Tom Petty’s Music Genome: The Traits That Define His Legacy

The music titan left a catalog filled with lyric-driven, mid-tempo rock songs with melodies to die for.

By Glenn Peoples, Music Insights and Analytics at Pandora

In the wake of Tom Petty’s death on Monday, in hundreds of remembrances and obituaries, the rock legend’s songs have been called everything from succinct to great driving music. Indeed, Petty wrote short, concise songs that AM/FM radio picked up in the late ’70s and ’80s, providing millions of Americans a soundtrack for the road. (Hear for yourself at this Petty station created in his memory.) At Pandora, the musical characteristics of Petty’s recordings have been scored by analysts and stored in the Music Genome Project. Out of hundreds of possible traits—anything from a voice’s sound to a song’s syncopation—a handful of traits best describe Petty’s voluminous catalog:

Emphasis on lyrics and melody. Whether he sings about love (“Good love is hard to find” he sang in “You Got Lucky”) and sadness (“She’s a woman in love, but it’s not me” he laments in “Woman in Love (But It’s Not Me),” Petty’s lyrics are always front and center. Famed music writer Robert Palmer once wrote Petty “has a knack for writing songs that express, in a straight-forward manner, his listeners most basic attitudes — dissatisfaction with job and hometown, a deep-seated need to believe love can really conquer all.” Melodies are also prominent, and Petty has arsenal of them (how about that “Free Fallin’” singalong, or the call-and-response in“Refugee”? ). “He’s got tremendous words and very different kinds of melodies,” Jeff Lynne, producer of two Petty albums, told Billboard magazine in 2006. “I really admire what he does with them.”

Mid-tempo pace. Petty’s music has one particular trait shared by yacht rock/California sound contemporaries (Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, The Eagles): it rarely scores high on fast and hard rock traits. His comfort zone is mid-tempo rock, and he sometimes veers to soft rock. Even his hit “Runnin’ Down a Dream” from the Jeff Lynne-produced, 1989 album Full Moon Fever fails to hit a high hard rock score.

A lot of guitar — and bass and drums. Electric guitar, electric bass, and drums are front and center in Petty’s recordings. Guitarist Mike Campbell’s deft playing and Petty’s jangly Rickenbacker create a heavy guitar presence. Bass and drums are also prominent in Petty’s recordings.

A backbeat, and an occasional dance feel. Many of Petty’s songs are driven by a backbeat, an emphasis on the second and fourth beats of a measure, so often heard in the early R&B songs that predated rock and roll. A dance feel is often present in his recordings, too, notably on “American Girl.”

Some folk and country influences. Although Petty arrived on the scene when punk was breaking, his recordings usually have far more folk characteristics than punk. There are also country influences, too, another genre that leans on its lyrical content.

Petty’s musical traits also reflect the different periods in his career. His early recordings, from his eponymous debut album from 1976 and You’re Gonna Get It! from 1978, are often driven by riffs and rhythm rather more so than the lyric-driven, mid-tempo rock of the years to come. In the middle of his career, two hit albums produced by Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra, 1989’s Full Moon Fever (a solo album) and 1991’s Into The Great Wide Open (recorded with The Heartbreakers), show the bright sheen of Lynne-produced recordings. In genomic language, these songs score high on acoustic guitar, sound production, and pop music. Later, Petty delves into the blues in songs like “Jefferson Jericho Blues” and “First Flash of Freedom” from his 2010 album Mojo.

Petty got famous because he wrote hits beloved by FM radio and developed his voice and style, says Eric Shea, rock programmer at Pandora. “As he traversed from rock ’n’ roll to power pop to AOR super group to folk-rock to Americana to film soundtracks — he always kept some of that California soul in his sound. The jangle, the twang, the harmonies never went away.”

Critics at the time did put Petty’s early career into the post-punk wave that includes Talking Heads and Elvis Costello. In the 2015 book Petty: The Biography, author Warren Zanes, whose band The Del Fuegos toured with Petty and the Heartbreakers in the late ’80s, called the late ’70s a time of category confusion, a period when new wave “hadn’t emerged as a catchall term it would become” and singer-songwriters “were generally regarded as musicians who played acoustic guitars.” A Billboard magazine review of Petty and the Heartbreakers’ debut album all but dismissed Petty as a “another punk rock, black jacketed offshoot.” Petty addressed this perception in the book Conversations With Tom Petty. “We were labeled a ‘punk group’ for some time. It was a bit of a problem because they’d seen me with a leather jacket. And if you weren’t a big corporate rock band like Fleetwood Mac, they didn’t know what to do with you. We definitely weren’t that…We had our own identity by then. In truth, we were just a rock and roll band.”

While Petty got his start in Los Angeles, he was raised in Gainesville, Florida, listening to the rock of the day—The Beatles were a huge influence—and Southern rock. “Petty was the last true contributor to the California sound, says Shea. “Anybody familiar with his early recordings can draw a straight line to Roger McGuinn, from the 12 string Rickenbacker to the nasal-toned vocal inflections, to the note-for-note cover of Gene Clark’s “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” — which was more of a re-creation than a cover. He even dropped out of school at 17 to play in Mudcrutch, which sounded like a band totally in love with Gram Parsons and The Flying Burrito Brothers.” Something was in the water in Gainesville, a city that also spawned artists steeped in the same Southern California aesthetic: Stephen Stills of Crosby, Stills & Nash; Bernie Leadon of the Flying Burrito Brothers and The Eagles; and Don Felder of The Eagles.

Petty’s affection for a moderate pace is reflected by the most-played songs on Tom Petty stations at Pandora. Two of the songs preceded Petty: Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” and The Eagles’ “Take It Easy.” Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing” and The Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden” were hits when Petty’s star was rising in the late ‘70s. In addition, two songs released in the ‘90s, The Wallflowers’ “One Headlight” and Counting Crow’s “Mr. Jones,” show the influence he had on the next generation.

[Next Big Sound’s Emily Blake helped with writing and editing of this piece.]

Read more of my posts at my Medium page here. More data-driven articles from Pandora can be found at Measured. For complete list of Pandora-related news and press, go to the Pandora News blog.

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