Strangely enough, “Full Moon Fever” is Tom Petty’s first solo album without his band the Heartbreakers. It’s considered strange since some viewed the Heartbreakers as his backing band (akin to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band). Furthermore, some of the members performed on the album and were even displeased by Petty’s decision to call it a solo album. But it felt right that “Full Moon Fever” needed to be under Tom Petty’s name alone and not with the Heartbreakers.
Why? Well, before the sessions of the album began, Petty met Jeff Lynne, the lead singer of Electric Light Orchestra (ELO). After Petty presented a few songs to Lynne, the latter agreed to help produce the album. It was also around this time that Petty and Lynne would join George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan to form the Traveling Wilburys. This collaboration would give Petty a chance to work with people outside of the Heartbreakers. Although the elements of the Heartbreakers were still there, there was enough room in Petty’s solo album that gave him a chance to do things differently.
With “Full Moon Fever,” Petty coworked with Lynne on songwriting duties. The recording location provided by Heartbreaker guitarist, Mike Campbell, produced a relaxing atmosphere for the pair to work on the album. Harrison and Orbison would also appear on a few of the tracks such as “I Won’t Back Down” and “Zombie Zoo.” This experience left an impact on Petty, and he went as far as saying this was the most enjoyable record that he ever made.
For that, I agree with him. When you hear “Free Fallin’,” Petty sounds so refreshed and inspired. Even when he’s yelling out in the chorus, it doesn’t sound stressful for him to produce. It helps bring the song to life which is why it is one of the most memorable rock songs of all time. Plus, I love the little references to various places in Los Angeles such as Reseda and Ventura Boulevard in the lyrics. Those are places in Los Angeles that I remember visiting when I was a kid and hearing this song makes me want to go back there.
This aura of relaxation and confidence remain throughout the entire record. Sometimes, that confidence is taken to another level. “I Won’t Back Down” burns with confidence inside the lyrics, “Well I know what’s right | I got just one life | In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around | But I’ll stand my ground | And I won’t back down.” It’s spine-chilling just to see how much confidence can do to someone in a song.
One notable aspect that has been pointed out when listening to “Full Moon Fever” is the tracklisting is reminiscent of a compilation record. Track-by-track, Petty putting out the best songs that he has ever written and it doesn’t slow down one bit. The adrenaline really runs high on a track like “Runnin’ Down A Dream” with its crunching guitars or the euphoric melodies in Petty’s cover of “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better.”
I find it even more fascinating the production. With the Heartbreakers, Petty made songs for a rock band. With this album, there is more freedom with the instrumentation. The usage of acoustic guitars, vocal harmonies and keyboards help give these songs depth. The more I listen to this album, the more I feel like it wasn’t made in 1989. If anything, it felt more like it was made in 1969. To me, it would have fit right into that time period. These approaches to production showed just how much Tom Petty believed in having full artistic control over his music.
Having that control helped with making him stand out in history as he was a man who did what he wanted for his music with no compromises. It preserved the quality of his music and yet he retained his popularity. It’s even more bittersweet listening to the album now since his passing in 2017. However, listening to this album is also a privilege to know and enjoy this man’s music.
For that, “Full Moon Fever” (as well as Petty’s music in general) deserves the credit it has been receiving in the time since its release. May it long continue to bring joy to fans and introduce new people to the life and music of Tom Petty.
Listen to “Full Moon Fever” on Spotify: