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January 2003 Pick of the Month

The Last DJ
Artist: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Label: Warner Bros.
Length: 12 tracks / 48:06 min

Remember the days when radio DJs actually had personalities and played the songs they wanted to?  Remember?  Before the corporate giants forced them out and used their own research to program the entire song selection?  Tom Petty does. The Last DJ thrusts him and his Heartbreakers into the land of lyrical relevance.  Enough songs on this album bash the fat-cat executives of the music industry that this could qualify as a concept album—the “loose concept” according to Petty.

The title track leads off Petty’s lament:

There goes the last DJ
Who plays what he wants to play
Who says what he wants to say
Hey, hey, hey
Petty’s hero, the last DJ who is a real “human voice,” ends up losing his job and moving down to a small radio station in Mexico that you can still find every now and then through the static.

Next is “Money Becomes King,” a story-song, reminiscent of “Into the Great Wide Open.”  Petty uses this track to tell the tale of Johnny, an artist who played for the love of the music, then eventually sold out to the industry.  But the effects of the sell-out go beyond the artist and even dull the souls of his fans:

There was no use in pretending
No magic left to hear
All the music gave me
Was a craving for light beer
A couple of tracks later, Petty lets out all his angst.  He explains in the DVD interview that the industry is no longer interested in ongoing acts.  They use a band for an album, then immediately drop them for the newest thing without waiting to see if the band can make a second successful album.  The song that best illustrates this view is “Joe”:
Or bring me a girl
They’re always the best
You put ‘em on stage
And you have ‘em undress
Some angel whore
Who can learn a guitar lick
Hey, that’s what I call music
“Joe” is also one of the strongest musical tracks on this disc.  It’s slow, heavy, and angry.  The Last DJ is a departure from the fast-rockin’ Echo and probably any of Petty’s work since Southern Accents.  She’s the One was about this slow, but not as heavy.

The title-track is the only one that really screams fast-rockin’ Petty.  “Lost Children” is the most ironic track on the album.  It’s a prayer for all the children who have been kidnapped or otherwise gone missing.  But it’s set to a riff-based blues that sounds like a giddy Jethro Tull.  Great music, but it doesn’t really set the mood for its lyrics.

The last half of the album has the typical love and rock ‘n’ roll lyrical themes albeit set to a slower pace than Petty has given us in most of his recent work.  But there’s not much memorable on this side.  That is made up, however, by The Last DJ Sessions bonus DVD (included in specially marked packages).  This DVD includes interviews with the band, explanations of the songs, and video clips from most of the studio recordings from The Last DJ.

While The Last DJ doesn’t rock nearly as hard as Echo, its explosion of provocative lyrical content deserves to leave a mark on the music scene.  But will the DJs play it?

Dan Singleton  11/2/2002

What is it with the 50-somethings? In the past 12 months we have had great albums with some serious depth from Springsteen, Waits, Browne, and Earle (okay he's nearly 50!) are now Harrison and Petty have added their names to the list. That Harrison’s rotated the soul like a plough would be no surprise but Petty’s soap box prophecies come with the freshness of pleasant surprise and the music though hardly a reinvention bristles with a sharpness that makes marks on the audio senses.

To name check Harrison in the same breath is actually very fitting. The opening track on The Last DJ could sit alongside Harrison’s Brainwashed counterpart "Any Road" on a Travelling Wilbury’s Volume 6 if we’d been blessed with such a product. There is the energy of that acoustic Byrdsian sound and Petty’s languishing and lazy drawl being to the south what Dylan was to the north and Harrison was to England. To think they were all in one band. The playing throughout is the Heartbreakers at the very peak of performance with their most varied and sturdy collection of songs for a considerable time. Campbell’s guitar is sheer beauty on vinyl (or whatever that substance is CDs are printed on!) and Tench’s piano is further forward than ever and lifts the entire thing. Another nod to his Beatles mate George is the ukulele’s presence; a revival perhaps!

Petty is sounding caustic ("The Last DJ," "Money Becomes King," and J"oe"), sarcastic ("The Man Who loves Women"), sympathetic ("When A Kid Goes Bad"), humorous (throughout!!!! and lovingly tender ("Like a Diamond"). What seems to have sharpened Petty’s tongue and pen is the coup d’état that has had the businessmen taking over from the artists in the recording studios, radio stations and concert venues. Petty is shooting off against the marketing out of freedom on radio playlists making DJs robots for the men selling advertising, the dollar becoming the bottom line on all matters of artistic decision making and lashes out at the Record Company executives who exploit the good looking teens to con the public into making him not the exploited teens rich! It is all heavy stuff and fair play to Warner to release it. Of course there are songs of love, prayers for the children of a beat up world, the trouble with philanderers and the sadness for parents when their children become the next villain of some High School shooting. 

Of course the ills of the music industry are not confined. This is a look at a world where men and women in suits sit around tables and decide how they can make themselves wealthy by conning the rest of us into buying products we do not really need at horrendously expensive prices. There is no longer an interest in the needs of the customer; it is all about the needs of the seller. They have made shopping the opium of the people, shopping meals the place of our worship and sadly shallow meaning. Petty concludes with a warning that we all might hope comes true:

Hey mister business man 
Be sure to wash your hands
Be careful where you stand
We won’t give in
Who’ll rise again
Can’t stop a man from dreaming 
On and on and on
And we are back to Harrison who claims we have been brainwashed by the spirit of the age, the material world. Petty doesn’t cite God as any answer like Harrison does but he reveals the disease that is being passed on to us all. And he reveals it in another classic album form one of our classic acts. Now where are the young prophets? 
Steve Stockman   12/2/2002
Steve Stockman is the Presbyterian Chaplain at Queens University, Belfast, Ireland, where he lives in community with 88 students. He has just finished a book on U2 - Walk On; The Spiritual Journey of U2, is the poetic half of Stevenson and Samuel who have just released their debut album Gracenotes and he has a weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster. He has his own web page - Rhythms of Redemption at He also tries to spend some time with his wife Janice and daughters Caitlin and Jasmine. 



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