Album of the Week: Damn the Torpedos, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

If there’s one artist that dances around the fringes of this blog without ever getting his full due, it is unquestionably Tom Petty. He makes an appearance every now and then, but has never gotten his own blog post.

And that’s just not right, because he’s one of the musicians I admire the most. He succeeds at the most difficult part of rock & roll, which is making the same six chords sound completely different every time he plays them. He is relentlessly innovative within fairly tight harmonic constraints, but has been churning out hits since the mid-70s. Stop to consider for a moment that “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” one of his most iconic songs, came out in 1993.

Damn the Torpedos is a masterclass in Petty’s sand-blasted style. There is almost no fat anywhere on this album, from the boldly spare cover on through.

“Refugee” is so embedded in the cultural consciousness that it’s tough to get any critical distance on it, but it is perhaps the quintessential introduction to the band’s style. Petty and the Heartbreakers, especially on this song, are a very treble-heavy band, and I think that makes Benmont Trench’s organ all the more important. It provides a more expansive, meaty sound that prevents the band from sounding brittle, especially as Petty squawks out the chorus.

“Here Comes My Girl” wouldn’t have sounded out of place coming out of the Brill Building in the early ‘60s. The narration gives it this great girl-group feel—like a less-tragic “Leader of the Pack”—and I love how much sonic space there is on the track. To help understand what I mean by that, listen to this song and then listen to “Down to the Waterline,” by Dire Straits, which was released a year earlier. Both songs have this really dry, trebly sound, but “Here Comes My Girl” sounds expansive while “Down to the Waterline” is quietly but insistently in your face.

There is one major gripe I have with this album, which is that it falls victim to the gimmick of putting bits of nonsense in between tracks. It’s nice in that it gives every song a little room to breathe, but I always wish I could cut out the first twenty or so seconds of tracks like “Even the Losers.” Band mythology has it that they went in to record this song without a chorus, and Petty wrote it on the spot.

“Shadow of A Doubt (Complex Kid),” is my favorite track on the album. This song has such incredible energy, which is interesting because it’s not particularly fast. The guitar figure that prominently features in the first fifteen seconds is a Keith Richards signature lick, but he always plays it about twice as fast (listen to “Brown Sugar”). So the fact that Mike Campbell plays it more slowly suspends the listener’s ear—you keep waiting for the second part of the figure to come, driving the song forward. The tension derives more from the rhythm than from the notes, and I think that might be part of Petty’s secret. He doesn’t need to use more chords because he knows other ways to create the tension a good song needs. Subtle, but effective.

I’ve always loved the back-alley feel of the intro to “You Tell Me” (just like the video for “Refugee!”). The descending piano figure coupled with the yowling slide guitar give it a great cinematic feel. It’s one of the Heartbreaker’s finest moments on the album, and they sustain this menace throughout. It’s a needed change to the palate at this point in the album and all the more effective because of it.

The album’s closer, “Louisiana Rain,” is its only misstep. This country ballad might have worked fine with a more finessed vocal delivery than Petty can muster, but it would also be hard to overcome the clunky lyrical image of rain pouring out of the narrator’s ears. The whole thing is just a little bit self-indulgent, which no song on an album like this can afford to be.

Just like the titular torpedo, this album works best when it delivers a quick, concentrated, and devastatingly efficient blast of rock & roll—something that was increasingly difficult to find in the late 70s. There are no terribly elaborate intros, no overly lengthy guitar solos. It’s more refined than a punk record, but still pulses with the same vitality, and it’s understandable why Petty and the Heartbreakers were first grouped in with the New Wave movement. But at its base, the music Petty was making here evolved out of the early 60s rather than the late 70s. Nevertheless, it’s solid, timeless music. Like sharks, crocodiles, and the Rolling Stones, Petty and the Heartbreakers have survived because they’ve remained simple and deadly. Can’t ask for much more.

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