Classic Rock Showdown: Petty Vs. Eagles


By Ron Knecht and Geoffrey Lawrence

Recently, the beautiful Mrs. Lawrence and Geoff saw a show they'd eagerly anticipated in which two talented cover bands squared off and the crowd got to decide which of their namesake bands reigned supreme. It was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers versus The Eagles.

As two die-hard classic rock fans, Geoff and Jenna went in with their own bias. They're big fans of Pink Floyd, The Who, Styx, and many others, including the Eagles. But they fell in love to the music of Tom Petty.

Speaking with Geoff later, however, Ron argued The Eagles stand were simply one of the greatest bands of all time. Our readers know we love to debate, so here goes:

Ron notes there's a reason why the greatest selling album of the 20th Century was The Eagles' Greatest Hits Vol. 1. They captured something magical in their music that appealed to a broad range of human emotions. Awesome guitar, piano and drum licks, divine harmonies and some of the best lyrics ever written – for example, the lyrics of “Lyin’ Eyes.”

Whether you were living "Life In the Fast Lane" or just seeking that "Peaceful Easy Feeling," there was an Eagles song for every moment. Their music imbued spontaneity, romance, the adventure of youth, and the wisdom of experience. Until Ron married the sainted Kathy, "Desperado" and Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” were his theme songs.

The Eagles’ sound was quintessentially western, but attracted a wide audience.

As a band, they went through fits and trials that track the experiences many people have in their own relationships. They rose to success as a close-knit group, then endured a painful breakup, and eventually reunited to great fanfare after years of estrangement. Success in overcoming the difficulties in human relationships endears them to all of us.

Eagles members personify the idealism, struggles, ambitions, and dreams we all have in our lives and families. Don Henley is a thoughtful philanthropist. Joe Walsh overcame addiction. Timothy B. Schmit was the easy-going peacemaker. Glenn Frey was a visionary leader.

Geoff agrees, but says people underestimate what Petty and the Heartbreakers mean to rock and roll. The Eagles rode tall in the late heyday of rock when contemporaries like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, with whom they toured, were also carving their paths. But Petty and the Heartbreakers almost single-handedly kept rock alive through the late 70s and 80s when listeners started turning to disco and then pop.

Without Petty and the Heartbreakers, there might have been no bridge to 90s rock bands like Pearl Jam or the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The Eagles produced six great studio albums before breaking up and one after reunion, but Tom Petty has consistently plugged away with solid albums since 1976. Twelve were recorded with the Heartbreakers, three in a solo capacity, two with Petty's original band, Mudcrutch, and a few with the Traveling Wilburys.

Along the way, Petty racked up 10 number one singles -- twice as many as The Eagles.

Petty himself is one of the greatest song writers of all time and has written for and played with many of the greats, including his Wilburys bandmates, Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Roy Orbison.

Moreover, as a native Southerner who eventually moved west, Geoff personally identifies with the life and sound of Petty. Geoff recalls first hearing Petty's unique blend of rock and bluegrass in high school and it resonated immediately.

Later, Geoff met Jenna after moving to Las Vegas and their romance unfolded to a soundtrack of classic rock, but primarily Petty. And their mutual admiration for the man from Gainesville and his lyrics blossomed.

All well and good, says Ron, but are these two bands really in the same league? That difference in perception, though, may be partly due to a nationwide change in radio format around 1980, Ron concedes. At that time, the discretion of local DJs for music content began to be replaced by extended set play lists that favored popular older songs.

So, listeners continued to hear The Eagles through the 80s after their breakup, and newer bands had a harder time breaking into the market.

"I know," says Geoff. "Petty wrote a song about it."

Ron Knecht is Nevada State Controller. Geoffrey Lawrence is Assistant Controller.