Friday Song: “A Face in the Crowd”

A song from a watershed year for his music still haunts

Friday Song: “A Face in the Crowd”

For Tom Petty, the year 1990 arrived on the heels of his Grammy-winning collaboration with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne on the Traveling Wilburys debut album, as well as the release of his Grammy-nominated album Full Moon Fever, which went 5x platinum in the US and was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2019.

As Christopher McKittrick writes in his book, “Somewhere You Feel Free: Tom Petty and Los Angeles”:

In early 1990, Petty was nominated for four Grammy Awards and found himself in competition with himself when both Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 and Full Moon Fever were nominated for Album of the Year. Don Henley’s The End of the Innocence, featuring the contributions from [Mike] Campbell and [Stan] Lynch, was also nominated. The eventual winner, though, was Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time, which featured future Heartbreaker Scott Thurston on keyboards.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers were everywhere you looked.

“A Face in the Crowd” — written in Em with a tempo of 106 bpm — was the fourth single release from Full Moon Fever. The other three — “I Won’t Back Down,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” and “Free Fallin’” — have become classics. “A Face in the Crowd” remains more of a niche song. However, it has been covered multiple times, with the most recent coming from Spoon in March 2021.

The steady beat and the atmospherics of the guitars and keys create a haunting feeling for a song about falling in love with someone who used to be just “a face in the crowd” — and possibly others you might have found if things had happened just a hair differently. Mike Campbell is a wizard with a slide.

The rapturous welcome and final standing ovation the band received in the clip below from a David Letterman anniversary special in 1990 tells you all you need to know about the heights Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers had achieved. And they would go higher still, with songs like “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “Learning to Fly,” and “Into the Great Wide Open” — and albums like Wildflowers and Hypnotic Eye — still to come.