Remembering Tom Petty (and Video Concert Hall)

Sometimes, 1979 feels like five decades ago.

 

Sometimes, it still feels like yesterday.

 

That was the year that a lot of people first got introduced to the concept of the music video, although back then we didn’t think of them as music videos per se because the term ‘music video’ hadn’t been invented yet. We didn’t really know what to think of them. We watched them out of curiosity more than anything.

 

A Seventies childhood had a lot of downtime to kill. We were still years away from anything like the Walkman. Cable TV, with its two dozen channels, was the new wonder toy. The cable TV of 1979 meant a push-button remote control box connected to your TV set by a wire that ran across the shag carpet from the TV to the coffee table. How that wire never got shredded to bits I’ll never know. But it never did. There were 32 individual buttons on the control box, kind of like the different settings for a blender. One button for each channel plus a few extras that went to static.

 

MTV was still years off in the future. But a few inquisitive children had tunneled their way into the obscure part of the cable lineup, and uncovered a program called Video Concert Hall buried deep in the mix.

 

Video Concert Hall ran for two hours each night, or one hour in the late afternoon, or three hours early Sunday morning. You never did know. The show was beholden to no particular time slot, and the videos were beholden to no particular genre.

 

If you look at the chronology, Video Concert Hall is pretty clearly the prototype for MTV, but Video Concert Hall was nothing like MTV. For one thing, it didn’t have a dedicated channel, or even a regular time slot. For another thing, it wasn’t formatted. There were no VJs. There was no Nina or Bruno or J.J, not even Don Kirshner or any other human voice introducing the show, just a glowing 70s neon title card reading “Video Concert Hall” while the first 30 seconds of Led Zeppelin’s Carouselambra played. That was it. No explanation, no introduction, just straight to the videos.

 

A string of videos, one after the other, with no cohesiveness and no form of introduction whatsoever. What the videos did have was the three tiny lines of written text at the bottom corner of the screen at the beginning and end of each clip stating the song, the artist, and the album it was off of. Name, rank, and serial number. This is a format that MTV would copy from Video Concert Hall. And this, I believe, is what qualified something as being a ‘music video’ instead of just being camera footage spliced together with a radio song.

 

Music videos were still in their larval stage before MTV though. There were no conventions or standards to adhere to yet. There were barely enough videos to fill out a time slot, so what you got was a narrow hodgepodge of three maybe four dozen clips that Video Concert Hall happened to have on hand at the time and would cycle through day after day.

 

You saw all sorts of random things. A new group from England called the Police, lip-synching and playing palm fronds instead of guitars, followed by Stephanie Mills doing a soft r&b ballad, followed by the androgynous, disco-siren Alicia Bridges singing “I Love the Nightlife,” followed by the Cramps doing “Garbage Man,” Kansas doing Dust in the Wind, the Dickies covering Nights in White Satin, Cher lip-synching in disco skates, Gary Numan doing Down in the Park, Iggy Pop doing Five Foot One.

These music videos were strange new concepts, devoid of any context, but kids are early adapters who catch on quick, before the adults do, and kids quickly developed favorites.

You can see that there are some classics on my list, but my favorite, then and now, the one that still passes the test of time, and became a prototype for what a music video could be in 1980, is the third single off Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers album, Damn the Torpedoes, a song called Here Comes My Girl.

 

All the other videos at the time were either a lip-synched studio performance of the song with the band members too busy focusing on their own parts to interact with the other guys in the group or with the camera. Or, it’s the opposite, and the video is a crudely choreographed performance piece that had little or no apparent connection to the song itself.

 

Now, 1979-80 was eighth grade for me. I was too young to go to concerts, but I was just the right age to invest the brunt of my time in listening to album oriented rock on the radio. Tom Petty and Supertramp were in heavy rotation back then, so these videos of Supertramp and Tom Petty were the first chance to see the bands that we heard on the radio.

