Behind the Album: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Reunited—with Jeff Lynne in the Fold—for ‘Into the Great Wide Open’

Tom Petty enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with Jeff Lynne in the late ’80s and early ’90s that included two Traveling Wilburys albums and Petty’s incredibly successful solo record Full Moon Fever. When he decided to reunite the Heartbreakers for the 1991 album Into the Great Wide Open, he brought Lynne along as a producer.

Videos by American Songwriter

The result is a hybrid album that sounds like nothing else in the Heartbreakers’ catalog. Let’s look back at how it all came together and how the participants involved sometimes struggled with the arrangement.

Petty, Lynne, and a Band in Waiting

A chance encounter between Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne on a Los Angeles street one afternoon turned into a deep friendship and lucrative working relationship. They had already met briefly in London in the company of George Harrison, but the LA meetup was pure chance and, seemingly, fate. The timing couldn’t have been better, as both men were struggling with the constraints of being bandleaders. Lynne had thoughts of focusing on production after shelving ELO, and Petty, a huge fan of Lynne’s work, thought they should work together.

That led to Full Moon Fever, which indirectly led to The Traveling Wilburys. A lot of great music was being made by Petty and Lynne, often as co-writers. As the 1980s turned to the ’90s, Petty wasn’t too keen on stopping this productive partnership anytime soon. The only problem was there was a band of his that was waiting around for his return.

In actuality, the men of the Heartbreakers hadn’t been idly sitting on their hands after Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), the last band album before Petty went solo in 1987. They were all in-demand session men. In one interesting quirk, the 1990 Grammys pitted Full Moon Fever against Don Henley’s The End of the Innocence, which featured major contributions from Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Stan Lynch, for Album of the Year. (Both lost to Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time.)

Petty knew it was time to get the Heartbreakers back together. But he also wanted to keep his stretch of working with Lynne intact. The solution: Have Lynne produce the next Heartbreakers record, which would be entitled Into the Great Wide Open.

“Open” Season

On paper, the pairing of Lynne, one of rock’s most distinctive production minds, and the Heartbreakers, a collective of stellar individual players who possessed unmistakable chemistry when playing with each other, seemed like a smash success waiting to happen. As it turned out, it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing.

The main bone of contention was how Lynne preferred to make records. He liked to build up tracks through overdubs of individual instrumental parts. This wasn’t an issue with Full Moon Fever, since that record was mostly comprised of Petty, Lynne, and Mike Campbell playing all the instruments (save drums, which were handled by occasional Heartbreakers’ percussionist Phil Jones).

But the Heartbreakers were used to getting together in a room and working through Petty’s songs, finding the proper groove and arrangement by playing them as a unit. Although they eventually came around to Lynne’s way of doing things, it was a somewhat bumpy road to get there.

And how does the record hold up today? Well, a Jeff Lynne-produced album tends to have a sound about it that overrides whatever techniques or styles the individual players bring to it. Full Moon Fever worked because Petty trimmed his lyrics to such succinct, melodic, fighting shape they ideally fit Lynne’s production style.

The Sum of Its Parts

Into the Great Wide Open, on the other hand, sometimes feels lost between approaches. The simpler lyrics mostly remain, but Petty tries to expand the arrangements in order to make the band feel more integral. It leads to moments like the title track, which meanders rather than surges, or “All or Nothin’,” where some of the bluesier edges are a bit too smoothed-over.

That said, there are moments of undeniable brilliance when everything comes together. Lead track “Learning to Fly” shimmers, as Lynne’s gloss is the ideal compliment to the rhythmic churn of the band. And then there’s “All the Wrong Reasons,” one of the great underrated tracks in the Petty catalog. Mike Campbell’s bouzouki licks lend the song the air of myth, but Petty’s lyrics tell a very modern tale of a family torn asunder by financial pressures.

Petty would only do one more album with Lynne (Highway Companion in 2006), and, like Full Moon Fever, it would be mostly sans Heartbreakers (save Campbell once again). Into the Great Wide Open thus stands as a bit of an outlier, trapped between a Petty/Lynne combo effort and a Heartbreakers’ joint. It might not be more than the sum of its parts, but it’s never less than intriguing as clashing style sometimes coexist beautifully, and sometimes struggle against one another in a battle for the soul of Petty’s songs.

When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images

Leave a Reply

3 Eternal Alternative Rock Songs from the 1990s that Have Stood the Test of Time

Paul McCartney performing

Ranking the 5 Best James Bond Theme Songs