Making Some Noise

With the Dirty Knobs, former Heartbreaker Mike Campbell is still running down a dream.

Mike Campbell is unsure, but he thinks he’s calling from Long Island, New York. “I had to think about it for a second,” laughs the former lead guitarist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, now the hard-touring leader of his own band, the Dirty Knobs.

The momentary confusion is understandable. After years of being arguably the best second banana in rock — backing up the late Tom Petty for more than fifty years — the 72-year-old Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee has been out on the road most of this year reinventing himself as a front man and lead singer.

“I’m not Caruso, but I can get the point across,” says Campbell, ranked #79 on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 greatest guitarists. “I had to get used to being in front of the band, but I think I’ve found my own voice. I really made a focused effort not to sound like a Tom clone. In the beginning, maybe I did sound like him, but I’ve taken time to filter that out.”

The Dirty Knobs, he says, is a different kind of band than the Heartbreakers; the lineup includes guitarist Chris Holt [this has been updated], bassist Lance Morrison, and drummer Matt Laug. “We’re a little more amped up, the guitars are turned up a little bit more, and the pattern of influences are all in the ’60s: The Animals, the Kinks, the Beatles, the Stones, the Hollies, the Beach Boys, and, absolutely, the Byrds, one of my biggest influences.”

Campbell grew up in and around Jacksonville,Florida, where he became obsessed with playing the guitar before he could afford to own one. He was attending college in Gainesville when he met a scrappy blonde kid who convinced him to drop out of school and join Mudcrutch, his band. “Once I met Tom our paths were entwined,” he recalls. “We just ran down the same dream.”

On stage, Tom Petty, who died in 2017 after an accidental prescription drug overdose, would often recount to audiences the story of how he met Campbell: “I heard this dude play Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B. Goode’ on a $1 Japanese guitar [sometimes it would be a 25 cent guitar] and I said, ‘I don’t know who you are, but I want you to be in my band forever.'”

Songwriting with Tom Petty

The young Petty, Campbell says, was “a lot like me, but more confident, more animated. He was outgoing and had that Southern charm. And he was obsessed with music in the same way that I was. All we did was play guitars, write songs and listen to records.” From the very beginning, the two clicked as collaborators, settling into a familiar routine that served them well for decades on notable songwriting co-writes such as “Refugee,” “Here Comes My Girl,” “You Got Lucky” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” (In all, Campbell wrote or co-wrote 36 songs in the Heartbreakers catalog)

“I would work on some music and show it to him. If he liked it, he would put some words and melody over it. We never sat eyeball to eyeball and pulled one out of the air, like Lennon and McCartney. That was not our rhythm. I would usually submit music to him, and he would sing over my musical demo. That’s how it worked for us.”

It was the same process Campbell used to collaborate with Don Henley on the ’80’s smash, “The Boys of Summer.”

“I had a song, the music, for ‘The Boys of Summer’ and I showed it to Tom and [producer]Jimmy Iovine. It didn’t fit the album we were working on at the time. ‘Southern Accents,’ but Jimmy called me a few days later and said, ‘Don Henley is looking for music.’ I asked if he wanted a ballad or a rock ‘n’ roll song? He said, ‘Don wants an image maker.'”

At the time, Campbell recalls, “Boys of Summer” was just another tune. “You never say, this is going to be an iconic song of the ’80s. You never know that. Hit songs are mysterious. It’s all in the timing, and whether the audience wants to hear that type of song that year, and how it sounds at that time. All you can do is try to make a song that you like and then if other people like it, it’s a bonus.”

Campbell still seems surprised (and a little miffed) that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ eponymous 1976 debut album wasn’t a hit. It was chock full of great songs honed by years of struggle and toil. “We paid our dues, playing topless bars and whatever place would have us. We didn’t know what we were doing.” The young band opened for the likes of Bob Seger, Al Kooper and, yes, Kiss, but it was a U.K. tour at the height of punk that made the difference.

