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Cover Story: Tom Petty Breaks Through
By Sam Sutherland
Record World — February 2, 1980
LOS ANGELES — As the title of their third album, “Damn the Torpedoes,” suggests, the career outlook for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is full speed ahead: with the album, their first for MCA’s Backstreet Records, bulleted at seven on the RW Album Chart, the set’s first single, “Don’t Do Me Like THat,” carrying its own bullet at the number eight slot on the Singles chart, and a follow-up, “Refugee,” already haded for the top 40 (the single is bulleted at 53 in its second week out), Petty and his partners are finally reaping the commercial acceptance predicted since their recorded debut in 1976.
Industry watchers will appreciate the irony behind those current blue-chip statistics. Originally signed to Shelter Records, which released the first album, and Petty’s first single hit, “Breakdown,” the quintet found itself in a legal cross-fire earlier this year as a result of MCA’s purchase of ABC Records, which had distributed Shelter. Despite his growing acceptance as a new AOR staple, and clear signs that radio and retail were generally more receptive to Petty’s brand of high-keyed classic rock, the Gainesville, Fla. native found himself saddled with a half-million dollars in debt. By early last summer, Petty had filed under the Bankruptcy Act, and the legal triangle surrounding his band was unresolved.
The newly-formed Backstreet Records, an autonomous MCA division, provided a solution via a new contract, which led to the late ’79 release to the long-awaited follow-up to “You’re Gonna Get It.”
Where the first two albums traded on a shadowy, atmospheric production style, “Damn the Torpedoes,” co-produced by Petty and Jimmy Iovine, opts for richer, more lucid finish without diluting the spare power of the basic five-piece ensemble, which continues to balance classic guitar work (by Petty and Mike Campbell), against Benmont Tench’s keyboards. Although lumped early on with the emerging new wave, Petty and the Heartbreakers have continued to stress their roots in prime ’60s rock — an assertion further supported by both the sound and the commercial fury now generatd by “Damn the Torpedoes.”
For the 27-year-old Petty — who’s managed by Lookout Management’s Tony Demtriades — the turbulence of ’79 is being eclipsed by one of the first true success stories of ’80. Last week, the west coast-based band returned to Los Angeles to headline at the Forum, and honored their area fans with a special unadvertised show the following night (21) at the Whisky.