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Remembering Tom Petty: ‘A new traditionalist’

October 3, 2017
Tom Petty playing guitarRock star Tom Petty died on Monday at the age of 66. Petty and his band The Heartbreakers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 and had completed a 40th anniversary tour this summer. (Getty Images photo / Jerod Harris)

“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 somewhat ironic way,” says John Covach, director of the Institute for Popular Music at the University of Rochester. “Elvis Costello, for instance, was clearly pushing against the hippie ethos of his time with a sound and look that evoked the mid-60s. But as it turned out, there was nothing ironic about Petty’s dedication to mid-1960s pop and rock values—he simply thought that that music was better than the hippie rock that had dominated the post-Sgt. Pepper years.”

“The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn affectionately remarked that when he first heard ‘American Girl’ on the radio, he thought it was one of his own recordings. In many ways, Tom Petty remained stuck on the musical values of The Byrds, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and the Stones, and the world of music in the late 70s new wave came to where he had always been,” says Covach, coauthor of What’s That Sound: An Introduction to Rock and Its History. “Petty was not a new waver after all, but rather someone moving forward by looking back, a new traditionalist. His adherence to the pop values of the mid 1960s—a strong song with accompaniment that enhanced the song but never took center stage—remained the key feature of his music. As he became an influence on younger artists and songwriters, he passed those values on; his work continues to shape the history of rock music.”

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