There was a time when I lived to go into a record store. I loved the feel of the album. I loved the fact you could you hold it in your hands and not have to squint to see the writing. The cover, in and of itself, was a piece of art. The first records I ever bought with my own money were the red and blue albums by the Beatles. Albums were pretty cheap back then in the 1970s. I still have my stack of old 45s someplace. Most of my 300+ albums were lost in a flood 15 years ago. But there is one album I still hold dear after all those years. Tom Petty’s Hard Promises.
I like to call the 1980s my lost years. I don’t remember much or I choose not to remember much. It was a time of great turmoil. In one decade, I moved 8 times. The only constant thing I had for a home was my car and my albums. In 1981, I was a junior in high school. It was the second of three years of living in a small town in Western Illinois. Most of time was spent golfing, working at the grocery store, or listening to music. There wasn’t much to do back in those days. If you wanted to do something, you had to drive 30 miles to Macomb or 60 miles to Springfield. Whenever, a new album came out, it was a pretty big deal in town.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had been around a few years. They had taken off in in the fall of 1979 and the summer of 1980 with the Damn the Torpedoes album. Whenever I hear Don’t Do Me Like That or Refugee, I still think of the local pool in town on a hot summer day. Petty’s brand of rock played well in this small town that liked to think of itself as southern even though it was in Western Illinois.
The fact that the album came out at all with the title of Hard Promises is a miracle at all. For almost a year, Petty and his distributor, MCA, had been at odds over the price of the album. MCA wanted to release the album with a list price of $9.98. This full $1.00 more than the regular album was called “superstar pricing”. The interesting thing was Petty was not even signed to MCA, he was signed to Backstreet.
Petty recorded Hard Promises in and around Los Angeles. The record itself feels like a series of vignettes or short stories of hard working people down on their luck in the nights of Los Angeles. They each try to maintain some relationship but the night is not helping.
Petty originally had a deal with MCA to sell the album for $8.98 when MCA went back on their word. In response Petty was going to change the name of the album to The $8.98 Album. In doing so, Petty said,
A lot of our fans have been with us for a long time and I think they trust us. MCA has done a great job selling our records, but they couldn’t see the reality of what it is like on the street – they couldn’t see that raising the album’s price wouldn’t be fair.
Petty’s stance endeared himself to fans for many years. In an age where the minimum wage had just gone to $3.35/hour, to buy an album was not just a frivolous thing, it was an investment. You weren’t buying just a couple of songs on iTunes for $2.50, you were buying into an artist.
And for the past thirty years, Tom Petty’s career has flourished. This summer he will be out again, hitting the sheds one more time. Most likely I will not go as it is hard to hear these days. But more than likely I will be buying the new record as I have for the past 30 plus years. It’s still refreshing to see an artist stand up for the fans.