Pete Johnson’s Blast from My Past: Tom Petty “Damn the Torpedoes”

This album was released in October of 1979. I was 13 years old and was just beginning intensifying my focus on music and how on earth people made it. It really was an amazing time to become a music fan. I often think of the American sage Homer Simpson, who made the bold and true statement, “Everyone knows rock attained perfection in 1974”. Whilst obviously meant to be a line on a comedy cartoon, a deep exploration of the history of rock music reveals the near accuracy of his statement. It was an amazing time for music and artistry.

You can put this album in the pantheon of perfect rock records for the drum sounds alone. The songs are finely crafted gems. The performances are spot on. There are so many other elements here that just add to the case. Pressure in nature forges diamonds and I think that is the key with this brilliant American rock record. Besides a bankruptcy lawsuit pending from the “unauthorized” selling of the Heartbreakers by proxy by Shelter Records to MCA (from the Heartbreakers perspective anyways) there were other pressures at work. Petty and the band knew that three albums was about all bands could be expected to do before the record company would start looking to be harvesting talent elsewhere. This was the big one to get them to the highest levels in order to compete with the rock stars of the day. They knew they had to deliver and they did in spades.

If you review the track listing, you will be astounded to find almost every song could be the A side or B side of a giant hit single. It kicks off with “Refugee”. There is the drum sound that changed modern rock drum recording. Still sounds killer, though it is ironic, since Jimmy Iovine gave so much bullsh** to drummer Stan Lynch. He, in my mind is the only real Heartbreakers drummer. Steve Ferrone is a great drummer and sounds good, but Stan had the indefinable feel. The most amazing thing to me about “Refugee”, is the band insisted on doing a live take of the song. All parts played at the same time. This meant endless takes of the song, but they captured the magic of people playing together. It is the very essence of musicality in Pop. If you could bottle that, I would and I’d sell it for a very high price.

Petty then rolls into “Here Comes My Girl”. I saw a part in a documentary about this song that defined to me why I had loved it from the first time I ever heard it. Petty said he was having a hard time figuring out how to sing this song. A great vocalist will give you peaks and valleys and create dynamics in a performance. Petty hit the jackpot, when he realized the half spoken/half sung tactic brought this song into dynamic focus. Most people will not realize just how important that element is. The next up is “Even the Losers”. This is one of my most beloved romantic songs of the 1970’s. It really does capture the essence of the times for me. Every time I hear it I go back to being 17 or 18. Read this lyric:

Well, it was nearly summer we sat on your roof

Yeah, we smoked cigarettes and we stared at the moon

And I’d show you stars you never could see

Baby, it couldn’t have been that easy to forget about me

 As a man, unless you married your high school “sweetheart”, you can understand what the picture Tom painted was really like. There is not freedom like that anymore. Makes me wanna rebel every day. Today, you would be fined by the city and state for violating roof access and the anti-smoking crusaders would shame you into submission by protesting outside your house until you apologized for adding to the pollution that causes global warming.

As usual the Heartbreakers, both as a band and individuals, shine. It is being said all the time now, but Mike Campbell is one of the most underrated guitarists of all time. He just does everything beautifully on this record. The way he plays solos and supports the songs with his parts is mind blowing. Nine times out of ten, if I am stuck on how to approach a guitar part for a song, I can listen to this record and I can walk away and say, “I am gonna take Mike’s approach from this part of a song or that part of a song”. A great example is the opening guitar of “You Tell Me”. That feel in the intro and the power chord parts are ingrained in my guitar player DNA. The slide accents I use to denote chord changes on the rhythm tracks add such a great touch. It is almost embarrassing how many times I have used this technique. I guess Mike and Tom stole it from somewhere too. Benmont Tench and Ron Blair also deserve their due. They are masters of their job and the color they add to the tracks is self evident.

One of the things I always loved about Petty was that he was almost always touring. He is one of the acts I have seen live the most, and that is because he was always around. I must have seen him at NJ Garden State Art Center at least 6 or 7 times, just because he was there. You could never go wrong in saying “Petty at the Art Center, sure I’ll go”. He did not do bad concerts or records. Petty’s passing is still something I am trying to process as music person. I miss his presence in music today. I was so happy when my friends The Smithereens got to open some shows one of Petty’s final tours. That was one inspired pairing for many reasons. I think the Heartbreakers need to keep playing together a couple of times a year, just to keep the unit firing. I am glad Mike Campbell has joined Fleetwood Mac. They are getting the next great guitar player that Mac fans always got handed to them on a silver platter. So, in conclusion, If you do not own this record already then go out and get it today and listen, listen, listen. I do not care if you are a casual music fan or an intense one. You need this one in your collection. You can thank me later ;o)

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