Best known to mainstream audiences for his 1989 hit, Free Fallin’, he enjoyed a 40-year career as the frontman of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, where his ‘don’t bore us, get to the chorus’ songwriting ethos led to major critical, artistic and commercial success.
Listen to The Best of Everything, Here Comes My Girl, Insider, I Won’t Back Down and Southern Accents – the last two covered by Johnny Cash as part of his American Recordings project – and you’ll hear a lyricist and melodist of uncommon, apparently effortless genius.
Petty was a complex figure: on the surface an easy-going, perma-grinning Floridian archetype, whose genuine affability masked a steely will to survive and thrive. In Peter Bogdanovich’s 2008 documentary portrait, Runnin’ Down a Dream, he’s shown as an obsessively driven creator who’ll cheerily steal members of other bands and keep songs he’s written for them, but stand gloriously on principle, refusing to hand over the follow-up to the Heartbreakers’ biggest ever album (1979’s Damn the Torpedoes) until the label drops a plan to hike its price.
Petty in pink: the Heartbreakers at the Hall in 2012
It was Petty’s regard for his fans, his desire to put on a proper show, to give them their money’s worth – as much as his god-given songwriting prowess and that inimitable vocal style – that made him such a beloved figure. When he headlined the Hall for the first time in 2012 – his first UK show for 13 years – he opened the show with the words: “We’re going to play a lot of songs for you tonight.” And they did.
Royal Albert Hall shows (2002 and 2012)
That Petty swagger.
Petty had previously appeared at one of the most famous events in our history – fronting the house-band for 2002’s Concert for George and taking centre-stage on Harrison’s Beatles-era tracks, Taxman and I Need You – but 2012 was his bow as a headliner. Humility wasn’t always Petty’s strongest suit, but he had plenty of it that first night, saying twice that it had been a long-held ambition to play the Hall, and later adding wistfully, “What a place.”
Highlights of the group’s 19-song show included a triumphant I Won’t Back Down – that hymn to implacable stoicism – Here Comes My Girl, as sweet an evocation of the power of new love as you’ll ever find, and Don’t Come Around Here No More, transformed from a choppy, synth-heavy ball of odd into a conventional but immersive rocker.
Runnin’ down a dream: Petty and Heartbreakers lead guitarist Mike Campbell.
They did Free Fallin’ and a sing-along Learning to Fly, dedicated a breezy, beautiful version of Traveling Wilburys single, Handle with Care to fallen comrades Roy Orbison and Harrison, and closed with the near-iconic American Girl (38m listens on Spotify, though its only chart placing was at #40 in the UK). It was a night of boundless energy, dreams being realised and perhaps a little questionable bum-wiggling.
Then two days later Petty and co were back to do it again, with Steve Winwood in tow. Those two nights in 2012 were what rock shows should be, and they’re perhaps the best way to remember Petty: as a singer, songwriter, musician and performer of extraordinary ability whose swagger never clouded his loyalty and commitment to the audience who put him where he was.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers take a bow: Monday 18 June, 2012
All photos © Andy Paradise /Royal Albert Hall.
For more about the Concert for George, visit our time machine .