How Tom Petty Went Sci-Fi and Changed MTV with “You Got Lucky”

While Tom Petty leaves a legendary rock catalog, he also made a sci-fi statement with his 1982 “You Got Lucky” music video.

The passing of rock icon Tom Petty on October 2 deprived the music world of a legendary superstar. Yet, it also left a topically pertinent aspect for the world of geekdom to remember.

Barring Petty’s array of decades-spanning smash hits, both with the Heartbreakers and as a solo artist, he can (and should) be credited as a pioneer who helped facilitate the media synthesis between music and movies, due to his groundbreaking music videos. The most notable example of this was his 1982 music video for “You Got Lucky,” a mini-movie masterpiece that not only elevated Petty’s status amongst mainstream audiences, but became an important addition to the music video lineup of the nascent MTV Music Television cable platform that would come to shape the zeitgeist for years.

“You Got Lucky” was released on October 22, 1982 as the debut single for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Long After Dark album. While the glowing grandiosity of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video, which kicked off the music industry domination of his Thriller album, was mere months away, Tom Petty had ambitious video designs of his own with “You Got Lucky,” a defiant breakup anthem that – atypical for Petty – is dominated by flashy ’80s synthesizer beats. Tapping repertory music video director Jim Lenahan (who also helmed Petty’s hit videos such as “The Waiting” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream”), Petty drew heavy inspiration for its aesthetics from the apocalyptic sci-fi of the Mad Max movies, specifically the then-recent 1981 sequel The Road Warrior.

As Petty explained in an excerpt from the 2011 book, I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Craig Marks:

“We wrote the treatment ourselves and borrowed a ton from Mad Max, something we shared with many videos of that era. That was when we really saw MTV change our daily lives. Not only were teenagers spotting me on the street, older people would spot me, too. We knew it was big.”

The video depicts Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as wayward wanderers dressed in quasi-Western clothing, set in a post-apocalyptic Mad Max-style desert wasteland. Yet, it wastes no time brandishing its sci-fi trope hybrid nature, showing Petty’s group arriving on camera on motorcycles and, notably, a hovercar borrowed from the 1977-1978 single-season TV series adaptation of the 1976 sci-fi hit film, Logan’s Run. After unwrapping a boom box found on the sandy ground, Petty pushes play, commencing the start of “You Got Lucky.”

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Their destination is then revealed as a black weather-worn carnival tent, which they enter, only to find a hub of cobweb-covered 1980s geeky goodness. Upon hitting the power switch inside, they are bombarded by plastic-protected media stimuli. Besides rolling studio recording equipment, there are early-1980s arcade cabinets showing era-appropriate quarter-thieves.

Also seen are rows of stacked television monitors, with one turned on to display a clip from the Battlestar Galactica single-season, modern-Earth-set spinoff series, Galactica 1980 (the episode, “Galactica Discovers Earth, Part I,”) and others showing Petty’s 1980 music video for “Here Come My Girl” and 1981’s “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me),” both of which Lenahan also directed. It’s all complemented by another montage of pop culture imagery, from various black-and-white movies, to an image of Chuck Berry.

The group – presumably new to these pre-apocalyptic activities – seem to be having a good time goofing around with the arcade games and slot machines, when a hollow body Gretsch 6120 catches the eye of lead guitarist Mike Campbell, who subsequently picks it up to perform the song’s bridging guitar solo. However, Tom, fixated on the Astro Invader arcade machine and seemingly contemplating whether or not to play the token he’s just been handed, comes to an epiphany of some kind that snaps him back into his apocalyptic reality. This incites him to – in true rock and roll style – defiantly throw the machine on its side, before showcasing a legitimately impressive spin-happy display of pistol-holstering, before he and the group make their exit and – perhaps in rejection of “our” superficial “modern” distractions – leave the boom box behind, still playing out the song.

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By December 11, 1982, “You Got Lucky” managed to mark three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Chart for Mainstream Rock Songs, an achievement only matched at the time by Foreigner, who were in their prime as a hit factory. However, the “You Got Lucky” music video was especially a boon to the burgeoning MTV, on which it found a frequent place in its regular daily video rotation and significantly raised the creative bar for other artists in the crucial years to come. In the aforementioned I Want My MTV book excerpt, Petty recounted a phone call he received from Michael Jackson – who was on the verge of revolutionizing music videos, himself – telling him that the Mad Max theme was “an incredible idea.”

Indeed, the “You Got Lucky” music video proved to be a geeky gestalt, making a greater, longer-lasting cultural impact than the catchy atmospheric tune to which it was set. It wasn’t just because of its groundbreaking, sci-fi/noir visual sensibilities, but because, over the years, it would prove to be a snapshot of sci-fi-centric 1980s pop culture, much like the post-apocalyptic media tent in which it took place. In an ironic sense, the video’s themes – seemingly intended as contemporaneous satire – ended up becoming a time capsule for the sci-fi shows and video games it showed in a way that it may not have intended. Plus, the post-apocalyptic Mad Max theme would be revisited in the music video realm, notably in 1995, with 2Pac’s “California Love” music video, which went that same arid route, albeit in a rowdier, “knows how to party” manner.

Regardless, the loss of Tom Petty leaves us with several ways to honor the rock legend and video pioneer. Indeed, “You Got Lucky” would hardly be the last time that Petty would prove himself as an innovator of music videos, notably breaking even more ground with The Heartbreakers’ 1985 Alice in Wonderland-inspired “Don’t Come Around Here No More” video. However, Petty’s stupendous sci-fi moment with “You Got Lucky” deserves its own spotlight in the annals of legend.

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