Goldmine Archive: Tom Petty talks about a magical collaboration

Tom Petty. Publicity photo.

By Ken Sharp

More than 20 years ago, while taking a well-earned break from his band, The Heartbreakers, Tom Petty turned to ELO’s Jeff Lynne to produce “Full Moon Fever,” Petty’s first solo album.

It was a creative marriage made in heaven.

With Lynne on board as the album’s co-producer and co-writer, the 1989 record became a landmark in Petty’s storied career, going on to sell more than 5 million copies and becoming a permanent fixture on the charts thanks to the unprecedented success of the hit singles, “I Won’t Back Down,” “Free Fallin’,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” and “A Face in the Crowd.”

Petty’s partnership with Lynne flourished. They were bandmates in The Traveling Wilburys, and they also co-penned Roy Orbison’s smash hit, “You Got It,” which topped the Adult Contemporary chart and managed to hit Nos. 2, 7 and 9 on Contemporary Rock, Country Singles and Billboard Hot 100 charts, respectively, in 1989. The song heralded The Big O’s return to the Top 40 for the first time in 24 years.

In a partnership borne out of friendship, robust creativity and a contagious collaborative spirit, Lynne would produce Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ “Into the Great Wide Open” in 1991. The album spawned hits with the title song and “Learning to Fly.” In 2006, Lynne and Petty teamed up again for Petty’s solo release, “Highway Companion.”

In Goldmine’s exclusive conversation, Petty enthusiastically championed the talents of Jeff Lynne as a songwriter, producer, arranger and musician, and shared the back story behind their enduring and fruitful friendship and creative collaboration. 

Goldmine: First off, an obvious question: Is there anything Jeff Lynne can’t do?

Tom Petty: (Laughs.) No, I don’t think so. He can pretty much do it all.

GM: You’ve called him the consummate producer.

TP: Well, as far as being a consummate artist, he’s probably the best all-around musician and singer that I’ve ever come in contact with, and I’ve met a few. But he’s probably the best at fulfilling those roles. There’s not much he can’t do musically. I mean, I haven’t come across it.

GM: The manner in which you wound up working with Jeff on your first solo album, “Full Moon Fever,” and later with The Traveling Wilburys seemed to hinge on one great big twist of fate.

TP: Yeah, it was kind of mystical. It really began in London when The Heartbreakers were over there playing with Bob Dylan on that European tour. First, when we played in Birmingham, Jeff (Lynne) and George (Harrison) showed up, and we had a little bit of a hang there. Then, we went into London and wound up playing for several nights there, and George and Jeff came down several times, as I remember it. We got to hang out quite a bit in the afternoon, and we all liked each other. We had this kind of instant connection. So it was really strange when I ran into Jeff that day on the road in Beverly Hills on Thanksgiving Day. It turned out that he lived pretty close to where I was living at the time. Then, strangely enough, it was either the next day or maybe two days later, I took my daughter out in the car, she wanted to get some Christmas gifts. We were passing this restaurant in the Valley that was kind of a high-end place that we used to go every now and then on special occasions. She said, “Wouldn’t it be great to just eat lunch in a place like that?” And I was like, “Sure, c’mon, let’s go eat lunch there.” So we came in, sat down, and the waiter came over and said, “Your friend is asking for you in the other room.” I walked into the other room and it was George and Jeff. George showed me this piece of paper and said, “I just wrote your number down; I just got it from Jeff. Then they told me you were in the next room.” So George came home with me, and I don’t know where Jeff went. We kind of just spent the rest of the holidays, the three of us hanging out. We played a lot of guitars and sang. The idea of working together just all started evolving from that point with a lot of different things and a lot of different music.

GM: You were starting to write material for a solo album the eventually became “Full Moon Fever.” The first was “Yer So Bad.”

TP: Yeah, I believe it was. He helped me with the B-section of the verses, and he came up a chord or two that really opened it up for me, because I didn’t really know where to go with it. And I thought, that’s great. Then I can’t remember how we decided to write some more. But the next one we wrote was “Free Fallin’.”

GM: Was “Free Fallin’” an example of you having the thrust of the song and Jeff coming in later to help shape it?

TP: Well, I sat down at a little keyboard, and I had kind of the main lick, and I think even with that Jeff said, “If you trim a bar off of that, it’ll be better.” And so I did, and he was right. Then I just sang most of the song right off the top of my head, the lyrics and the melody. He was very helpful with the chorus. He had that line “free falling” and I couldn’t quite see how it could work. I couldn’t get it all it in one phrase. But thank God he did. So we finished that up and decided to record them. We recorded those two songs very fast; I think we did them in two days. I remember coming home with those two tracks on a cassette and playing them over and over, just saying, “Wow, this is really good.” I had to talk Jeff into finishing the album with me.

GM: Did you really?

TP: Yeah, because he was about to go back to England for some reason. And I said, “No, no, no, no, we gotta do an album!” (laughs) And he was like, “An album?” And I said, “Yeah, c’mon! We can do it.” And so that’s how it all started.

