An immensely accomplished record, “Full Moon Fever” was Tom Petty’s first solo album. It was released in 1989, right after The Traveling Wilburys’ beloved debut. Jeff Lynne was to helm Petty’s record, and both Harrison and Orbison would lend their talents too. That was the reason many pronounced “Full Moon Fever” the “true” continuation to “The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1”, and they also took the fact the next recording issued by the Wilburys was called Volume 3 at face value.
Well, that is always something which could (and will) be disputed and counter-disputed till the rivers all run dry. But everybody will always agree on something: Petty came up with a wondrous record from start to finish.
Five tracks were released as singles, and three of them have become staples of classic rock stations: “Free Fallin’”, “I Won’t Back Down” and “Runnin’ Down A Dream”. “Free Fallin’” is a dexterous study on growing up, with somehow childish verses at the beginning that eventually give way to a sudden, mature conclusion in a way that is beautifully startling.
On the other hand, “I Won’t back Down” is as cocky as its tile suggests, and it is the one cut to which George Harrison added backing vocals. The song was to be covered by Johnny Cash for his third American album, “Solitary Man”.
Finally, “Runnin’ Down A Dream” rocks and swings in equal measures, showcasing Petty’s influences in a distinct way. “Runnin’ Down A Dream” references Del Shannon in the first verse, and the song that is mentioned (“Runaway”) was actually covered by The Traveling Wilburys. It is now found on every remastered edition of the “The Traveling Wilburys – Vol. 3”. “Runnin’ Down A Dream” was written by Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne along with Mike Campbell. Campbell also got together with Petty to compose “Love Is A Long Road”, a song that fully recalls the sound of Petty’s combo. Yet, the production by Lynne gives it a sheen of its own, and the song was rightfully issued as a single.
The final single was the cover of The Byrds’ “Feel a Whole Lot Better”, a charming take on a song that Petty just couldn’t get wrong. That couldn’t happen. There are artists that are predestined to cover others at some point along the way – Noel Gallagher covered the Jam’s “To Be Someone”, The Jam covered The Who’s “Disguises”… these associations are all preordained in a certain sense, and the main value they have is in bringing younger listeners closer to music they will be oblivious to otherwise. Note that Petty had already covered a Byrds’ tune before – “Pack Up The Plantation” opened with a ballsy “So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star”.
And there is much more to “Full Moon Fever” than these songs which were released as single cuts. “A Face In The Crowd” is a very powerful “lost and found” composition, “The Apartment Song” is a fun romp featuring Benmont Tench, and “Yer So Bad” is one of these “losers in love” song that many associate with Tom Petty.
Roy Orbison is featured singing backup on the final song, and what a song that is: “Zombie Zoo” is the true stylistic detour of the disc, and it is a ‘80s song that hasn’t dated in the slightest. Petty could have played it safer and he still would have gotten away with it. But he decided to take an absolute gamble and have it as the way to send off the record. In the end, “Full Moon Fever” achieves the rare distinction of succeeding in every term. It rocks, but it is gentle. It makes you laugh, but it also tugs at the heartstrings. In one sentence: it is a true testament of artistic beauty. And although Petty was never to top this album, the full moon has never really waned, not even after all these years. Granted, the fever may have subdued a little. But that circle that beams in the dark has always remained there, illuminating the way for every person one note of light at the time. And if you ask me, it is not like it is setting any time soon.