It might sound like a grandiose claim to say something like, “Truly and genuinely rare is an album like Damn The Torpedoes – it has really introduced some of the biggest and most respected institutions in the modern music industry,” but those who might think so simply do not know the whole story of the album.
First, it’s important to cite some of the album’s background as well as its cast of characters:
- Damn The Torpedoes was recorded at Sound City studios in Van Nuys, CA in 1978 – the studio where Neil Young recorded After The Gold Rush, Nirvana recorded Nevermind and Rage Against The Machine recorded their self-titled debut album, among a directory of other classics.
- Damn The Torpedoes was one of the very first albums produced by Jimmy Iovine, the man who, with business partner Dr. Dre, sold Beats Electronics (a.k.a. the company which makes Beats headphones and speakers) for 3.2 billion dollars in 2017.
On top of the above points, Damn The Torpedoes would prove to be the album which began something of a tradition for Petty. After the sessions for Damn The Torpedoes proved to turn out so well (it was the album which broke Tom Petty and turned him into an international superstar), the singer would return to Sound City to record Hard Promises, Southern Accents, Wildflowers and Songs and Music from She’s The One as well. That string of albums encompasses a span of twenty-seven years; even Petty’s critics have to agree that such “brand loyalty” is rare and speaks volumes to the singer’s obviously positive memory of the experience and results.
Of course, no one could have possibly guessed that any of the above events would be on the horizon when sessions for Damn The Torpedoes began in 1978. At that time, all that was for sure was that Tom Petty and his band landed at Sound City to make their third album. That’s the thing though; it could be argued that this album was the catalyst which helped all of the other great events that followed. It could be argued that this album is that good, that influential and that timeless. It could be contended that Damn The Torpedoes changed the lives and fortunes of everyone and everything involved with it forevermore.
Not all of what Damn The Torpedoes could ultimately do or be in the grand scheme of things is obvious as one listens to the album, but one thing is certain: as a needle sinks into the A-side and “Refugee” opens it up, it presents Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as a very altered beast from the band that released You’re Gonna Get It and its self-titled debut as little as even three years before. There, a desperation and truly muscular swagger powers Petty’s Dylan-esque vocal performance, but Petty manages to outrun such a shadow and takes the show with him. The singer pours every ounce of catharsis he has into every word of this lyric sheet and makes listeners feel every syllable of lines like, ”Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked you around some/ Tell me why you want to lay there, revel in your abandon/ Honey, it don’t make a difference to me, baby/ Everybody has to fight to be free, you see.” Even now, thirty-seven years after the album’s original release, Petty’s vocal performance on “Refugee” is fantastically affecting; but those who aren’t normally interested in lyrical fare will find that the minor chords in the song, the guitars, the simple and spare drums and warm keyboards are all able to send it well over the top too. Simply said, “Refugee” is still capable of capturing imaginations nearly four decades after its first release.
With “Refugee” having broken the album wide open to start, there wouldn’t be any easy way to follow that beginning smoothly but “Here Comes My Girl” finds a way by diving nose-first into some classic guitar-pop waters, gracefully. There, Petty follows and hones a few of the precedents which would prove to win the singer a legion of fans as well as helping similarly bent acts like Jakob Dylan, The Cars, The Replacements (and innumerable others) come up with fine platinum hooks just by being candid and artless in their affection for a girl. In this case, Petty comes off sweet and humble in spite of himself; lines like “But when she puts her arms around me/I can, somehow, rise above it/ Yeah man, when I got that little girl standing right by my side, You know, I can tell the whole wide world, ‘Shove it’” shoot point blank and straight and it’s impossible not to fall head over heels for them. The exact same formula (although it certainly doesn’t play like one) guides “Even The Losers” and “Shadow of A Doubt” (which remains one of Petty’s greatest songs about “loving that train wreck of a girl”), and listeners will still feel as though they’re falling in love with the band for the first time. The sensation feels beautifully pure and as “Century City” shifts gears for a bit of raucous California dreamin’ to close the side, there’s no question that listeners will be ready to flip the record over in hopes of keeping the magic flowing. It’s infectious.
Needless to say, the A-side of Damn The Torpedoes is a tough act to follow. But while its flipside does indeed leave fewer singles in its wake than did its counterpart, the B-side doesn’t suffer from a lack of substance. The side opens with some sterling ‘70s radio fare in the form of “Don’t Do Me Like That” which is definitely a step in the right (and memorable) direction. There, over a very lightly overdriven guitar figure, Petty spits a bit of venom as he bemoans the actions of his fairweather friends and some pretty faces of the same sort (check out lines like “And you know you better watch your step/ Or you’re gonna get hurt yourself/ Someone’s gonna tell you lies/ Cut you down to size”) and then gets flat-out wounded by those same characters in the very next song on the album, “You Tell Me.”
While the second of those two songs is even less radio-ready than its predecessor (the simmering, doubled guitar part and accompanying ‘Super ‘70s’ piano performance is too mid-tempo and blurry for this album), it in no way threatens to tank the side. The raucous roadhouse rock of “What’re You Doin’ To My Life” gets feet tapping and can inspire at least a few small, defiant sneers as it plays through, and then “Louisiana Rain” swings out with some pathetic fallacy and precipitation (read: hard feelings color the skies here) to close the side.
After such hard-rocking workshops on the A-side of Damn The Torpedoes and at least one more of the same on the B-side, some readers might assume that the tapering down of the energy levels through the late-playing of Damn The Torpedoes‘ B-side might make running through the album from front to back repeatedly a hard sell but, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The denouement played out in the late moments of “Louisiana Rain” gives listeners a sense of closure which makes it really easy to go back and listen to the whole thing over from the top.
Again, it shouldn’t really need saying because, yes, fans did discover and take to Damn The Torpedoes upon its release in 1979, but the cool thing is that the album hasn’t faded with time. Damn The Torpedoes is regarded as a classic now and rightly so but nothing about that appreciation can be shrugged off as lip service; Damn The Torpedoes wears its stature as a crown jewel in Tom Petty’s catalogue correctly and beautifully, even thirty-eight years after its release.