Damn the Torpedoes. Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.
1979, MCA. Producer: Jimmy Iovine and Tom Petty.
IN A NUTSHELL: Damn the Torpedoes, by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, is a collection of just 9 songs, but for Tom and the band that’s plenty to demonstrate their expertise. Petty writes simple songs that seem like they’ve always been in the air, and guitarist Mike Campbell adds exactly what’s needed. The Heartbreakers give each song the right spirit and feel, whether it’s a rockin’ ride or a subtle swing. And the record is only one of many excellent TP&HB albums.
NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
I’ve only got 11 albums left in this damned list, and let me tell you I am looking forward to arriving at Number 1. You see, when I decided … holy shit, frigging 8 years ago, good heavens … anyway … when I decided 8 years ago to do this, I figured I’d be done in a year or two. Maybe three. I am not a terrific planner.
But looking back over the first 89 albums, I’m very happy with what I’ve done. I’ve only questioned the placement of one record. True, I realized mid-way that I’d probably missed a few of my favorites, and so I dealt with the issue of a static list in a dynamic world. But all-in-all, I’ve felt like I’ve done a reasonable job of listing those albums I love, and why. Number 11, however, marks my first egregious mistake.
I’ll divulge now for the sake of this album write-up: Damn the Torpedoes is the only Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album on my Top 100. I really don’t understand how that happened. He’s got so many records that I love, that I’ve listened to so much, it just seems like there must be more than one Petty album on the list, right? So for album #11 I’m going to discuss several of his songs and albums, because there’s no way only one of his albums should be on my list.
First let me say that you should all go watch the 4 hour documentary by Peter Bogdonovich about Tom and his band, titled Runnin’ Down a Dream. It’s excellent. It tells the story of Tom, a young Byrds and Beatles fan in the 60s, forming a hard-working, popular local Gainesville, FL, band, Mudcrutch, in the 70s, to World Domination as Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. Throughout it all, Petty just seems like a decent guy who likes to write and play songs. Who, in fact, doesn’t just like to write songs but admits that he’s never had writer’s block or any trouble at all writing songs. They just sort of come out of him.
And the amount of good stuff that comes out of him is rather astounding. Also rather astounding is the fact that he ended up in the same town, at the same time, as Mike Campbell, The Heartbreakers’ guitarist. Campbell has a sound that is unmistakable, the “Tom Petty sound,” playing leads and riffs that are typically spare, typically simple, and always cool. Take, for example, “Breakdown,” from the band’s 1976 first, self-titled album.
Listen to that little figure at 0:07, and then the main theme, an 8-second riff starting about 0:14. It’s classic Campbell. Also classic on that debut record is one of Petty’s most popular, enduring songs, “American Girl,” featuring another typical Campbell sound, the chiming guitar. Petty’s ability to meld singalong melodies with a ferocious backbeat is on display, as is his gift of telling a story, drawing well-defined characters, in a few lyrics. The band was more popular in the UK at this point, and released the single “Anything That’s Rock ‘n Roll” there – and lip-synched it on TV! (Plenty of animated stars, but no keyboardist Benmont Tench in that performance.)
One of the great things about Petty is that in addition to all the hits you’ve heard on the radio1, he has so many terrific songs that were never huge. On that debut, there’s “Mystery Man.” On the band’s second album, 1978’s You’re Gonna Get It!, there’s the rocking’ “Hurt,” and one of my favorite all time songs, “No Second Thoughts.”
I love the bass sound, the gentle drums and the harmony vocals. Also, I’m always impressed by Tom’s ability to write little novels in his songs. His nasally voice is used to great effect here. This album also contains the great radio tracks “I Need to Know” and “Listen to Her Heart.” An interesting fact (to me, anyway) about the high harmonies on most TP&HB songs: they’re sung by original drummer Stan Lynch!
After Damn the Torpedoes, in 1979, the band kept cranking out incredible albums. In 1981 they released Hard Promises, an album I had for years on vinyl. The band’s classic, “The Waiting,” is found on this album, a song that has some of my favorite Mike Campbell guitar, and great lyrics. But my favorite on the album is “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me).”
It’s got the great, subtle, Campbell guitar, cool lyrics, and a nice bass line from guest bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn. The album features a duet with Stevie Nicks, “The Insider,” but doesn’t feature the hit “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” which was recorded at the same time, but wound up on Nicks’s album Bella Donna. My picks for little-known gems on Hard Promises are “Nightwatchman” and “Letting You Go.” If you love Campbell’s guitar, listen to that “Nightwatchman” song. You’ll thank me!
