Tom Petty: music video pioneer (watch eight of his best)
“All of a sudden the biggest radio station there was was the TV,” remarked Tom Petty in documentary Running Down a Dream of MTV’s immediate effect on his career in 1982 (just after the network launched). Few ’70s rock stars made as seamless a transition into the MTV era as Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, whose work in the medium was as iconoclastic as Petty himself. With and without the Heartbreakers, Petty made some of the most memorable videos, featuring some of the most memorable top hats, of MTV’s golden age. Below are eight of his best.
“You Got Lucky”
This was not Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ first video, but it was the first since the launch of MTV. “I didn’t want to lip-sync it…so ‘what if we made a movie?’ And we did, a sort of science fiction-y western.” Petty and his lighting director Jim Lenehan wrote the script which included a minute-long intro (that was scored by Petty). “That became very common, but it wasn’t then.” The Mad Max style post-apocalyptic setting would also be a common concept on early MTV. It still feels original 35 years later.
“Mary Jane’s Last Dance”
Rarely are token new songs on best-of albums memorable but “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” from The Heartbreakers’ 1993 album Greatest Hits went to #1, helped in no small part by its memorably macabre video. In it, Petty plays an assistant at a morgue who takes home a dead woman (Kim Basinger) and attempts to bring her back to life as he descends into madness. “I’ll never forget how heavy that dress was,” Basinger told The Daily Beast. “And I had to be dead the whole time. You know, it’s really one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, because I had to be completely weightless to be in his arms the way I was. It won all those awards, and the kids love it—even today!”
“Don’t Come Around Here No More”
It may have lost Music Video of the Year in 1985 to Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” at the VMA’s but the Alice in Wonderland-themed “Don’t Come Around Here No More” — and its imagery of Alice being turned into a cake and eaten — remains one of the most iconic videos of the ’80s. Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, who co-wrote and co-produced the song, plays the Caterpillar, and both the Wonderland-theme and the song’s title come courtesy of late night party guest Stevie Nicks.
“You Don’t Know How it Feels”
A one-shot-wonder from Wildflowers, director Phil Joanou (who made U2’s concert doc Rattle & Hum) places Petty at the center of a circular set where all sorts of drama is unfurling: affairs, a bank robbery, acrobats, wrecking balls, and more. We barely get a good look at any of it though, as Joanou keeps Petty tight in the shot, front-and-center as the action takes place just out of focus…at least until one of its stars comes up to steal the spotlight.
“Into the Great Wide Open”
The Story of Eddie and his Adventures in The Great Wide Open was brought to almost literal life by music video vet Julian Temple and some major star-power. Who better than Viper Room owner Johnny Depp to play Eddie and Faye Dunaway as manager in this showbiz fairy tale? “This was one of the only times we edited the song to fit the video — the initial cut was 18 minutes long, and it was a four-minute song.” Temple eventually got it down to just under seven minutes. On being told by label execs that MTV would never air a video that long, Petty replied “Don’t say anything about it, just send it.” Which is what they did. “They played it in heavy rotation for months.”
“Runnin’ Down a Dream”
One of the many, many hits from Full Moon Fever, “Runnin’ Down a Dream” sported a black-and-white animated video that was directed by Jim Lenahan and its surreal imagery was inspired by Winsor McKay’s comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, and also tips its hat to King Kong, as well as a callback to Alice in Wonderland (and the “Don’t Come Around Here No More” video).
Director Julien Temple puts Petty on a crane for this video, making him a free-floating narrator to this tale of “good girls,” “vampires” and other residents of Los Angeles. While not the best video from Full Moon Fever, this was the first use of Petty as one-man-greek-chorus, watching down over the actions of his characters, a motif that would be used again in many videos to come. The shots of skateboarders in the half pipe, however, pair perfectly with the song’s soaring vibe.
Petty was making “promo clips” before MTV and before they called them “music videos.” The clip for 1980’s “Refugee” may be typical of early videos — star lip-sync’s to the camera with not much else to it — what’s apparent immediately is his videogenic charisma as he snarls and stares down the camera. When you’ve got magnetism like that, not to mention a song like “Refugee,” you don’t really need much else.