GM: Knowing you were under a time crunch, did that help the creative process in terms of the writing and recording of the material?

TP: It did initially, yeah, because I kept thinking Jeff was gonna leave and go back to England (laughs). So it would be like, “Let’s go write another one and record it really fast.” I think when we finished those first two songs, we went into a studio to mix them, because he likes to mix things right away, and since then, I share that same opinion. I like to mix things right after I do them. I don’t like to wait until after the album is done and then try to remember what I wanted. So we thought, OK, let’s mix these. While they were mixing them, we went into a little soundproof booth at this studio and wrote “I Won’t Back Down.” By the time those songs were mixed, we were sitting on another song that we went in the next day and recorded.

GM: It seems that you were able to quickly establish a very fruitful writing partnership.

TP: Oh, yeah. We got along really well. We had a similar sense of humor. Jeff’s a very funny guy. And we were just having fun, which was a kind of new experience for me as far as recording. With The Heartbreakers, it wasn’t always fun. It would come out good, but it was a lot of work sometimes, and it’s just that way with a group. It’s a different political arena. So this was the first time I’d ever done anything on my own. Mike Campbell was engineering it, and we were working at his house. It was very informal, and we were just doing it for the fun of it. So I just kept riding it to see how far it would go, and it just kept happening. It worked out really well.

GM: When you think about three of Jeff’s greatest influences — Del Shannon, Roy Orbison and The Beatles — you also share a deep love of those artists. And even more ironically, you and Jeff both produced Del Shannon. Did sharing that common musical bond also come into play when sitting down to write together?

TP: Yeah, we liked a lot of the same music and had a lot of the same influences. And come to think of it, really all of the Wilburys did, in a way. So that was kind of the common ground between all of us, I think. It was surprising when we both realized that we both had done Del Shannon records. We saw a fair bit of Del in those days. He was around and in town, and he’d drop in. George was in town quite a bit, too. I remember one night Jeff, George and I going to some really weird studio in the Valley to see Del. We went in and sang on whatever track he was doing; we did backgrounds for him. It was like that then. It seemed like we were always doing something in the studio.

GM: “A Face in the Crowd” from Full Moon Fever is a beautiful collaboration between you and Jeff.

TP: I think I basically had most of that. Where Jeff helped me with that song was with the little instrumental midsection. I think I had the basic lyric and chord pattern. But what Jeff was great at was sitting down with you and looking at what you had and helping you edit it down or arrange it into something that made it really sparkle. He’s a brilliant record maker. He’s one of the only people I know that you can go in the studio and you’re gonna leave that night with a record. He doesn’t mess around in the studio. He really knows where to go and how to go through a number of options really quickly and find the right one. He’s done so much recording ever since he was a kid; it’s unbelievable. He really knows what roads are gonna end in a dead end, and he can show you why. He was just brilliant. We did everything on 24-track tape, and we never used more than 24 tracks. He was very good at that, helping us get it all on tape. He’s just a master. I remember doing some “oohs” and “ahs” where we’d roll past the song on the two-inch tape and we’d overdub our harmonies onto there. Then we’d mix them onto a two-track tape, and when we had to mix, Jeff would fly them by hand into a track of the 24-track (laughs). He’d mark it with a piece of chalk, and it might take him two or three tries but he’d actually hit the button and fly it into the 24-track. It’s really delicate stuff (laughs). I’d never seen anything like that before. But with Jeff, it just became another tool in the chest.

GM: Listening to Jeff’s immaculate production work on “Full Moon Fever,” “Into the Great Wide Open” and “Highway Companion,” what’s really impressive is how he achieves a richness of sound earmarked by an economy where space is important.

TP: I agree. It’s very important what you don’t play. That’s a music theory right there, being how much of a hole you’re gonna leave and how much you’re gonna let a note breathe. He was just a brilliant arranger. With me, I tended to kind of hold him back in a way, as far as putting a lot of things on the tape. I wanted to keep it very spare. But he just opened my eyes incredibly, and I’m very grateful to him. I mean, the last record we did together, “Highway Companion,” we had a ball doing that record.

GM: That’s a record that embodies that sparseness. It has an intimacy, and it really breathes. Some producers might be tempted to put the kitchen sink on it.

TP: Well, you gotta say no (laughs). But we didn’t have that problem. We didn’t write together on that album, because Jeff said, “It doesn’t need anything.” (Laughs.) So I go, “Are you sure?” And he said, “Yeah, it really doesn’t need anything; it’s all there.”

GM: It’s funny, with that album and now with Jeff’s two new records, you’re both stepping to the table playing drums.

TP: Yeah, that’s right. I did an OK job on that record for a guitar player (laughs). I’d say I was very limited, but we did it. There’s only three of us playing on the “Highway Companion record” — Mike (Campbell), me and Jeff.

GM: Is there a “Jeff Lynne sound”?

TP: Well, we’re all familiar with the sound of ELO that you recognize instantly. And I think that comes a lot from his harmonies, the way he stacks three-part harmony. He didn’t do that much with me, because I didn’t want it to sound like ELO, and neither did he. You notice that sound; it’s very commercial and it’s very pop. But when you really listen to it, it’s just downright brilliant. I don’t know who could do things like that. It’s funny, because I had wanted Jeff to produce my second album (“You’re Gonna Get It!”)