Up next in the TP&HB discography comes 1982’s Long After Dark. I bought this cassette from the Columbia House Record Club back about 1983. I was a huge MTV fan, and this record featured the Mad Max-inspired MTV hit in “You Got Lucky,” a song that on first listen didn’t sound much like the band’s previous stuff, but still sounded good.
That spare Mike Campbell guitar is heard throughout, but on this song keyboardist Benmont Tench plays a synth, instead of the typical organ, giving a sort of 80s edge to the song. But it’s basic rock, and it has all the stuff I love about Tom and the band. The straightforward “Change of Heart” is also on Long After Dark, and it’s one of my favorites of his. My stand-out unknown track on this one is “We Stand a Chance.”
The next two records, Southern Accents and Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), from 1985 and 1987, respectively, scored a few hits, and one huge MTV blockbuster. “Rebels” and “Jammin’ Me” were fine songs that got lots of airplay2, but “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” written with The Eurythmics‘ Dave Stewart, had the iconic video (that in my opinion was better than the song itself!)
I remember my friends and I being impressed with the sitar sound, and I always liked the female backing vocalists. Of course, Mike Campbell’s guitar shines. The band also put out a live album in 1985, Pack Up the Plantation: Live, and included a scorching version of the old Byrds’ hit “So You Want to Be a Rock N Roll Star.”
A few Tom Petty memories: 1) my best friend in high school, Dan, had an older brother he called Nature Boy who looked EXACTLY like Tom Petty. 2) My two older sisters went to Philadelphia to see Tom Petty in concert around 1983, and some would-be mugger attempted to steal my sister’s purse, but my other sister pounded on his back and drove him away! 3) Also, everyone – I mean everyone – in 1989 was listening to Tom Petty’s debut solo album (i.e. without The Heartbreakers) Full Moon Fever.
This record had hit after hit. Of course “Free Fallin'” was huge, but also “I Won’t Back Down,” “Yer So Bad,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” “A Face in the Crowd” … all were hits. And “Love is a Long Road” got lots of airplay. He also had a few hits around this time with the supergroup he helped form, The Traveling Wilburys, which included George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne (of E.L.O.).
So, that brings us to 1989, meaning he’s still got 30 years of music (almost: RIP Tom) ahead of him. Those first 13 years were incredible, but he kept doing what he’d done all along: put out great rock records. Into the Great Wide Open was a hit album in 1991, and it actually made me angry at Mr. Petty for some time.
You see, he ripped off the lyric “a rebel without a clue” from The Replacements’ song “I’ll Be You,” after the band opened for him on tour. But I’m over it now. Anyway, the 90s saw great songs like “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” and “You Wreck Me.” The 90s through 10s saw great albums: Wildflowers3, the She’s the One soundtrack, Echo, The Last DJ, Highway Companion, a Mudcrutch reunion, Mojo, and Hypnotic Eye. He kept cranking out great music well into his 60s.
I first remember Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers as a middle schooler, and in my mind they were lumped in with all the “skinny tie” bands back then. This was around 1979 to 1981, and acts like Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, and The Romantics were playing a punk-ish brand of guitar rock called “new wave.” It seemed that any act with a bit shorter hair and decent clothes that wasn’t playing blues-rock was painted with that new-wave, skinny tie brush – from Huey Lewis to Rick Springfield to Quarterflash to Tom Petty. (Even Billy Joel got into the act.)
In 1980, the songs “Refugee” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” were all over the radio. But I didn’t buy the record until years later, after college, when my cover band with Dr. Dave, JB and The So-Called Cells, began playing lots of Petty songs. It was then that I realized that not only do so many Petty songs SOUND great, they’re also REALLY FUN TO PLAY! This has definitely enhanced my appreciation of the man and his band.
Damn the Torpedoes comes out swinging with the smash hit “Refugee,” a song that will always remind me of playing backyard baseball and football up the street at the Starr’s house – it is the sound of 7th and 8th grade.
It starts with cool organ from Benmont Tench, a nice little guitar piece by Campbell, and then Tom’s signature vocal stylings. At 0:25, there’s a classic Mike Campbell bit where he slides back and forth between 2 notes, a subtle nugget that puts his signature on the song. (At 0:58 the video shows a close up of his left hand playing it again.) Petty sort of scats his way through the verses (albeit with real words), cramming syllables where they shouldn’t fit in as he begs his girl to stop pulling away. My favorite is the last verse where he suggests, “Who knows? Maybe you were kidnapped, tied up, taken away and held for ransom.” At 3:00, he also offers his signature scream, which has always reminded me of 80s shouting comic Sam Kinison.
