When Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers said 'Damn the Torpedoes'
The adage about what doesn't kill you makes you stronger hardly has a more powerful musical manifestation than the story behind Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' 1979 album "Damn the Torpedoes."
That tale has become a central part of the mythology of rock ‘n’ roll, one that aspiring artists of any stripe might look to as a source of inspiration and reassurance in the face of the hurdles that inevitably spring up in front of those who are pursuing a grand vision.
It's a story worth revisiting, what with this week's deluxe reissue of the original album, which catapulted the group to a new level of commercial success and critical respect with its bold ambition and fearless musical execution. The album reissue follows the recent release on DVD and Blu-ray disc of a new "Classic Albums" documentary about what went on behind the scenes between the release of the group's 1977 sophomore album "You’re Gonna Get It" and the arrival more than two years later of "Torpedoes," which yielded the hits "Refugee," "Here Comes My Girl" and the band's first top-10 single, "Don't Do Me Like That." They make excellent companion pieces, the home video edition of the documentary containing an additional 42 minutes of material not included in the August airing of a 56-minute cut on VH1.
Along with new and vintage interview and performance footage of Petty, guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, bassist Ron Blair and drummer Stan Lynch, director Matthew Longfellow gets album producer turned often-elusive industry titan Jimmy Iovine on camera for his typically colorful insights. At one point, Iovine recalls telling Petty they had enough songs for the record. "It was the last time I ever said that to a band," Iovine says with a laugh. They also get engineer Shelley Yakus to elaborate on his perspective about what made "Torpedoes" successful on so many levels.
The creative process of songwriting and recording became inextricably tied up in the band's fight with MCA Records when the company bought the ABC Records label, parent of Shelter Records, which had signed and released Petty's first two albums. As the battle for control raged between a giant corporation and a band of rock ‘n’ roll brothers who'd driven across country from Gainesville, Fla., in hopes of making records, it became a classic David-versus-Goliath tale.
Petty didn't want their music -- to them, their lifeblood -- treated like just another company asset, and the wily strategies they used to outmaneuver MCA's high-priced Century City lawyers showed them to be as smart as they were passionate about what they were working on in the recording studio. Petty recounts ordering band members to hide the tapes at the end of each recording session and not tell him where they were, so he could honestly go into court if necessary and testify that he didn't know their location.
Ultimately, as noted in the film, "MCA blinked," and Petty and the band won their freedom, which allowed them to sign with Danny Bramson’s new MCA-affiliated Backstreet Records and put them out with an executive and a label that shared their commitment to the project, not simply the financial bottom line.
Musically inclined viewers should revel in what are effectively tutorials from Petty, Campbell and Tench about how they created what became the Heartbreakers' signature sound. Guitarheads will love -- or cringe at -- Campbell's story of how he came to own the iconic Rickenbacker guitar Petty holds on the album cover -- he paid $150 for it from an Anaheim musician he found through a Recycler ad. Recording studio enthusiasts also should relish the light that Iovine and Yakus offer on the technical aspects of making the album. Petty, like Neil Young and some other audiophile-minded rockers, is a big fan of the Blu-ray disc's ability to capture many more nuances of recorded music than can a CD, much less sonically watered down mp3s.
Any Petty fans with a Blu-ray player owe it to themselves to hear the album as close to the way the Heartbreakers heard it in the studio three decades ago. (In the Blu-ray version, the "Classic Albums" documentary also benefits from heightened video and audio quality.) But both the Blu-ray and CD versions of the album serve up nine bonus tracks, including one, "Nowhere," that even Petty had given up for lost decades ago. The Blu-ray adds videos of "Here Comes My Girl" and "Refugee."
In conjunction with other studio tracks left off "Damn the Torpedoes," such as "Surrender," "Casa Dega" and "It's Rainin' Again," and live or alternative versions of several of the songs that did make the cut, the bonus material fleshes out the picture of just how strong one American band became through its just-less-than killer struggles.
-- Randy Lewis
Photo: Tom Petty. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times