Tom Petty's first brush with rock and roll is said to have been Elvis Presley, in 1961. There's never been much Elvis in the records he's made. The Byrds are a more obvious place to start, it seems, if only because it's the conventional place to start. Petty has muttered about the Byrds from time to time in interviews, so critics say "mm, mumble, yeah, Petty, Byrds, Byrds, mumble, yeah, Petty..."
Petty has never done the tight vocal harmonies they did; after all, back in 1965 nobody yet knew what rock and roll singing was going to sound like. The blues hadn't sunk in yet back then, but by the time Petty came along ten years later, everybody was pretty sure rock and roll wasn't anything to do with Joan Baez or Judy Collins. The singing had gone in a much less disciplined direction. Petty's never been a Roger McGuinn disciple on guitar, either, but that's just as well: McGuinn's playing is so distinctive that you're either slavishly imitating him, or you're doing something else entirely. Petty's a rhythm guitar player, anyway. It's his lead guitarist, Mike Campbell, who's really in charge of not imitating McGuinn.
I think people are unduly influenced by the Rickenbacker thing (that's a kind of guitar, kids): Petty is very much identified with a flame sunburst Rickenbacker 660/12, and McGuinn is very much identified with a Rick 360/12. But it's a different guitar! Okay, they're both Rickenbackers. They've got pretty much the same pickups, and I'll grant you that not a lot of rock and roll people play a twelve-string electric as their main instrument. Yes, but the sound of the 360 is very much a semi-hollow body sound, and the 660 is a 3/4 scale neck-through-body solidbody. So what if they've got the same finish? Nonsense, sheer nonsense.
It's a hell of a nice finish, though. While we're on the subject.
The only meaningful links to the Byrds are these: Petty, like the Byrds at their mid-1960s prime, is at his best writing three-minute major key pop songs that are both immediately appealing, and hold up well under decades of repeated listening. That, and Petty's voice sounds a little bit like McGuinn's voice.
So much for the Byrds.
These guys were dinosaurs almost at birth: Five guys in jeans and t-shirts banging on guitars, without bloodying themselves up or striking any dramatic poses. That made sense in a time when Grand Funk Railroad sold millions of records. Dire Straits started mining roughly the same vein at about the same time. These guys were just rock and roll bands singing about girls and cars and heartbreak. That may sound stupid and naïve these days, when guitar rock has merged with professional wrestling and the DSM-IV, but it's really pretty cool. Tom Petty is not wounded, sensitive, delicate, and enraged. HE'S JUST DRUNK. In case you were wondering what rock and roll is, that's it right there. You can still make records like this but you'll never sell ten million copies of one.
The reason Petty is famous and remembered is that he has been, at times, a genuinely great songwriter. Genuinely great rock and roll is simple, at least on the surface. The chord progressions are simple and the melodies are relatively simple (arrangement and recording are another matter, but if they're not simple they should sound like they are). The lyric should be plain English. The whole thing should sound like it "just happened". The mythic source of rock and roll is four or five guys with beer cans on their amps, and they just start playing a song. Once in a while Petty writes a song that does all that and it's absolutely unforgettable, too. "I want to write her name in the sky" is not a great line until Tom Petty sings it in the middle of that particular song, but when he does, yes: It is great. "Listen to Her Heart" is dumb! But it's great.
Let's define rock and roll all over again. We've established what it sounds like and how sublimely dumb it is, but this is what it means: Life doesn't make a lot of sense. It's probably quite arbitrary. Even if not, we're too dumb to know what the hell's happening or why. Rock and roll is what you take to kid yourself into thinking that life makes sense. It may be an ugly and defiant kind of sense or a bittersweet kind, but it's not a lie-down-and-whimper kind. When you lie down and whimper, that's not rock and roll any more. That's something else. Rock and roll is for humans, not jellyfish. It's for stupid, drunk humans who fuck up their lives with some goddamn self-respect.
Petty can do that "making sense" thing. Listen to "American Girl" or "Even the Losers": He can do it better than just about anybody, and he never once breaks the illusion of being essentially a dumbass much like the rest of us. The problem is that he has never done it very consistently. The Heartbreakers (the ones at hand, not those equally inconsistent junkies from New York) have always been a singles band. Even at their very best, they'd make a record with three or four transcendent hit singles and and then fill it out with dross. The filler songs send all the same signals as the great ones, but they just never quite make you care. This is the tragedy of Tom Petty: His catalog is skin-deep. You've heard all the great songs already. There's nothing much hiding on those albums waiting for you to find it.