Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers: Classic Albums: “Damn the Torpedoes”

When Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers entered the studio to record their important third album, 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes, they hired Jimmy Iovine, the brash New Yorker who had been involved with several other important third records, like Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run (as an engineer) and Patti Smith’s Easter, to co-produce the album. Iovine’s drive and perfectionism were ideal for bringing out the best in the band and capturing the Heartbreakers’ blend of British Invasion rhythms and Byrds-like jangle and help them rise beyond cult favorites to superstar status. The making of Damn the Torpedoes would become an enormous challenge for the band, not only in the studio, as egos clashed, but with their record company, who at one point threatened not to release the album. The story behind this important album, one that is credited with “saving rock ‘n roll” from disco, is laid out in this superb Classic Albums DVD from Eagle Vision, another in their long line of excellent documentaries about important records in rock history.

You know the songs: “Refugee,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Here Comes My Girl,” and “Even the Losers.” To this day, these songs are played constantly on rock radio. What’s fascinating about this DVD is learning how those songs came together, to hear Petty, guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench and Iovine discuss the methods they went about piecing the songs together from riffs, to getting the band to play them just right during the recording process. It’s also nice to hear from the engineer on the record, the legendary Shelly Yakus, on how he came up with some of the record’s signature sounds, including the distinct quality of Stan Lynch’s drums.

The feuds between Lynch and Iovine were constant, with the producer grinding the band’s drummer about the way he played. At one point, Lynch left, was fired or quit. As Tench makes clear, many talented drummers came in to audition, but none of them were right for the Heartbreakers – none of them were Stan Lynch. Unfortunately, Lynch is the only original member of the band who did not provide a current interview for this DVD. As we understand it, he has a “been there done that” attitude about discussing his days with the Heartbreakers (he wouldn’t even get involved with “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” the monumental Peter Bogdanovich-directed documentary from 2008). However, the producers dug up some old interviews with Lynch to insert at the right moments so that the accounts of making this historical album were not one-sided. It was also nice to hear Tench and bassist Ron Blair speak so fondly about Lynch, with Blair even holding out hope that someday he may jam with them again.

In addition to the details about the making of Damn the Torpedoes, getting to watch the band members listen to the original tapes for the first time in years and to have Tench explain how he and Yakus happened upon some of the beautiful textures Tench added to the mix, there is the history of the band’s struggles with their record company. When the band’s original contract with ABC records was sold to MCA, Petty refused to just join the new label (especially a huge corporation) without his consent. At one point he filed for bankruptcy as he battled MCA, who threatened to not let him release Damn the Torpedoes.  Fortunately, Danny Bramson’s fledgling label, Backstreet Records, stepped in to help foster a deal between Petty and MCA and things were smoothed out.

Of course, the album was released to great critical acclaim, it spawned numerous hits, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers broke through to the mainstream. The DVD captures all of the joy and excitement of the band’s success and is a must-see for any fan of the Heartbreakers and good music in general. (Eagle Vision 2010)

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