Was it me, or, during the mid-Eighties, did many of our favorite artists do a little looking back at their lives after reaching the initial wave of success? Humor me a bit as I do a quick rundown: Bruce Springsteen – “My Hometown,” “Glory Days,” “Bobby Jean”; John Mellencamp – “Small Town,” “Cherry Bomb,” “Pink Houses”; and even Bryan Adams – “Summer of 69.” And, I know that I am from Indiana, so everyone is going to assume that I related to Mellencamp’s the most, and much of the time, you are correct. But, I’ve always been partial to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ swampy, at times darn-near power poppish sound and Gen X-friendly lyrics. Therefore, for my money, Petty’s own look back at his heritage, “Southern Accents,” was the most compelling of these songs at the time.
From what I understand, Petty was attempting to do a whole album based upon coming to grips with this heritage of being raised in the South, and all the baggage that comes along with it. Now, I have heard many outtakes from the sessions that lead to Petty’s 1985 album Southern Accents, and I feel like he was on to a major artistic statement. Unfortunately, he was much too close to the project for Tom to produce it, which is what he and guitarist Mike Campbell were attempting at the time. And, when frustrations and drugs finally boiled over, Tom punched a wall, shattering hand and jeopardizing his career at the same time.
In order to save the sessions, along with some of the finest work he and the Heartbreakers had done, he called in a variety of producers to help out. Unfortunately, the original vision was lost, and what the public got was considered to be a hodge-podge of sounds for experimentation from one of the greatest bands of all-time.
Or, was it?
Yes, I am a Tom Petty apologist, and you are correct in assuming that I would purchase an album of burps and farts by him and his band if one were ever released. And while Southern Accents was originally intended to be something of an updated version of The Band’s eponymous classic, this album is vastly underrated.
At the time of its release, in late March 1985, I had been married only a month, when I heard one of the strangest songs this side of Prince’s “When Doves Cry” to be played on the radio here in Central Indiana. That song began with something of a sitar sound, so I was thinking, “Who in the hell uses that instrument anymore? Sure, Prince just did on Another the World in a Day, but who is this?” Then, the vocals kicked in, and, sure enough, it was Tom Petty, having a psychedelic freakout in the mid-Eighties. And, then I saw the video. And, Tom, playing the Mad Hatter, tormenting Alice in this ecstacy-induced Wonderland video. “And, did that video REALLY end with the Mad Hatter eating a cake-version of Alice?” Oh, Boy Howdy, did I ever think I that I NEEDED help!
Still, I LOVED that song! And, unfortunately for my new bride, I was obsessed with that song. Once I bought Southern Accents, and played it, I thought about having my own freakout too. This album had Woodstock-era written all over the sound, yet produced with a nod to the latest technology of the day.
Today, this album is not quite the freak show it seemed to me back in the day. Yes, Southern Accents represents something of a sonic departure of the Heartbreakers’ trademark sound, yet the heart of the music is all Tom. And, maybe, thirty-three years on, the album is truly an artistic triumphant. You see, Tom and his brothers-in-arms left behind the Byrdsian-jangle of their first two albums, as well as the big drum Eighties sound of their trio of Jimmy Iovine-produced albums, to create this one-off amalgam of all things Heartbreakers, STAX soul, synth pop, drum machines, Robbie Robertson-influenced Americana and that damn song called “Spike,” which I do NOT even know where to begin in a description of that song.
Now, Southern Accents sounds like a man with something of a cocaine-induced form of ADHD, who wanted to try anything in an attempt to help led his band into a more grown up sound. So, let’s expand the band with back-up singers and a horn section, grab a couple of actual former members of The Band (Robertson and the maestro Garth Hudson), hire a string section and bring in a bunch of session ringers and make this whole thing better. It’s as if Petty had become influenced by ELO, George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh and Bob Dylan’s 1975 “Everybody’s Welcome” Rolling Thunder touring caravan of minstrels and hangers-on. “The bigger the better!” must have been the mantra for these sessions.
Yet, there is something endearing about this album three decades on. It’s as if all forms of the Heartbreakers are fighting each other through each song to see which one will eventually win out for the band. Surprisingly, the song that predicted the direction Petty would turn toward is the little heard song “Dogs on the Run.” This song would have actually fit nicely on Full Moon Fever. Of the nine songs on Southern Accents, this is the one stripped down, with Petty playing rhythm guitar on an acoustic guitar, as he would on his 1989 smash solo album.
The album kicks off with the Petty anthem, “Rebels.” The song comes off as something of a band Mission Statement, as if to say that they were born in the South, raised in the South, are of the South, but have shed the stereotypical baggage of the South. Plus, anytime a song’s chorus can be misheard as “I was Barney Rubble” instead of the correct “I was born a rebel” has got to be a classic song.
And, with all of the great individual songs on this album, the soul of the album resides in the closing songs on both sides of the album (the vinyl one!). Side One ends with the album’s title song, which, upon deeper listening, is Petty’s most personal statement about himself. And, Side Two wraps up with the Robbie Robertson-co-produced “The Best of Everything,” which totally brings Tom back to his earlier albums’ roots of ending with a wistful ballad about relationships. The two song balance the album with something that sounds like the Heartbreakers of old, albeit with strings and horns.
Back in 1985, only two artists were staring down their superstardom: Tom Petty and Prince. And, should it be a big surprise that the pair would release arguably the weirdest albums in their respective catalogs? Sure, Petty’s popularity never reached the crazy levels as Prince was in the midst at the time. Yet, in both case, those 1985 albums are not as bad as critics first reviewed. Quite the contrary, these albums are near-classics in their epic struggles to find new sounds in which to perfect.
So, I am encouraging you to find that old Southern Accents album by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and give it another listen. It sounds much more natural today than it did 30+ years ago. This one is quickly becoming a long-term favorite.