Book review: On Track…TOM PETTY (Every album, every song) by Richard James

On Track...TOM PETTY (Every album, every song)

SonicBond Publishing (Release Date 30.07.21)

The posthumous Tom Petty box set was titled ‘An American Treasure’, a fitting description of a legend of rock who did things on his own terms and has perhaps only been fully appreciated since his untimely passing. In the latest ‘On Track’ Richard James has the unenviable task of distilling his recording career of over 40 years into this slim (and sadly once again unindexed) monograph.

The format is familiar, with all its advantages and limitations, but this is one of the better written of the seemingly endless titles in this series. In his descriptions of each track he manages to cram in a huge amount  of information, from the best of Petty’s underrated lyrics to detailed musical descriptions. These can be enjoyed on a number of levels and for those musicians who got further than my own Grade I theory, sometimes extend into technical descriptions of chord sequences and the like, as you might expect from someone whose day job is a guitarist and tutor.

Having used my review copy as an excuse to dig out most of the albums I own, some only rarely played, I can vouch that he is really good at bringing out the different phases of his career including later ventures into the blues (‘Mojo’) and country rock (the ‘Mudcrutch’ albums) and how his writing style evolved.

He also deconstructs  what the differing styles of a series of producers brought to the table, from Jimmy Iovine to the commercially successful Jeff Lynne years (he is not the biggest fan) to the wonderfully organic feel Rick Rubin brought to ‘Wildflowers’. He is strong on musical nuance and naturally successfully highlights the low key yet criminally underrated guitar contributions of Mike Campbell, that rarity, a selfless guitar hero.

Though clearly a fan, his critical faculties do not desert him with ‘Southern Accents’ coming in for some unexpectedly excoriating criticism, while the effect on certain albums of Petty’s or bandmates personal issues are also not glossed over.

As well as the Petty albums, with or without the Heartbreakers, the Mudcrutch albums are described in full, though Traveling Wilbury tracks are only analysed where he made a significant writing contribution. Yet the various posthumous releases, including live versions and alternate takes, are given disproportionate space in the closing part of the book which begins to become repetitive.

That however is a minor gripe and James is to be congratulated in only his second book in bringing out the essence of the Petty magic.   **** 1/2

Review by Andy Nathan

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