Classic album deconstructed...
As you would imagine Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers 'Damn the Torpedoes' the definitive authorised story of the album' is an excellent deconstruction of a landmark album of the time.
But 'Down the Torpedoes' is a slightly different record from some of the others featured in the 'Classic Album' DVD series. While the platinum selling 'Torpedoes' was an impressive slice of contemporary American music that referenced the likes of Dylan, The Stones and The Byrds, it was released in late '79, a time when Punk was in its ascendancy. Also as the DVD explains, it wasn't until Petty came over to the UK to tour with Nils Lofgren and supported a wide range of bands such as Be Bop Deluxe, Journey, AC/ DC and Rush, that he initially found some success in an otherwise alien musical landscape.
The Tom Petty story is further punctuated by a major hiccup. Having originally signed to the Leon Russell co-owned Shelter label, Tom later had to fight for his artistic and commercial independence. He even declared himself bankrupt as Shelter/ABC became subsumed by a hostile A& M takeover. And in many respects that fight for independence which Petty himself only seems to mention in the context of the song 'Century City', ('we had a lawsuit and it's where the lawyers are'), is the most revealing part of the whole DVD. Petty it seems was as tough and astute as his lyrics were engaging. As keyboard player Benmont Tench concludes, the music was 'genuine, passionate, caring' and most of the band comments and those around them like manager Tony Dimitriades, producer Jimmy Iovine, engineer Shelly Yakus and the band's later label boss Danny Bramson all sound as if they were genuinely were into the music.
Even in those moments on the bonus tracks where perhaps the deconstruction of the songs, guitar lines and the like can be a bit wearing, it's the simple power and art of Petty's story telling and the band's committed performance that comes out on top.
The Heatbreakers themselves suggest they found their sound through gigging, and according to Iovine they never stopped talking about the album; 'the dynamics, the playing, the arrangements, the songs, the lyrics. They talked about the record all the time'
Guitarist Mike Campbell explains how he started with Albert King's 'Oh Pretty Woman' guitar riff and gradually formed his own lead line that became the signature guitar part of 'Refugee'. Tom himself is typically understated about the song, noting it took barely 10 minutes to come up with the words and lyrics. And when later in the interviews, Campbell says Tom was always 'writing intuitively, channelling into pools of ideas' you start to get the picture of a real band that gloriously fulfilled its collective potential on a great album.
Campbell further explains how on 'Even the Losers' he used a Chuck Berry double string attack to achieve a fatter sound on the chorus, and by the time everyone has finished their recollections you have a musical landscape that includes Albert King, Chuck Berry, Patty Smith, Springsteen and the like, a rich blend for a classic recipe.
There are a few other key moments, such as when Petty remembers assistant engineer Tori Swenson, saying 'what about -'Don't Do Me Like That', I really like that'. Had it not been for that comment the band's first top ten hit may have been overlooked. The interviews and archive footage combine well to unravel a real developmental and organic feel to the album and this is confirmed by the unpretentious way the band look back at the groundbreaking project some 3 decades on.
Perhaps producer Iovine sums things up best when he suggest that 'if you take all the flaws, all the inexperience and yet all the uniqueness of the guys that are playing together and put a shaker on top, you have an extraordinary record'.
'Damn the Torpedoes' is a record that has indeed stood the test of time and is a worthy subject in an excellent series.
Review by Pete Feenstra