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DVD Review: Classic Albums: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Damn the Torpedoes

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Written by Musgo Del Jefe

It’s the fall of 1979 and disco is still dominating the airwaves. Releases such as Bee Gees and Donna Summer dominated the charts and relegated once powerful rock acts to reexamine themselves. Some chose to embrace elements of the disco sound like The Rolling Stones, Blondie, and even Queen. But others chose to retrench and get back to their roots. Out of this came Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ third album, Damn The Torpedoes.

Musgo has been a fan of Tom Petty’s music for as long as he’s followed music. Petty was always one of those artists I noticed – his songs always staples of the radio stations in my rotation. His music seems forever emblazened in my mind as relaxing summer-night music. It’s really only been in the past 18 months that I’ve revisited his older albums and discovered how underrated he really has been. He doesn’t have rock-star looks but he deserves the same attention as the greats.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers wear their influences all over their music. They’re a southern-rock-influenced band from Florida that grew up on Phil Spector records and British Invasion bands. They moved to California – land of The Byrds and The Eagles – just as the band was developing their own sound. That blues-based rock, filtered through the laid-back, California sound of the Seventies was unfocused on their first two albums. But the addition of producer Jimmy Iovine brought a unique perspective to their band. It was exactly what both parties needed and they created a band that sounded like no other from that period. Jimmy would later take his magic touch for unique sounds to other artists that would sound like no others – Dire Staits, U2, Eminem and 50 Cent.

Eagle Rock Entertainment has released Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Damn The Torpedoes on DVD and Blu-ray as part of their Classic Albums series. The series has examined the works of U2, Nirvana, Elvis Presley, and Jimi Hendrix. I find the entries in this series interesting and frustrating – as they break down the important tacks on the albums with the artists and producers. This album follows the same format.

“Refugee”. The opening track to the album might still be my favorite Petty song. That guitar line followed by “We got somethin’, we both know it / We don’t talk too much about it”, this is where the documentary is at its strongest. The story of the track is told by the people involved – there’s never a narrarator. This song is broken down by guitarist Mike Campbell first – he shows the blues influence on his original riff. Interestingly, he plays a couple generic riffs until it morphs into the familiar guitar line from the song. And then Petty and Iovine talk about the problems coming up with a final mix – including taking a three-hour flight to New York just to see if it sounded different in a different studio. It didn’t. Jimmy still doesn’t think they ever finished a final mix of the song.

“Here Comes My Girl”. “But when she puts her arms around me / I can somehow rise above it”. The second track on the album isn’t given as much of a look as it deserves in the main feature. You need to watch the 42 minutes of Extra Footage to get more info on this track. I found the attention paid to Petty’s lyrics – especially the spoken parts – really interesting – more interesting in fact because so little is made of his unique sound in the rest of the doc.

“Even The Losers”. Another solid song. I hear it so often now that it’s hard to remember that it wasn’t a hit single. But the sheer catchiness of the tune eventually caught up with programmers who seem to have it in heavy rotation this summer. “I showed you stars you never could see / It couldn’t have been that easy to forget about me.” This classically structured rock ‘n’ roll song shows how far away pop music had strayed from the heyday of rock by the end of the ’70s. Oddly, we find out a nice nugget of trivia in a throwaway comment by Petty that this tune was written except for the title. And then it just came out when he was filling the spot during a take of the song. “Even the losers, get lucky sometimes.”

“Don’t Do Me Like That”. The tune that was almost a J. Geils Band song. The song hadn’t made the cut for the previous two albums and Petty was getting ready to let J. Geils record it. It turned into the biggest hit from the album and one of the songs most associated with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The song is unforgettable and as catchy as they come. It also gets the most in-depth discussion of the songs on the album. “I’ve had this feelin’ inside night out and day in / Baby, I can’t take it no more.” Some of the breakdowns, especially with sound engineer Shelly Yakus get more technical than the average fan probably can grasp. But I think isolating portions of the track – piano, bass, and lead guitars gives an appreciation as to why the whole album is so appealing. Listening to the single again – I hear the sustain on the piano, the way the bass fits in under the drums and the way the drums are just a little off sync.

Lesser attention is given to other tracks on the album. Mostly they are used to accompany archive performances and footage from the time period the album was made. “Century City” reflects the legal battles they were going through with MCA before the album was released. “Louisiana Rain” (one of Musgo’s favorites from their Live Anthology) shows their blues and country influences. And “What Are You Doin’ In My Life” illustrates some of Petty’s frustrations with groupies.

This episode of Classic Albums will be airing in the fall on VH1-Classic. But you’ll only be getting 80% of the story. The 98-minute documentary really is fleshed out with the 42 minutes of extra footage. More attention is given to “Here Comes My Girl” and longer isolations of musical tracks are featured.

This fantastic album is perfect for this treatment. It’s largely forgotten among rock fans who take him for granted. I would love to see the Blu-ray edition address my frustrations with the series. The archival footage is doled out in too small morsels. There’s glimpses of footage that the viewer would love to see unfold over some of the music. The release would be improved with more bonus features like music videos and archival TV appearances and rare concert footage. In this case, the slightly different takes on both “Refugee” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” from Saturday Night Live would have been an awesome addition. The album’s nine songs are all a strong testament to the band’s commitment to their craft. Thank goodness for releases like this to remind us.

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