The making of Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever: "George Harrison went to the store and bought a ginger root, boiled it and had me stick my head in the pot to get the ginger steam to open up my sinuses. Then I ran in and did the take"

Tom Petty Full Moon Fever
(Image credit: Tom Petty )

There’s nothing quite like placing a song with a film, TV series, video game or advertisement to give it a completely new lease of life, years or decades after it was released. Synchronisation, or syncing as it’s better known, is the holy grail for artists and their labels, an opportunity to licence a song in a whole new context to a whole new audience and marketplace.

Such is the case with Tom Petty’s Love Is A Long Road from his 1989 debut solo album Full Moon Fever. On 4 December 2023, Rockstar Games officially launched the first Grand Theft Auto VI trailer and the track they used to give the action-adventure game its Florida vibes is Petty’s breezy, sun-kissed Love Is A Long Road. Within the first week, the trailer racked up more than 128 million views. The song meanwhile has also seen a huge leap in streams. Spotify reported that in the week following the trailer’s release, streams for the track increased by 36,979%.

This is not the first time that one of Petty’s songs has appeared in the Grand Theft Auto universe. Runnin’ Down a Dream, another Full Moon Fever track, was used in the 2004 sequel to Vice City, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. 

Petty and his debut album are an indelible fit for the GTA universe. Florida is a direct inspiration for GTA and Petty is its very own home state hero. The anticipation around GTAVI will doubtless fuel interest in Petty, who died in 2017. It will also prompt a whole new generation of fans to tap into Full Moon Fever’s widescreen sonic charms. 

Most musicians have lightning-bolt moments that inspire them to follow music as a career. For Thomas Earl Petty, born and raised in Gainsville, Florida, the first of these came in 1961 when as a 10-year-old he met Elvis Presley. Petty’s uncle was working on the set of Presley’s film Follow That Dream and invited his nephew along. 

“Elvis got out of a long white Cadillac and walked across the street,” recalled Petty. “It was the most f*****g awesome thing I've ever seen. Elvis didn't look like the people I'd known. He had a real glow around him, like a full-body halo. He looked like a god to me.”

The second lightning bolt arrived at 8pm on 9 February 1964, when the Beatles made their US television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. “I really saw in The Beatles that here’s something I can do,” recalled Petty. 

And he did. Fuelled by The Beatles and then The Stones and The Byrds, Petty’s talent and drive would lead to him forming Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, whose 1976 debut album American Girl owed much to the Rickenbacker jangle of Roger McGuinn and the songwriting of Lennon, McCartney and Dylan. 

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers fused a tough, lean sound with the melodicism of the British invasion bands. But it wasn’t until they teamed up with producer Jimmy Iovine for the 1979 album Damn The Torpedoes that they unleashed their full potential with an album that Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic called “one of the greatest records of the album rock era”. 

One decade later, on Thanksgiving Day 1987, a chance encounter at a red traffic light in Los Angeles would spark the beginnings of Full Moon Fever, Petty’s first solo album and his first to match the calibre of Damn The Torpedoes. Petty was in his black Corvette Stingray, en route to buy a baseball mitt at a Thrifty store, when he pulled up at a red light and spotted Jeff Lynne of ELO in an adjacent car. Petty motioned for Lynne to pull over.

Lynne was in Los Angeles to produce Brian Wilson’s new album and a month later began stopping by Petty’s house to co-write some new material. For Petty, it was a welcome respite from what had been a troubling year. In May, there was an arson attack on his home, which destroyed the property and left him shaken and paranoid.

We finished that song the first day and the next day we wrote Free Fallin’


“I had just met Jeff a few weeks earlier in London and I waved for him to pull over,” Petty told Michael Corcoran of Spin magazine. “It turned out that he was living not far up the road from me so we exchanged numbers. He started coming over. The first day I played a song for him that I had written called Yer So Bad. He said he liked it, but how about if I tried a B minor here, and it instantly improved the song. We finished that song the first day and the next day we wrote Free Fallin’.”

Petty called Heartbreakers’ percussionist Phil Jones to play on demos of the new songs and then he, Lynne and Jones recorded the new tracks in the garage studio of Heartbreakers’ guitarist Mike Campbell. 

“When I heard them,” said Petty, “I thought, ‘Hey, these sound like a record. Hmmm. Why not release them as a solo album?’ And that was that.”

The relaxed atmosphere of Campbell’s garage studio had a huge influence on the recording of the album. Petty later said it was the most enjoyable record of his career to make. At one point Petty even considered calling the album Songs From The Garage. 

The recording took place in 1988, with a break in the middle to accommodate the recording of the debut album by The Travelling Wilburys, the impromptu band consisting of George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne and Petty.

The sessions for Full Moon Fever sessions were low-key, with many of Petty’s friends contributing, including fellow Wilburys George Harrison and Roy Orbison. “I didn't want to call all my friends and have a list of famous names. I just wanted a nice little group," Petty told Spin. "I did get George Harrison to play on one song and Roy does some background vocals on Zombie Zoo."

