Tom Petty's rock 'n' roll was pure

Story highlights

  • John Covach: Tom Petty emerged during the new wave era in pop music, but he was not of it; he was a rock and roll traditionalist
  • Petty moved forward while embracing rock's history, passing those values on in ways that continue to shape rock music, he writes

John Covach is director of the University of Rochester's Institute for Popular Music and a professor of music at Rochester and the Eastman School of Music. He is the author of, "What's That Sound? An Introduction to Rock and Its History," and maintains an active career as a performing and recording musician. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Tom Petty was not the kind of rock star you likely thought he was at first.

On the cover of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' 1979 breakthrough album, "Damn the Torpedoes," Petty stands holding a 1960s Rickenbacker 12-string guitar. The choice of this out-of-fashion guitar, along with Petty's late-Beatles haircut, betrays a dedication to an earlier time in rock and pop.
    After all, hadn't The Byrds' Roger McGuinn used a Rickenbacker 12-string on "Mr. Tambourine Man" in 1965, after seeing George Harrison play one in "A Hard Day's Night" in 1964?
    The songs on "Damn the Torpedoes," which would become staples of album-oriented radio -- "Refugee," "Don't Do Me Like That," "Even the Losers" and "Here Comes My Girl" (which prominently features the electric 12-string) -- firmly underscore the '60s musical passions of Petty and his band.
    When Tom Petty emerged on the scene in the late 1970s, many of us thought he was among the new wave artists who were using 1960s musical and fashion styles in a markedly ironic way. The cover of the band's second album, "You're Gonna Get It!" features the band members' faces in half shadow, much like the "With the Beatles/Meet the Beatles!" sleeve.
    As it turned out, there was nothing ironic at all about Petty's dedication to mid-1960s pop and rock values -- he simply thought that '60s music was better than the styles of rock and pop music that took hold after "Sgt. Pepper."
    Petty's music had been that way before punk or new wave began to hit the big time, as is clear on the Heartbreaker's debut album from 1976. McGuinn affectionately remarked that when he first heard "American Girl" on the radio, he thought it was a Byrds record.
    At a time when epic tracks, concept albums, virtuosic guitar solos, and hippie hair, beads and bell bottoms were all the rage, the Heartbreakers delivered nine songs on their third studio album, many of which clocked in at less than four minutes. The music focused squarely on the songs themselves: Petty's singing is the center of our attention.
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    There are no lengthy or flashy guitar or keyboard solos vying for the listener's attention. Guitarist Mike Campbell, working in the tradition of George Harrison or Keith Richards, provides just what the song needs and no more, while keyboardist Benmont Tench keeps the piano and organ sounds spare and tasteful, with a hint of Al Kooper's playing for Dylan.
    Tom Petty had remained faithful to the values of the Byrds, Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, even as those artists moved on to other styles in the first half of the 1970s. As he continued to do what he been doing all along, the new trend in late '70s rock circled back to him -- he did not chase it, even if he did benefit enormously from it.
    Petty was not a new waver, however, and didn't think of himself that way. As someone moving forward while earnestly embracing rock's history, he was instead a new traditionalist. And as his songs began to influence younger artists, he passed those values on in ways that continue to shape rock music.