How Tom Petty served up Don Henley's "best song” (2024)

How Tom Petty served up Don Henley's "best song” (1)

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The Eagles are the biggest oddity in pop culture history. This is evidenced perfectly by the fact that they’re not even called The Eagles, they drop the definite article. In some ways, you could interpret that as a show of humility. Conversely, while the band might not have been showy or fame-hungry, if you were to ask Don Felder, he’d tell you the group had more interpersonal ego than a modern Manchester United squad.

Yes, for every Yin in the band, there is a Yang. They were one of the few rock giants who could rival the commercial triumph of The Beatles, and yet at the time, they were relative unknowns. So, when they inevitably split in 1980, after a decade of dominance, Don Henley had a strange predicament on his hands. He was only 33, so retirement was off the cards. However, being around any of the bandmates he used to call buddies was entirely untenable. The only evident option was to pursue a solo career. However, with great irony, given the monumental success he had achieved, nobody knew who he was.

“The trouble was that, after years of keeping our names out of the newspapers and our faces off Eagles album covers in favour of the artist Boyd Elder’s incredible decorative cattle skulls, no one really knew who Don Henley and Glenn Frey were — or any of us, for that matter,” Eagles guitarist Don Felder explained in his 2007 memoir Heaven and Hell. “For years, we’d been able to walk around L.A., into restaurants, clubs and theatres, and melt anonymously into the crowd. It is one of the great bonuses of being an Eagle. No one knows what we looked like.”

The problem was that Henley and his soft-featured face, which had barely been seen, carried none of the clouts that he needed to propel himself through the singles chart as a solo act. So, his new career got off to a faltering start. Sure, ‘Dirty Laundry’ hit an impressive third place in the Billboard rankings, but the other singles, ‘I Can’t Stand Still’ and ‘Johnny Can’t Read’, hit 48 and 42 respectively. This is hardly the success he had been used to when he was hidden behind a well-known cattle skull and a band name that represented something profound.

Moreover, the times had changed around him by the time he looked to follow-up his debut solo effort with Building the Perfect Beast in 1984. The drama of The Beatles break-up, the failure of the counterculture movement to achieve actualised change, and the manic hubbub of everything else going on in the 1960s meant that when the ’70s came around, many people were simply hungry for good, simple, no-thrills music. The Eagles provided that in spades, soaring to the top like soap sales in the aftermath of a pandemic. But almost 15 years later, a technical revolution was kicking off and people were pining for the futuristic synth sound. This was a world away from what Henley had known as a musician.

Thankfully, owing to what had come before, he was very well thought of as a songwriter among his peers. One of those was Tom Petty and his pals in The Heartbreakers, and they too were busy experimenting with what all this new music tech had to offer. One day, guitarist Mike Campbell was fooling around on the fancy new Linn LM -1 drum machine that had launched Michael Jackson’s Thriller into the stratosphere and kickstarted a new era of music. While experimenting with the layering of samples that this new musical Tardis offered, he wound up fashioning the demo that would become ‘The Boys Of Summer’.

Tom Petty, a bandleader who still clung to the old Elvis Presley essence of rock ‘n’ roll, was largely unimpressed when Campbell played him the demo. Producer Jimmy Iovine wasn’t all that moved by it either. The problem wasn’t purely due to the tech deployed either. While Campbell’s melody was much the same as the hit we now know, for the chorus, he had assembled minor chords, creating a downward trajectory. ”It sounds like jazz,” Iovine would quip as the band jammed it out. So, like countless unrealised masterpieces before it, millions of anthems five minutes away from perfection, it was cast to the ash heap of history.

Alas, fate, for once, would intervene. It just so happened that Campbell had a bit more time on his hands that day than usual, so when the others left the studio, he played around with the demo a bit further, convinced there was a great song in there somewhere. As it happens, Iovine was also seemingly struck on his drive home that if the jazz could be ditched then Campbell was onto something, so he rang the guitarist and told him to contact Henley – a man firmly in need of a hit, and more than happy to an embellish a kernel of an idea, as had often been the songwriting process in The Eagles.

Now, the shy and retiring Campbell had another problem. He was tasked with going around the Don Henley’s house, a name revered in music circles if not by the wider public just yet, to play him a quivering demo, a mere few major chords away from what had been panned by Petty earlier. Henley listened silently as Campbell observed his ominous, resting passport face. The conclusion was quiet consideration, at best.

”I just wrote the best song of my life to your music,” were the eternal words that came blaring out of Campbell’s phone a few days later. Henley had cracked the elusive topline vocal melody. ‘The Boys Of Summer’ was born; a perfectly trite title for 1984. The song soon became inescapable upon release. But more importantly for Henley, it had been written on a Linn LM -1 drum machine, an era and a revolution apart from the sort of traditional instrumentation that The Eagles had favoured. Thusly, not only was it popular enough to pronounce Henley as a figure at the forefront of culture rather than an unknown face behind a drumkit, it also made it clear that his solo career was no legacy act. He even started to notice punks in his audiences.

As for Petty, he later turned to Campbell on an awkward drive where every radio station in reach seemed to be playing the track as the guitarist scrambled with the dial, and uttered, “Boy, you know, you were really lucky with that. I wish I would have had the presence of mind to not let that get away.” In truth, Henley had almost left his big solo break off the hook too, but a hint of desperation forced him to fish further into the ether from whence unmistakable melodies like this come to lasso the beautifully catchy topline.

The poetic coda of the whole story is everything that Henley threw into the song itself. Waiting on a hit, he was presented with a melody very much of its time, and he ladled into it a timeless tale about how hippy Deadheads were now driving expensive and conservative Caddilacs. As Henley later said, the song was about how “the Woodstock generation” was over, and he was entering a new one with this hit.

He achieved this by serving up the tale of an older man getting to grips with a relationship with a younger woman – an allegory of sorts about Henley himself getting back on the dating scene with a differing music scene following the divorce of The Eagles – and reconciling the changes, while maintaining that people still love good, simple, no-thrills music.

Related Topics

Don HenleyJimmy IovineMike CampbellThe EaglesTom Petty

How Tom Petty served up Don Henley's "best song” (2024)
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