Meet Mike Campbell, the underrated guitar genius behind all those Tom Petty hits

Even though he's been one of my fave rockers since the '70s, Tom Petty didn't offer the likes of me an interview in advance of his gig in Vancouver tonight.

But that's okay. I love the guy so much I'm not gonna hold it against him.

And one of the reasons I love him so much is because his songs have such freakin' awesome guitar bits. Every time I listen to a tune like "Refugee" or "Breakdown" or "You Got Lucky" I marvel at how every note of every guitar lick or solo seems absolutely perfect. The craftsmanship is impeccable.

So, in lieu of a new Tom Petty interview, here's a 15-year-old piece I did on Mike Campbell, the guitarist who's been Petty's right-hand man since day one. If you're going to the show tonight, remember to save some love for him, 'cause he's earned it.

 

Mike Campell is the curly-haired guitarist who has been knocking off tasty solos alongside Tom Petty for nearly three decades. In 1970, Campbell was two years out of high school and living in Gainesville, Florida, when the musical partnership that would shape his life took form.

“Tom came over to audition the drummer that was living in my house,” recalls Campbell over the phone from a sound check in Phoenix. “They needed a guitar player, and my roommate said, ‘Oh, there’s a guy in the back who can play.’ So I sat in, we played a coupla Chuck Berry songs, and he said, ‘You’re in the band too.’ ”

A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Campbell was in Gainesville to attend college, but a strong-willed Petty soon had him talked into taking a musical career path. In the early days, their first band, Mudcrutch, played Florida drive-ins and bars with the likes of southern-rock gods-to-be Lynyrd Skynyrd. “It was interesting back then,” says Campbell, “because we lived in Gainesville, and if they would come to Gainesville, they would have to open, and if we went to Jacksonville we would have to open.”

It was Skynyrd that drew first blood in the music biz with its 1973 debut, beating the newly christened Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ first album by three years.

“To me they were just another band around Florida,” says Campbell, “but thinking back on it, they always got a really good crowd response. You know, I was really happy for them when they did break through. It gave us hope.”

Although Petty and the Heartbreakers found immediate success with their first single, the slinky 1977 top-40 hit “Breakdown”, it wasn’t until Campbell came up with the music for “Refugee” and passed it on to Petty for lyrical input that the band really took off. Campbell wasn’t sure that “Refugee” would be a hit when he first established its basic chord structure, but he had an inkling.

“I knew it was good,” he notes. “We all knew it was good. It was one of the first songs I wrote, and I really liked the simplicity of it. But I still don’t know what a hit is. You can really like something and then if it becomes a hit sometimes that’s just a miracle, you know. I just wrote the music and handed it to Tom and he put the words over it, and when he did he found a way to make the chorus lift up without changing chords. I like songs that are like that.”

“Refugee” was the first single off of 1979’s triple-platinum Damn the Torpedoes, which also boasted such North American radio staples as “Don’t Do Me Like That”, “Even the Losers”, and the Campbell-composed “Here Comes My Girl”. Another Heartbreakers gem that Campbell came up with was “You Got Lucky”, a 1982 hit that became the title for a 1995 tribute album on which 12 alternative bands payed their respects to Petty. According to the booklet included with the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers boxed set, Playback, “You Got Lucky” is not one of Petty’s personal favourites and has rarely been included in the band’s set list. But now it’s back and should be one of the highlights when the band plays GM Place on Thursday (September 2).

“We don’t play it very often,” says Campbell, whose echoey guitar lends the tune a nice spaghetti-western tinge, “but this tour we’ve been playing it, and the people really like it. It’s been sounding really fresh again. It’s got a lotta heart, that song.”

One piece of music that Campbell wrote for the Heartbreakers in 1985 never made it onto one of their albums but turned out to be a huge hit for Don Henley that same year on his Building the Perfect Beast album. You may have heard it. It’s called “The Boys of Summer”.

“I write a lotta music,” Campbell says, “and I played that same piece for Tom, but we were working on the Southern Accents album, and he said, ‘You know, I really like this music, but I don’t think it fits into the flow.’ Then this producer friend called me and said Don Henley was looking for a song, so I told Tom, ‘You know, if we’re not gonna use this, maybe I’ll send it over to Don’, and he said, ‘Sure, that’s cool.’ So then Don got it and wrote some words to it. I was pretty lucky there.”

Lucky and talented, you might say. As well as cowriting such Heartbreakers faves as “Runnin’ Down a Dream” (with Petty and ELO’s Jeff Lynne), “Jammin’ Me” (with Petty and Bob Dylan), and the Stevie Nicks-Petty duet, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”, Campbell has coproduced five Heartbreakers albums and contributed countless fine guitar bits to the Tom Petty canon. His economical style—best exemplified by the slide solos on hits such as “I Won’t Back Down” and “Learning to Fly”—owes as much to George Harrison as his early boogie riffs do to Chuck Berry. As Guitar World magazine once noted: “There are only a handful of guitarists who can claim to have never wasted a note. Mike Campbell is certainly one of them.”

So does Campbell have to force himself to play fewer notes sometimes, when it might be easier just to play a bunch? “I don’t really force myself to do anything,” he relates. “It’s just the way I play; it’s the way I hear it. I just like songs. I mean, I like Jerry Garcia a lot too, as an example; I like people that play more notes or that improvise and don’t necessarily stay within the framework of the song. I appreciate that for what it is, and sometimes I like to do that. But with our band, it’s usually that the songs are more concise, and you try to complement the storyteller.”

With his 50th birthday on the horizon—“I’m 49 going on 18, though”—Campbell, nine months older than Petty, has few regrets about his nearly three decades alongside the blonde troubadour. But it hasn’t all been rosy. Original Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch got fed up and quit the band in ’94 after 18 years of service, and Campbell admits to having entertained thoughts of leaving himself.

“Every other day,” he says with a laugh. “Well, you know, it’s kinda like a marriage. Some days you’re really mad at the other person, and then if you really decide that the love is stronger than the anger, you stick it out. With this band, we love each other, and we’re still trying to make the best album we feel we haven’t quite made yet. We keep pushing for it, ya know?”

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Martin Dunphy
Good one, Newt. I regret to say I must have missed it when first published. Nothing against Petty, but I think Campbell was the better choice for an interview: a different slant on an iconic band and a lot of info we would not have known otherwise. I'll be listening for him next time I hear a Heartbreakers song.
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