November of 1979 was hard on New York radio. Or, it was fantastic for music but tricky for programmers who had to worry about what “rock” meant. If terms of genre matter to anybody, they matter to the people in radio whose careers live or die based on what music listeners think is associated with which call letters. Every generation or so, there might be a WFMU, a free-form station whose personality is as attractive as any constituent part. But especially in ferociously tourist-friendly cities like New York, radio stations need to pull people in quickly, without debate. Caught in traffic near the tunnel? Turn on the um um um um rock station. It’s right around 102.
In late 1979, rock was years away from being enfeebled by prefixes like “classic” — it was a rich, rapidly changing, weird-ass locus for music. In New York, 101.9 WPIX-FM and 102.7 WNEW-FM were benefiting from this productivity and struggling to see the lanes. WNEW had drifted over the years from some sort of progressive rock profile to what was called AOR — “album-oriented rock,” an outdated term of art that escaped label HQ and got into the public. (It was an impossibly unhelpful term. By the Seventies, everything came out on an album, so what the hell was not album-oriented? Singles-driven genres like disco, sure, but that distinction was for professionals, not consumers. If you went shopping for records, the Trammps albums were racked right up front.)
Damn the Torpedoes by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers was released on October 19, 1979. In that same quarter, give or take a month, rock radio got Talking Heads’ Fear of Music (August 3), Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door (August 15), the Eagles’ The Long Run (September 24), Gary Numan’s The Pleasure Principle (September 25), Bob Marley’s Survival (October 2), Reggatta de Blanc by the Police (October 2), The Specials (October 19), Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Live Rust (November 19), Pink Floyd’s The Wall (November 30), and London Calling by the Clash (December 14). Earlier 1979 releases were still on New York radio at this point: Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces, Iggy Pop’s New Values, and the B-52s’ debut. Joy Division? Nope. Still too dark, even for a station like WPIX that identified as pro–new wave. At the other end of town, WNEW poster boy Bruce Springsteen? Still in rotation, but his last album was over a year old and next to all this new music, ay? “Thunder Road” didn’t fit next to “Accidents Will Happen.” Petty and the Heartbreakers did.
Review that list — all those albums had to make peace on rock radio, even if some of them want to kill each other. Before Frankie Crocker played Marley’s “Could You Be Loved?” on WBLS, reggae had to present as rock, which meant Marley, and only Marley, in 1979. Before WPIX switched identities in 1980, the Specials could be played alongside neo-trad-wave like Marshall Crenshaw. If Pink Floyd and the Eagles were going to play the enemy for the Clash and Elvis Costello, daytime radio didn’t care. Feuds were an after-school activity — during the day, these were all goddamned rock artists.
This is the world Petty’s best album was born into. In 1979, he fit right in with the world breakers and speed readers, even if history tried to group him with the Sixties guys. When WNEW played Costello’s “Oliver’s Army,” Petty’s “Refugee” sounded like the right follow-up. Both were songs by young men generally disgusted and specifically vague. That world out there they saw was real nasty but not worth protesting in its particulars. The Eagles’ “The Long Run” back to back with “Even the Losers”? Sure. If there was empathy at play here, it wasn’t clear, and that confusion was bracing. English bands like the Attractions, pushing toward the center, using riffs to drag the words into the fray, sounded fine next to Petty and the Heartbreakers. Petty’s crushes might have been the Byrds and the Beatles, but he cut to the chase and never cared for extra chords, no matter how slow the backbeat got. The new wavers wanted to burn off the foil of psychedelia and bad improv, and Petty did that. When we get to “Free Fallin’ ” in 1989, the drum sounds have changed and vibes are more stately than surly, but Petty isn’t any more prone to elaboration. 1979 was a song year, not a texture or a beat year, and Petty fucks with songs.
Petty’s rock is an energetic refutation of classic rock, or any idea that rock wants to be canonical. His 1977 single “American Girl” opens with an actual shout to the Byrds. The D octaves played high on the neck mimic the doubled notes of the 12-string without requiring you to actually play a second guitar. And then we’re down into a Petty setup, nothing fancy, three chords and three words. This American girl was “raised on promises,” the kind of perfidious world Petty can build without choosing sides. Hell, he liked America and the South enough to fly a Confederate flag in 1985 (which he apologized for, convincingly). That didn’t mean he liked patriotisrollingstone.com/…/tom-petty-on-past-confederate-flag-use-it-was-downright-stupid-20150714m or any kind of plug-and-play cohort. His warmth always fits sideways through a song. He never sings toward sentiment, and neither does Dylan, the figure he played less-weird brother to. Neither liked the okeydoke, but at least Petty would talk to you. Still will, probably.
The Police of 1979 still sound like 1979. Not Petty. He worked with the small pieces deep inside rock, the pieces that everybody uses in every iteration, no matter what year it is. The Strokes didn’t just lift “American Girl” for “Last Nite” — they lifted Petty’s sensibility. Rock vibrates backward and forward through time, and square and hip are both fictions. Petty sharpened this idea in song after song, making him impossible to place. “Free Fallin’ ” wasn’t a country single mostly because Petty didn’t wear a hat in 1989, and that was his choice to make. The cover of Damn the Torpedoes played with choices, too. The red shirt and low-key black jacket says “The Cars,” “The Romantics,” “The Other Band Like the Romantics,” “The Records.” Petty’s face says “lol.” He knew he would outlast new wave. I’m surprised he didn’t outlast radio, too.