The Tom Petty album that was inspired by The Kinks

If there’s one thing Tom Petty hated more than anything on earth, it’s any form of injustice. From the start of his career, the interference of big business loomed large over his career, and every one of his greatest albums was a success story because of how much it spat in the face of people in suits that tried to dictate what people wanted to hear. After going around the block a couple of times, Petty found a way to spit in the face of the establishment yet again on The Last DJ.

At the turn of the century, Petty became more sceptical of what American radio stations were playing, looking to serve the bottom line instead of telling the story of an artist in song. Looking to throw the artificial side of radio back in his label’s face, most of The Last DJ revolves around elements that Petty saw as unjust, from the manufactured pop star on ‘Money Becomes King’ to the man who works at a desk and gets to be rich on ‘Joe’.

When talking about the album later, Petty mentioned taking inspiration from The Kinks’ Ray Davies, telling Rolling Stone: “I love Ray Davies. I especially liked that Lola Versus Powerman album, and I felt it was time for an album with those themes again”. Although Davies was approaching his songs from a different perspective than Petty, the same rebellious attitude is still found on the album.

In between songs solely about dragging business tycoons through the mud, Petty was singing about the glory days that he remembered when he was a kid, imagining the world where there wasn’t much to worry about on ‘Dreamville’. It’s not hard to see the similarities between Petty’s song and something like ‘Waterloo Sunset’, as Davies paints a picture of the nice English evening on the town, all while describing a place that has turned quite sinister.

Being a mirror reflection of each other, Petty and Davies seemed to be writing about a version of their youth slowly starting to fade away as they tried their best to preserve that essence in song. That didn’t mean Petty’s album didn’t come without some backlash, either. In the documentary Runnin Down a Dream, Petty remembered the record company being shell-shocked by what they heard when he presented it to them, recalling, “You could hear a pin drop when the album was over. After a few seconds, one of the guys on the other side of the table spoke up and said, ‘Well, that’s not about us, is it?’”.

Since the album went in hard on the radio, some stations refused to play it because of its content. Even some Petty fans became a bit turned off by the record, thinking that Petty was resting on his laurels and becoming a disgruntled old man in his later years. This was far from the personification of someone’s crotchety grandpa, though.

By taking aim at the men in suits, Petty had rock’s best values in mind, trying to keep music in the hands of creators rather than have rock fans be spoonfed a bunch of artificial bands that would be forgotten within a year. Petty was all about making rock and roll matter, and in doing so, he came out with one of the more interesting records that a classic rock veteran has ever made.

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