As Mudcrutch ease their way down the charts and 70s Island Records personnel celebrate a reunion at the Cross Keys in Hammersmith, I’m reminded of the time Tom Petty's debut album landed on my desk there, late in 1976. It only took one play to realize this was a primo rock ‘n’ roll album with no filler at all and, feeling that our recent licensing deal with Shelter Records was about to pay off in a big way, I rushed upstairs to the top floor of 22 St. Peter’s Square, where Island’s big knobs hung out. When they weren’t hanging out behind the canteen, spliffing it up with studio manager, Suzette, that is. I placed the lp in front of general manager, Fred Cantrell, and asked if he’d put it on the schedule as soon as possible please. The following day, he told me that he wasn’t interested in releasing the album and that I should choose 4 songs to stick on an EP instead. Douche! I told him he was making a big mistake, but didn’t push it. Previously, he'd been in sales, and since taking over as general manager, rather fancied himself as talent scout, having recently lumbered us with the pose-y new-wavers that made up Ultravox! Wanna know how they shelved their punk pretensions and became odious Krautrocker wannabes? One of the band was a hairdresser and, while styling members of the band in the upstairs bathroom one evening, they overheard me playing Neu!, Kraftwerk (and quite probably La Düsseldorf) loudly in the office as I often did at before going to the Nashville Rooms, or somesuch, to start my nightly talent crawl. Once they’d finished poofing each other up, they shuffled into the office and asked what I was playing. Shortly after, they were being produced by Connie Plank - only still as ghastly as before, albeit with a different singer and a hit (‘Vienna’). That’s how I remember it, anyway.
I snatched back the Heartbreakers' album and had it biked over to Giovanni Dadomo, (occasional Snivelling Shit and) writer at Sounds, a weekly UK music paper with some influence. The following week, I placed Gio’s 5 star rave on Fred’s desk and waited for the call.
It took about 3 minutes for Fred to change his mind - 3 minutes too long, if you ask me - and he asked me to pick a single. Shelter had released ‘Breakdown’, but I chose something I thought more appropriate for the UK market - 'American Girl' - and we delivered Tom his first ever chart entry (#40) despite the stupid picture of a blonde bimbo on the single sleeve. The album eventually made it to #24. ‘Breakdown’ flopped in the States until it was re-released 6 months later when it became a huge hit.
Petty toured the UK in May, opening for Nils Lofgren and while the band were in London playing Hammersmith Odeon for 3 nights, Tom got some discs made of the new songs he’d recently recorded. I took him to Trident’s cutting room, where he had mixes of 'Listen To Her Heart' and 'I Need To Know' turned into acetates. The thing I remember most about him was that he positively defined the term laid back. So much so, I half expected him to fall asleep in the middle of a sentence. However, his show at Glasgow’s Apollo was just mental. It was my first time in Scotland and the audience was the most rowdy and, frankly, drunk I’d ever seen. It was Tom’s last night opening for Nils and by then, the word was out. Nils had a hard time closing that show.