GM: That’s very surprising. You were thinking of him as a producer back in ’77, ’78?

TP: Yeah, I was. I even put in a call to someone and word came back, “Well, he doesn’t do outside projects.” So I just went, “Oh well,” and went on about my business. But even back then, I thought it would be an interesting thing to have him produce us.

GM: Were you a fan of ELO’s music?

TP: Oh yeah. I had been a fan since he was in The Move. Benmont (Tench) turned me on to their album “A Message from the Country” when it came out. We would listen to it a lot and go, “Who’s this guy Jeff Lynne?” We were really impressed. And then, right after that, he and Roy Wood  moved into the ELO thing. But I was always aware of what he was doing, at least from that point.

GM: Working with Jeff in The Traveling Wilburys, you’ve cited his role as being very underrated. What did he bring to the table during those sessions?

TP: I tell you, I often wonder — if Jeff hadn’t been there, I don’t think it could have been done. The way we worked was very, very fragmented. It was mostly about getting the song written. By the time we had gotten the song written, I think Jeff could picture a lot of the arrangement and how it should go, though you gotta credit George, too. Those two were the designated producers of the record, and we knew that everybody trying to produce the record was gonna be a problem. So we all deferred to them; they were the guys that were running the sessions. Jeff was very good at hearing someone play a fragment of something and go, “Wait, wait, wait, that bit there was really good.” He had a lot of great ideas. I just wonder if we hadn’t had him at the board to communicate with the engineer whether the record could have been made. George did a lot of driving the sessions and deciding who was gonna sing what. Sometimes we would record two or three of us singing lead on a track. George would decide which one he wanted to use. Sometimes he might use the bridge from somebody else. It was a very interesting band (laughs). But I think Jeff’s contribution was huge to those records.

Tom Petty first teamed up with producer Jeff Lynne for a solo album, “Full Moon Fever.” Things went so well that when Petty went back to the studio with The Heartbreakers to record “Into The Great Wide Open,” he brought Lynne along for the ride, too. “It was a bumpier road, because I think it was probably the only time he worked with a band, and I don’t think he really likes it,” Petty says. “Dealing with the politics of a band just drives him nuts.” Publicity photo.

GM: When you brought Jeff in to produce “Into the Great Wide Open,” was it a seamless fit with him in the producer’s chair, or a bumpier road?

TP: It was a bumpier road, because I think it was probably the only time he worked with a band, and I don’t think he really likes it (laughs). Dealing with the politics of a band just drives him nuts. It can drive anyone nuts — and especially them. I think they were a little indignant I’d done a solo album anyway, but I couldn’t help but think, “Well, I wonder what would happen if I brought the band in?” And we did, and we pulled it off. But it wasn’t as easy as “Full Moon Fever.” It wasn’t anywhere as easy as that, it was much more difficult.

GM: When you worked on follow-up albums, like “Wildflowers” with Rick Rubin producing, were there any times you thought, “I wonder what Jeff would do?”

TP: Oh yeah. I think he put a stamp in my brain about how you make records (laughs). There was a standard of record making that I felt like I had stepped up to while working with Jeff. And when I did “Wildflowers,” I felt like I’d done a lot of records with Jeff, and I better try to do something else so I can carry on (laughs). But I still love working with him. He’s really my go-to guy on the solo stuff.

GM: Lastly, independent from your work together, are there any Jeff Lynne songs that you’re particularly fond of?

TP: Well, from The Move the one that hit me right away was “Do Ya.” They did a great version of that track. Why it wasn’t a hit by The Move, I don’t know, but I guess it became one later when he did it with ELO. As for ELO, I like so many ELO tracks. Those songs are so solid. “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” is incredible. Just the chords alone to that song are incredible. There’s so many. Just as a record, “Mr. Blue Sky” is a serious piece of work. I mean, it kind of takes that “I Am the Walrus” thing to another level. It’s probably jumping off from that there, but I think ELO kind of jumps off from there. But it definitely became something particular to him, and that was a real high point. There’s so many great ELO songs; I really like all of them. This guy put out so many hit songs in a row. He’s like the one-man Beach Boys or something. When you see that movie about him (“Mr. Blue Sky: The Story of Jeff Lynne and ELO”) and you see him do those songs with just a guitar and a piano, it’s just amazing! I don’t know who can do that. It’s a beautiful thing to just see him play and sing like that. He’s singing that stuff present day (laughs), and he’s just killing it. I’ve never heard Jeff sing out of tune. Out of all the recordings and harmonies that we’ve done over the years, I never once heard him go off key (laughs). He’s such a pitch freak that he would drive George and I crazy. We did a lot of singing together, the three of us. With Jeff, we always had to sing perfectly in pitch. If it went a little under he’d go, “No, it sounds like The Who” (laughs). And we’d be like, “Oh, OK,” and make sure we got it right.

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