Tom Petty launches energetic ‘Torpedoes’
By Robert Ely
St. Petersburg Times — November 7, 1979
It isn’t clear why the new album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is titled Damn the Torpedoes, except that the conclusion of that famous naval battle cry pretty well describes what’s imprinted on the vinyl. The album is an energetically displayed collection of nine songs true to the ideal of rock music as liberating celebration.
But “full speed ahead” also describes the course Florida-born Petty, 27, is charting as he emerges as a major force in contemporary rock music.
Petty may not be as daft at turning a phrase as Bruce Springsteen, but he has greater control as a singer without sacrificing intensity. And like Springsteen, Petty is cable in his writing to turn potentially trite images — teen romance, hot cars etc. — into universal experience.
The similarities to Springsteen are perhaps unavoidable, given that Petty’s co-producer on this is Jimmy Iovine, who engineered previous Springsteen albums. With the Heartbreakers, who as individual musicians were rivals of their leader when all played around Gainesville years ago, Iovine and Petty have utilized a kind of run-wild energy that paradoxically comes from a group as controlled in its musicianship as a chamber ensemble.
Petty left Gainesville in 1973 with a demo tape-recorded in his living room and headed west. In 1976, based in Los Angeles, he ran into the musician who would become the Heartbreakers — Mike Campbell on slide, six, and 12-string guitars, Stan Lynch, a singing drummer; Ron Blair on bass and Benmont Tench on keyboards.
The band had some significant, if somewhat obscure success, which eventually led to a dispute with ABC Records. Petty didn’t think he was getting enough backing from the company.
When ABC sold his contract to MCA, a dispute ensued, which apparently is resolved. One hopes so.
Some bitterness is evident on Torpedoes, such as in the tune Century City, which is a put-down of lawyers. But one of the best pieces on the album is Louisiana Rain, which comes to grips with the inevitability of lost innocence.
Petty’s idealism is perhaps nowhere more evident than on Even the Losers. And the opening cut, entitled Refugee, is reminscent of the same message, delivered with the same intensity as Springsteen’s Badlands. Except that Refugee is angrier.
The album does have its weaknesses, including an absence of a rich and full blending of instruments on some of the songs. But it a surprisingly varied collection of songs infused with positive energy and sharp intellect.
It is music for those of us who find regeneration in music that celebrates life’s possibilities, even while chronicling its defeats. May much more be in store from Tom Petty. It seems evident there will be.