"It's all in the songs," says Tom Petty. "If you've got the songs, it's all very simple. With Full Moon Fever, I was lucky in that the songs just kept coming up, and I hit a good period of writing that carried through the Traveling Wilburys."
Full Moon Fever, Petty's first album without the Heartbreakers, fell together almost by accident early in 1988 when he and new acquaintance Jeff Lynne wrote and cut a few songs together at guitarist Mike Campbell's garage studio. The result was an album of pop nuggets with a bright, Sixties-style sheen.
"I've always loved the British rock and pop of the Sixties, and Jeff feels the same way," Petty says. "Within the Heartbreakers, I represent some portion of that sound, but they have so many other influences. If you take me away from them, this is what you get." The only Heartbreaker involved to any significant degree was Campbell, who coengineered, coproduced and played guitars and keyboards.
Full Moon Fever was truly a garage record. "We actually had to pull the cars out at the start of the day," Petty says, laughing. The sessions were relaxed and unhurried, and Petty credits Lynne, the former leader of ELO, for the upbeat atmosphere. "Jeff just loves to be in the studio," he says. "It's like Disneyland to him: 'All right, we're making a record! Boy, what fun!' And it rubbed off on me and Mike."
The sessions also led to the Traveling Wilburys, the impromptu supergroup whose knockoff album was a sensation in 1988. Roy Orbison began hanging around the studio, and George Harrison showed up to play acoustic guitar on "I Won't Back Down." The idea of four musicians — Petty, Campbell, Lynne and Harrison — strumming around a mike worked so well it was adapted by the Wilburys.
Petty and Lynne worked up nine songs and then stopped to make the Wilburys record. Afterward, Petty cut three more tracks to round out Full Moon Fever, including a "shamelessly faithful" cover of the Byrds' "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better."
In his lyrics, Petty strove to say more in fewer words, citing Randy Newman's influence. "I'd sung a couple of tracks on his last album, and I was so impressed by his material it made me want to quit the business," Petty says. "He can say so much with a simple line. I just kept thinking I wanted to keep the lyrics real simple, as if it were a conversation."
Some songs were personal, others journalistic. "Zombie 'Zoo," for instance, was written about a punk club in L.A. following a conversation in a diner with some musicians who played there. "I wrote it as if I were Jed Clampett going to the Zombie Zoo," Petty says. "It wasn't meant as a put-down; it was done for comedy's sake." And it caught the spirit of play that marked the sessions. "We did Full Moon Fever for the sheer fun of it," Petty says. "We never sweated it. It was the most enjoyable record I've ever worked on."