The band Tom Petty called “bigger than the Stones”

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For most musicians, respect is something they have to work hard to earn. For Tom Petty, it seemed to come naturally, even in his early days when he was driven by a passion for Elvis Presley and a dream of following in The King’s footsteps. Like many others, Petty’s life was changed forever when he saw The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. That performance lit a fire in him, setting him on a path to become one of rock’s greatest heroes. It also gave him a keen eye for spotting talent.

Petty believed he could match The Beatles’ desire for revolution and innovation, no matter how impossible it seemed. “I knew I could do it,” he once said, noting how many bands tried to follow in The Beatles’ footsteps. The Beatles showed him the way, while The Rolling Stones demonstrated the raw power of rock ‘n’ roll as a serious art form.

For Petty, the Stones represented something monumental: the power of being a pioneer. While The Beatles led the charge in many ways, the Stones gave Petty a gritty, raw blueprint to follow. “They were grittier, it was rawer,” he said in a 2014 interview on Q with Jian Ghomeshi. “They were playing blues in this really energetic kind of raw way, but it wasn’t complicated. There wasn’t a lot of complicated harmony involved. It was sort of my punk music.”

The Stones’ impact on Petty was immense, which makes his admiration for another band even more surprising. Petty once described Guns N’ Roses as surpassing his favorite rockers. “They’re bigger than the Stones ever were,” he said, thrilled after meeting Izzy Stradlin and Duff McKagan in the late 1980s.

Petty first met Stradlin and McKagan outside Norm’s Rare Guitars in Reseda. They introduced themselves as members of Guns N’ Roses, and Petty immediately respected them. The band hailed from his adopted home of Los Angeles and embodied the innovation and forward-thinking that Petty had always admired. They reinvented their music for contemporary audiences, a trait Petty deeply appreciated.

The respect was mutual, and both Petty and Guns N’ Roses enjoyed surprising their fans. At the 1989 MTV Awards, McKagan and Steve Adler accepted an award in Axl Rose’s absence. Later, Petty began a live performance of “Free Fallin’,” which had just been released on his album Full Moon Fever. After the first verse, Rose joined Petty on stage, and the crowd went wild. Although Petty later wished they had more rehearsal time, the performance was unforgettable, especially when they paid tribute to another hero, Elvis Presley.

By comparing Guns N’ Roses to legends like The Rolling Stones, Petty saw something special in the band that excited him just as much as The Stones and The Beatles had done before.

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