“We were opening for Nils Lofgren and we went over there and the English press really loved us,” he recalls. “To some writers, we were tied in with the Clash and Sex Pistols and the music coming out of England at the time, and there were similarities in terms of energy but musically, we were more developed. We had more chords than they did. A lot of the punk bands couldn’t really play but that was what was cool about them.”

The Heartbreakers won some industry buzz from that tour. By the time of their third album, 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes — the one with “Refugee,” “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Here Comes My Girl” — “we finally got a sound that was mainstream, with songs that were the right songs for the time. And things blew open.”

From that point, the Heartbreakers became one of the top rock bands of the era, serving up top-selling albums like Hard Promises and Long After Dark (interestingly, their highest-charting disc was their last, 2014’s Hypnotic Eye). Starting with 1986’s Southern Accents, Campbell became a co-producer of the Heartbreakers’ records, and also collaborated with Petty when the singer took a break from the band, co-producing and co-writing songs for his three solo albums.

Along the way, the man in the trademark bowler hat has managed to collaborate with many of his musical heroes, including Bob Dylan (who toured with Petty and the Heartbreakers throughout the ’80s), Johnny Cash (his father’s favorite), Roy Orbison, Roger McGuinn and George Harrison. “I sometimes think I’m the luckiest guy in the world to have worked closely with so many people I admire — and I never met a jerk in the bunch.”

Throughout his years with the Heartbreakers, Campbell also worked prolifically with other artists, from Jackson Browne to Bad Religion. But one notable outside collaboration was with Stevie Nicks. He co-wrote numerous songs for the Fleetwood Mac singer’s solo albums, including a hit duet with Petty, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.”

“She kept hanging around and saying, ‘I want to join your band.'” he recalls. “Tom kept telling her, ‘there are no girls in the Heartbreakers.’ And she’d say, ‘I don’t care. Fleetwood Mac is so mean to me, let me be in the Heartbreakers.'”

A stint with Fleetwood Mac

Even with his close relationship to Nicks, Campbell was surprised when Mick Fleetwood called and asked him to join Fleetwood Mac on their 2018-2019 tour, as a replacement for guitarist Lindsey Buckingham. It was no easy task.

“I found that it was a real challenge for me to learn Lindsey’s parts,” he says. “Lindsey is amazing and those parts have to be a certain way for the songs to work. It’s not my normal routine to copy other people’s things and I tried to bring a little of myself to it, but those songs have to be the way they are on the records, that’s what people want to hear.”

While Campbell is no longer working with Fleetwood Mac, he says that he enjoyed the experience. “They treated me very well. We went all over the world and the crowds were terrific. They allowed me to do “Oh Well” [an older Fleetwood Mac song by co-founder Peter Green] and let me sing a little bit, which gave me confidence that I took back to the Dirty Knobs. We did ‘Free Falling’ as a tribute to Tom. I thought it was a pretty good show with lots of variety.”

Campbell, who has played on albums by artists from Aretha Franklin to Jackson Browne to the Dandy Warhols, doesn’t do much session work these days, although he is collaborating with Ian Hunter on the Mott the Hoople vocalist’s forthcoming solo album (Hunter sings on the Dirty Knob’s new disc, External Combustion). Right now, the front man is concentrating on the Dirty Knobs, and touring until November. “We’re opening up for the Who at the Hollywood Bowl, which is ironic since it’s the last place I played with Tom.”

Campbell says that thoughts of his lost friend are never far from his mind, that he still grieves.

“If Tom had survived, a lot of these songs I’ve written for the Dirty Knobs would’ve been presented to him –maybe just the music– to see what he would write. But since he’s gone, it’s up to me now to try to realize the songs as best as I can, on my own.”

Mike Campbell & The Dirty Knobs will appear at the National with Alvin Youngblood Hart on Wednesday, Sept. 21. All ages. 7:30 p.m.


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