Petty’s vocal stylings are used to great effect when he mumbles his way through the verses of the next song, the classic “Here Comes My Girl.”
I love the cool guitar slide at the beginning, and the rumble of Ron Blair’s bass. But in the verse, it’s Petty’s voice that carries it, talking the lyrics until 0:50, when he once again spits out the lyrics like a soundcloud rapper, flowing to the lovely chorus. It’s a heartfelt love song in which Petty describes how she makes him feel4. It’s one of his best vocal performances. Let’s face it, he’s not Robert Plant or Freddie Mercury, but his voice is passionate and expressive. Stan Lynch’s harmony vocals through the chorus are terrific, too, as is Campbell’s squiggles and Tench’s piano in the verses. You could listen to most any Petty song a thousand times and hear something new in the mix each time.
On “Even the Losers,” Petty’s at his best in terms of melding great lyrics with great music. His description, through characters’ actions, of first love and how it crumbles is succinct and accurate and connects emotionally.
“It couldn’t have been that easy to forget about me?” I love Campbell’s Chuck Berry-ish guitar solo, and once again Stan Lynch’s high harmonies hit the spot. The song brings back many memories of early relationships; as Tom sings, “life is such a drag when you’re living in the past.” (By the way: if you ever get time, and I know I already assigned homework with that other documentary, try to watch this documentary on The Making of Damn the Torpedoes. It’s really good.)
My favorite song on the album is the track “Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid).”
One thing I’m always amazed by with Tom Petty is his ability to make a very simple riff so damned catchy! In “Shadow of a Doubt,” it’s four notes, played before each line in the verse. For me, those four notes make the song. It’s probably got my favorite Mike Campbell stuff, his wizardry allowing the listener to unearth new nuggets with every play. The band really rocks, and my favorite version of the song is this live version from the old early-80s Saturday Night Live competitor ABC’s Fridays. The lyrics are funny, discussing a girlfriend that Tom can’t figure out, someone who speaks in French while she sleeps! It’s got everything a Petty fan could ask for.
The rave-up “Century City” follows, a straight-ahead rocker about the good times ahead that Petty could probably write in his sleep. The song opens with what I believe are sounds from the old Defender arcade game. Also, I think Springsteen lifted the melody for his song “Pink Cadillac.” The band shines, as always. They also shine on “You Tell Me,” a groovy, piano/bass driven song about a scorned lover with great interplay between Campbell and Tench. Both of these songs are cool, and demonstrate that even the songs that weren’t hits are always worth a spin on a Tom Petty album. Which isn’t to say the hits aren’t tremendous.
“Don’t Do Me Like That” was a huge hit, a top ten Billboard smash, and the biggest hit for the band to that date, peaking at #10 in February, 1980.
The opening drums and piano sound important, the little organ riff sounds cool, and Tom’s fast-talking near-rap vocals about his best girl treating him bad are singalong-worthy, even though they’re hard to sing along to. Stan’s harmonies in the chorus are key, as is his little fill at 0:49 heading into verse 2. Campbell plays some sweet licks behind the vocals throughout, which are necessary, as the song doesn’t have a featured guitar solo. But the genius of Campbell is that he doesn’t require a solo to stand out. On the rocker “What Are You Doing In My Life” Campbell plays a slide guitar. Its honky-tonk piano and vocal harmonies give it a country-rock feel. It’s another deep cut worth hearing from Petty, this one about a stalker fan.
The album closes after just 9 songs, an economy that I wish more artists would strive for. And it closes on the lovely, if lyrically ambiguous, “Louisiana Rain.”
The lyrics are vignettes of a traveling life, and they remind me of Bob Dylan5. In the chorus, the lyrics are reflected in the acoustic strumming, which somehow sounds like rain falling. It’s a simple song with a great melody and cool guitar, including more slide guitar from Campbell. It’s one of those album-ending songs that wraps up the experience neatly, and sticks with a listener, inviting a second, third, and many more listens.
Look, what can I say. Writing about 100 different albums is challenging, but even more so is SELECTING those records. If I look back at my list, there aren’t any records about which I’d say, “Damn, I should pull that one off the list6.” Yet there seems like there should be more room for Tom. He was a musical gift to rock fans, and as good as Damn the Torpedoes is, there is so much more. Go out and listen to him. I think you’ll agree.
“Here Comes My Girl”
“Even the Losers”
“Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid)”
“Don’t Do Me Like That”
“You Tell Me”
“What Are You Doin’ In My Life?”