Supertramp’s videos were alright….but they had long hair and beards, and they seemed distant; they seemed like spiritual people…people who lived in caves and took vows of silence. They were the proverbial eleven long haired friends of Jesus in a chartreuse microbus, and they didn’t want to be bothered by a bunch of teenage fans.

That’s cool. Spiritual rock and roll is a good way to achieve nirvana, like Donovan, or Forever Changes, or Sgt. Pepper’s. And the music definitely sounds transcendent on the radio. But in the videos, each one of them is like a monk doing his own thing, with no eye contact, no band interaction…just a bunch of monks, each in his own fortress of solitude.

 

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, on the other hand, had a different approach. They had two songs in the Video Concert Hall rotation, both off their breakthrough Damn the Torpedoes album, which climbed all the way to number two on the Billboard charts and stayed there for seven weeks, held back only by Pink Floyd, the Wall.

The first single off the album, released in November ‘79 was Don’t Do Me Like That, which reached number 10 on the charts. The second single was Refugee, released in January 1980, which reached number 15. That song came with a video. And it was a good one by 1980 standards. It had production values, and a concept, and a budget, and a storyline involving the band taking five against a brick wall behind the club.

You could almost see the record label punching numbers into the adding machine and making the calculation that it would be a good idea to create a video budget for their hot new hit makers to take advantage of this novel format called music videos.

 

But it would be the next video that really set the bar, for the Heartbreakers, for Video Concert Hall, and maybe for all time. It was the third single off the album, the idiosyncratic, slightly offbeat, very unrequited love song, “Here Comes My Girl.”

 

One of the counterintuitive axioms of rock n roll is that it’s actually harder to play quiet than to play loud, more difficult to play slow than to play fast. It’s more difficult because you can’t hide from your insecurities, your limitations, or the weak spots in the songs; it’s all out there exposed as the naked truth for everyone to see and hear. You can’t speed through the lyrics or cover the melody up with distortion; you can’t rush through the song and finish in a blur; you have to catwalk it in slow motion across the floor, so that everyone gets a good look and listen.

And that’s what’s happening in Here Comes My Girl.

 

The song’s hook is that it has no hook. It’s basically just a two-chord vamp played over and over again, with each repetition adding another layer of intensity and another degree of tension, while maintaining the same overall dynamics and decibel level. It’s a slow build with a quick, unsatisfying release that goes right back to the slow build of tension all over again.

 

Eventually the song does go to a middle 8, if you want to call it that. It just modulates up a key and hangs out on the same chord for four measures before diving straight back down into the tension-loaded melody with a renewed sense of vigor.

 

By the time the song fades out into that good night 3:55 seconds later, you feel like you’ve been taken on one of the most action-packed adventure rides that the amusement park of album-oriented rock has to offer, and it never strays from that two-chord vamp, all the way through to the last note of the fade away ending.

 

And then there’s the video. At a time when nobody in the video making business really knew what they were doing yet, Here Comes My Girl is preternaturally well-filmed. The song kicks off with a few measures of a guitar and drums only instrumental. So for the video’s first 20 seconds, all we see are cuts back and forth between the faces and hands of drummer Stan Lynch and guitarist Mike Campbell. There is a brief cutaway to Petty’s darkened silhouette, but that’s all you see of the front man until the vocals kick in.

 

The Heartbreakers and their instruments are set up in a sound studio, as if making a real live-room recording, with stage lights.

 

For those first twenty seconds the camera sashays in and around the drums and guitar, setting up a visual intimacy that other videos from the 1979-80 era just don’t have. And then -bam- Petty spins around to face the camera and start the first verse. I could have said, “sing the first verse,” but Petty’s not really singing the lyrics; he’s intoning them–half narrating, half crooning.

 

The song stays quiet and restrained, building up tension as Petty vamps the lyrics. Then the vocals kick up a notch, and instead of peeling away from the band to perform for the camera, Petty does a curious thing. He turns instead toward the band and starts working the room, crossing into each Heartbreaker’s personal space and breaking all the unwritten rules of guy-dude interaction. There’s sustained eye-contact, who-will-be-the-first-to-laugh staring contests, and a bro-hug across the keyboards.

