Three years ago I saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in concert. My first and only time. Something inside told me not to miss this concert, which was near the end of his tour. Within months he was gone.
The first song I ever heard from him was “Breakdown,” labeled at the time as some sort of new wave or punk-like, new rock and roll iteration. That’s laughable now. Tom Petty was as classic rock as you could get. He was even part of the Traveling Wilburys, how classic rock can you get!
Petty released Damn the Torpedoes in 1979, their third album, and it became a monster hit. Funny, by 1979, even the Clash were not punk rock anymore. Labels are for radio programmers and the teenagers who used to have to know which bin to file the record albums in the store.
Their previous album, You’re Gonna Get It!, brimmed with energy and was a top 20 Billboard hit, with a couple of charting singles. The album was a step up from their debut, but seemed to miss something. “I Need to Know” and “Listen to Her Heart” were good songs but failed to crack the top forty.
This was the first album under a new deal with MCA Records, and with the deal came a new producer, Jimmy Iovine. Before Iovine became a music label owner and billionaire, he was a very hip music engineer/producer of Dire Straits, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Nicks, U2, John Lennon, Meat Loaf and others. The intersection of Petty and Iovine were to make history.
The backstory was that when his old record label was sold to MCA, Petty refused to go along. He held out and filed for bankruptcy. He ended up signing a new contract that gave me greater creative power, the return of his publishing, and his own label. It is hard of think of a greater artist victory over a corporation than Tom Petty versus MCA.
Damn the Torpedo, released in 1979, would become a fixture on Rolling Stone top 500 albums of all time list. It would make it to number two on Billboard chart and be a multi-platinum seller, and define the Tom Petty sound going forward.
So, what was different in Damn the Torpedoes from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers first two albums? The band’s musical style was roughly the same. The songwriting style was roughly the same, although the songs were better. Did the move to a larger record label and hip producer change their game? Partially. Iovine deserves credit for refining their sound and his ability to highlight their strengths better in the final mix.
From the album cover, you get the first clues. The name on the album was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, but the photo was just Petty. The focus was narrowed and directed. Two things. Petty is cocking his head, you get the attitude. Not just swagger, but confidence. Second, the guitar. On this album, the guitar sound was refined and brought forward. The ringing, Byrds-like guitar sound was clear and crisp. Although their sound had muscle, it had linage, all the way back to the Byrds and George Harrison of the Beatles. The guitar sound, it had that classic 1960s sound. Don’t get me wrong, Petty and lead guitar player Mike Campbell were not copping the sound, they were channeling it through their music.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers did what Bruce Springsteen had successfully done, taken a classic sound and make it his own. From the opening track, “Refugee” you hear the smart, efficient guitar work. If you did not know this album was from the late 1970s, you would not really be able to pinpoint it on a timeline. The production is clean and not dated, it is the energy and strength of the playing that are timeless.
In hindsight, their second album had not been a noticeable step forward from their debut. Their changing fortunes afforded them a breath of fresh air. Part of the change had come with Petty’s writing style. The songs were generally better, but by the third album, there was a maturity in his songwriting and his narrative style that marked a change, a growth.
The drum and percussion work by Stan Lynch is wonderful throughout. Benmont Tench’s organ work fills as nicely as Roy Bitten’s work with Springsteen. Ron Blair’s bass work blends effectively into the songs, he gets far less credit than he deserves.
“Refugee” Tom Petty, Mike Campbell 3:22 The second single from the album, rose to number 15 on the chart. A very muscular, high energy song, with great organ backing from Benmont Tench. Campbell’s guitar work shines.
“Here Comes My Girl” Petty, Campbell 4:27 The third single from the album, barely cracked the top 60. It has a more gentle feel, less harsh than “Refugee” but a steady groove. Crackerjack guitar work.
“Even the Losers” 3:59 Biographical song about a relationship confined to just one night. Petty liked a girl in school, he hooked up with her but she told him it was just for that night. Full of energy and passion.
“Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid)” 4:25 Driving guitar, reminds you of the Beatles ’65 period. High energy song, whiplash guitar work.
“Century City” 3:45 Another jackrabbit guitar song, hold on, the song moves at breakneck speed. Rapid-fire piano keys by Tench. Campbell lets it fly with a killer guitar solo.
“Don’t Do Me Like That” 2:44 The first single and a top ten hit. Written back in his Mudcrutch days. The vocals and guitar work smartly play off of each other, a technique Petty would utilize numerous times, make each more effective. Guitar fills, sets a great groove, but the real star is Tench on organ and piano.
“You Tell Me” 4:35 A looser track, a slower groove, guitars and piano set the swagger. You might be fooled into thinking this song is filler, but it is anything but. If you listen carefully, you can pick out Blair’s bass moving all over the place
“What Are You Doin’ in My Life?” 3:27 Kicking back into a higher gear, the song kicks as one of the faster songs on the album. Campbell contributes some dirty slide guitar.
“Louisiana Rain” 5:54 Downshifting to a slower gear, swampy rock vibe rolling along. Petty proved that he could write broader, more lyrically expansive songs, aside from the challenges of boy/girl relationships.
Tom Petty had much grander visions, but Damn the Torpedoes opened the door to a wider audience and gave him a dose of mainstream success. This album is not the best in his arsenal, but increased his targets of opportunity. This album stands as perhaps the greatest achievement of the Heartbreakers. There would be many other albums, but Petty had his greatest success apart from the band, but like Springsteen, he toured with his band and he wrote differently for the group than he did as a solo artist.
When I saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on their last tour, they had been together for more than 40 years. Although Stan Lynch had left the band years ago, and Ron Blair had left, but returned, it was essentially the same family, with the addition of Scott Thurston along the way. Their musicianship was tight, they had played these songs song so many times, but they did not lapse into cruise control. These were musicians who loved what they did and gave you their best, every night.
Forty years after this album’s release, it still crackles with the energy and fire it had when it was recorded. As good as this was, it would get even better.