It was 36 years ago today that Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers released Damn The Torpedoes. While it is certainly the album that launched Petty's career into the stratosphere with hits like "Refugee", "Don't Do Me Like That" and "Even The Losers", is it one of rock's great albums? We take a critical look at the album in hopes of finding out once and for all.
Of all the unlikely success stories in rock & roll, Tom Petty's plays like a movie too crazy to be true. For starters, he and his first band, Mudcrutch drove from Florida to L.A. in search of a record deal. Once there, they ripped a page of record label phone numbers out of the yellow pages and started calling around. Within days, they have received multiple offers from interested labels.
When has it ever been that easy?
After their first single flops, the band splinters and Tom Petty is left a solo artist still signed to Shelter Records, the label run by legendary producer Denny Cordell. Dreading the idea of recording a solo album with a bunch of hired guns, Petty turns a harmonica session for Benmont Tench's new band into a sales pitch to join forces with him. They agree and The Heartbreakers are born.
When has it ever been that easy?
But after two albums for Shelter that had sold reasonably well - their second album You're Gonna Get It went gold, in fact - they found themselves transferred to a new label without having had any say in the matter. Never mind that most bands would be happy to have any record deal at all, Petty and the band stick to their guns and refuse to play ball for MCA, all the while recording their pivotal third album with new co-producer Jimmy Iovine.
They had to have known that bands that sued, or got sued by, their record label were not usually long for this world. His manager must have tried to talk him out of it, telling Petty how much of a long shot it would be for Petty to win, much less escape with any career at all. MCA's legal resources greatly outweighed those of a lowly rock band so it would seem that the Heartbreakers could very well have found themselves relegated to the proverbial no-zip sorting bin of rock and roll.
It's entirely possible that MCA could have taken possession of the master tapes before the album was even finished, dropped the band, and just shelved the tapes. Petty and the band might have tried another six months to get a deal, to no avail, and then guys like Tench and Campbell begin drifting off to other bands.
Maybe one of those bands is popular and The Heartbreakers become a trivia question instead of future members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There are so many ways things could have gone sideways. Petty could have lost in court and been held financially liable for a great amount of money, thereby killing his career. At the first sign of mutiny, MCA could have just dropped the band outright. Even in the best scenario - where they make nice with MCA, release their long-awaited third album, and MCA refuses to promote it - they might never be heard from again.
Undaunted, a brave and/or crazy Petty stood his ground and ultimately walked away with the sweetheart deal to end all sweetheart deals: MCA agreed to release him from his original contract, at which point Petty signed a much more favorable deal with MCA subsidiary, Backstreet Records. Under this new arrangement, the pivotal third album, Damn The Torpedoes, is a massive hit and Petty goes on to record numerous hit albums for the label.
Considering all of the turmoil and the uncertainty that must have been on their minds the whole time, you certainly wouldn't know it from listening to "Refugee", a song so confident in itself that it must have given Petty the strength to know he had the best hand when dealing with MCA.
If anything, Damn The Torpedoes is the sound of a band with nary a care in the world and complete confidence in their abilities. They're so confident, in fact, that they're still willing to take the occasional stylistic chance, such as the spoken-sung verses in "Here Comes My Girl" or the unabashedly country ballad ("Louisiana Rain") that closes the record.