 

They say that cool is just fear turned into fashion. And that seems to be a template for rock and roll, where you sulk and scowl and put a leather jacket on and scream about your broken heart. Here Comes My Girl seems like the kind of song tailor made for that kind of emoting, and the sound stage seems all set up for that kind of video, all darkly lit in purple neon; with a smoke machine probably all ready to go. But they wouldn’t need the smoke machine that day, because Tom Petty decided to take exactly the opposite approach.

 

Now, I have no idea what the backstory to that video shoot is. Maybe there had been a blowout and a coke-fueled fistfight in the tour bus a few hours earlier and these are the first overtures of the make up, and the cameras just happened to be rolling.

 

Maybe the Heartbreakers all trudged into the soundstage in their bathrobes at 10AM on a rare day off, where they have been instructed to lip synch their hit single as cameras follow them around for this cockamamie new gimmick called a ‘music video’ and, too tired to protest, all the Heartbreakers can do is give each other sardonic looks that say, “I can’t believe we let Reuben Kincaid talk us into this!”

 

What you see is appears to be a moment of the band captured in genuine camaraderie.

 

What you also see is Tom Petty successfully selling himself as a front man. At the beginning of this video, you’re not sure if this small-boned, fine featured fella with the corn-silk hair and the reedy monotone voice has what it takes to lead a rock band in the stadium era.

 

But over the course of this 3:55 song you watch him do exactly that. First he rallies the support of his band mates, and then he wins over us, the audience, and he does it with honey instead of vinegar, by showing vulnerability instead of toughness, by singing the lyrics really close into the faces of the Heartbreakers, one by one, daring them to try to act tough, try to keep a straight face with Tom Petty turning it into an Elton John Kiki Dee duet. You can act cool all you want, but you have no choice but to give in to the irreverence of Tom Petty eventually.

They say in sports that before a team can win together they have to know how to lose together. And before a band can be cool together, they have to be geeks together.

 

Petty’s not the kind of front man who’s going to win you over with ripped abs, or flowing scarves or eye-liner, or a howling falsetto, or a bitchen’ hair flip, or a Billy Squier bulge, or a grand entrance on a rope swing; Petty’s going to win you over with sincerity and relatability. And the best way to get that across to the audience is to first put it across with your band.

 

The Heartbreakers have achieved emotional honesty with each other, because Tom Petty has broken the ice. And now these unlikely rock stars can go on to conquer the world, which they do.

 

As for the rest of the Heartbreakers, these are the boys next door. They’re dark-haired lads, like the Beatles, the Stones, and the E Street Band. They’re kind of awkward and kind of shy, in contrast to Petty’s golden haired confidence and Tanner Boyle swagger. (Tanner Boyle is the blond-haired, hot-tempered shortstop from the Bad News Bears.)

 

Watching this video and knowing the band was from Florida, I always had Stan Lynch, the drummer, pegged as a Seminole Indian because of his high cheekbones and great mane of smooth raven hair. I was blown away to learn many years later that he was actually a Jewish boy from Cincinnati, so Jewish that he allegedly took his menorah with him on tour with the Heartbreakers.

 

The keyboardist, Benmont Tench, looks like Peter Gallagher from Summer Lovers, or at least he does in this professionally lit video.

 

Bassist Ron Blair decided to rock the striped sweater look for the shoot, and he pulls it off pretty well, almost as if he’s anticipating the coming preppy trend of the early 80s by a good year and a half. And his Baba Booey front teeth are endearing, as well.

 

At a time when John McEnroe was at the peak of his game, guitarist Mike Campbell is at the peak of his game, rockin’ the McEnroe look curly hair is the new black.

 

These unassuming lads are the Heartbreakers, and Tom Petty is their leader.

 

It’s these five against the world.

 

Five decades later, Here Comes My Girl is still their best song. And this video might still be the best video, of the Video Concert Hall era or ever.

 

Share Your Thoughts