As well as co-writing many of the songs with Petty, Lynne was producer on the album and his crisp, clean production, with its layers of shimmering backing vocals, acoustic guitars and keyboards, brought a Beatlesque dimension to Petty’s brand of roots-rock. 

Across the album, Petty delves into his past to explore his musical influences. On the compelling 4/4 gallop of Runnin’ Down A Dream, which powers along at 170 bpm,  Petty namechecks Del Shannon, best known for his 1961 hit Runaway. “It was a beautiful day, the sun beat down / I had the radio on, I was drivin' / Trees flew by, me and Del were singin' little Runaway / I was flyin.”

It’s a soaring, uplifting track, elevated by Mike Campbell’s dynamic descending riff on the bottom ‘E’ string, which he played on a ‘62 Les Paul SG Junior, the guitar also used for his searing solo, which outros the song.

In the months leading up to the recording of Full Moon Fever, Petty spent much time driving around Los Angeles looking for a new home, through the canyons and the Hollywood hills. In some ways, the album feels like a travelogue, with the city and its landscape unfolding for the listener along the way. 

Nowhere is this more noticeable than on the album’s opening track Free Fallin, a simple, heartfelt track, with big, lush wide-panned acoustic guitars and a high-in-the-mix shaker helping to power the whole thing along. Lyrically, it sounds like Petty is stepping out of his life, reflecting back to purer times with a clutch of evocative lines that hark back to his youth. “She's a good girl, loves her mama / Loves Jesus and America too / She's a good girl, is crazy 'bout Elvis / Loves horses and her boyfriend too”

As the track unfolds, the listener is treated to visual references that glide by. “And all the vampires walkin' through the valley / Move west down Ventura Boulevard”.

Free Fallin’ is arguably Petty’s greatest song, a mid-tempo coming-of-age ballad which is simple, unaffected and instinctive. There’s raw grit and emotion in his voice as he stretches his range on the chorus. 

Nostalgia is a recurrent theme. A Bo Diddley rhythm pervades A Mind With A Heart Of Its Own. The Apartment Song features an instrumental section with paradiddle drumming that is reminiscent of Buddy Holly’s Peggy Sue. Petty also nailed his colours to the mast with Feel A Whole Lot Better, a cover of The Byrds’ Gene Clark-penned 1965 hit I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better. It’s a lean, faithful rendition with Petty and Lynne unleashing McGuinn-style jangle and soaring harmonies.

I was really into that frame of mind. This feels like a motorcycle shifting gears

Love Is A Long Road, the track used on the GTA 6 trailer, was co-written by Petty and Mike Campbell, and is a gritty out-and-out rocker with a soaring, wide-open chorus. Campbell told Rolling Stone magazine that the song was inspired by a motorbike he owned. "I was really into that frame of mind. This feels like a motorcycle shifting gears.” 

Another of the album’s highlights is I Won’t Back Down, which was released as the lead single from the album in April 1989. As the title suggests, the track conveys a message of defiance. “Well I know what's right / I got just one life in a world that keeps on pushin' me around / But I'll stand my ground, and I won't back down”. 

George Harrison provided acoustic guitar and backing vocals on the track and Jeff Lynne was on bass, synths and backing vocals. In an interview with Mojo magazine, Petty recalled the recording of this track. "At the session, George Harrison sang and played the guitar. I had a terrible cold that day, and George went to the store and bought a ginger root, boiled it and had me stick my head in the pot to get the ginger steam to open up my sinuses, and then I ran in and did the take."

MCA head Irving Azoff refused to release it, allegedly saying that he could not hear any hits on the album

Full Moon Fever was released on 24 April 1989 and much later than planned. MCA head Irving Azoff refused to release it, allegedly saying that he could not hear any hits on the album. This left Petty stunned, dejected and in limbo. Harrison and Lynne quickly assured him there was nothing wrong with the album and at a dinner party, the two even broke out the guitars and began singing Free Fallin’. This impromptu performance was the catalyst for The Travelling Wilburys. 

Three months later, Azoff left MCA and new management took over. They gave Full Moon Fever a fresh listen and deemed it an outstanding record. On release, the album climbed to No. 3 in the Billboard charts and yielded five singles, I Won’t Back Down, Runnin’ Down A Dream, Free Fallin’, A Face In The Crowd, Yer So Bad, with combined sales of five million. The album was a top-ten hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

Critics heaped praise on the album. In a retrospective review, Pitchfork noted how the laidback sound maintained “the tension of heartland rock and roll”. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic awarded the album four and a half out of five stars. “Full Moon Fever didn't have a weak track,” he concluded, “the album was filled with highlights. Full Moon Fever might have been meant as an off-the-cuff detour, but it turned into a minor masterpiece”.