Springsteen finds ally in Floridan
By Robert Hilburn
Sarasota Journal — Tuesday, November 13, 1979
Rock and Roll standard bearer Bruce Springsteen is getting some good competition from Florida-born Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers with the release of the group’s latest album, “Damn the Torpedoes.”
LOS ANGELES — Ever since his “Born to Run” album in 1975, Bruce Springsteen has upheld the idealistic tradition of American rock ‘n’ roll virtually by himself.
Talking Heads, the Cars and other U.S. rockers have arrived with invigorating sounds, but none has embraced as fully as Springsteen the liberating, rock-as-inspiration stance that Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly introduced to the music in the 1950s.
Springsteen now has an ally. Tom Petty’s “Damn the Torpedoes,” just released on MCA’s Backstreet label, is the most passionate American rock LP since Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” in 1978.
Petty’s music isn’t as majestically designed as Springsteen’s and “Torpedoes” has weak spots, but the thrust of the nine-song collection echoes the self-affirmation found in the best rock. It’s music with vitality and purpose.
The heart of Petty’s album is in step with the youthful optimisn that Springsteen conveys in “Badlands,” the opening track on “Darkness”: “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.” In that line, Springsteen rips at the frustrations that grow out of the restraints placed on youth. Elsewhere in the song, he boasts: “We’ll keep pushin’ till it’s understood – And these badlands start treating us good.”
Springsteen’s music may rely on teen images of fast cars, rebellious nights and sexual desire, but his songs are too well crafted to be limited to a single age group. At their best, the songs strike at any force that stands between an individual and his legitimate aspirations.
The same is true of Petty’s music. The imagery in the Los Angeles-based rocker’s songs isn’t as stylized as it is in Springsteen’s, but the impact is often just as jolting. In the opening tune on “Torpedoes,” he offers his own challenge: “Everybody had to fight to be free – You see you don’t have to live like a refugee.”
This American optimism seperates Springsteen and Petty from Elvis Costello and Graham Parker, the best new British rock writers. Costello and Parker are equally passionate, but their lyrics are less confident about change. The tunes are usually embittered.
The difference in British and American attitudes appears more sociological than psychological. However tattered, the American Dream still seems possible in this country.
Florida-born Petty, 27, came to Los Angeles with his old Mudcrutches band in 1973. Inspired by fellow Floridians Duane and Gregg Allman’s success in getting a record contract here, Petty’s group made a demo tape in the band’s Gainesville living room and drove the 3,000 miles in a VW van.
The group eventually hooked up with Denny Cordell’s Shelter Records production company. The Mudcrutches had one single on MCA, but it flopped and the band broke up. Petty remained in Hollywood as a solo artist for Shelter, living in a $6-per-day motel. He attempted a solo LP in 1975, but didn’t think the LP had enough energy so he scrapped it.
Early in 1976, Petty ran into some members from rival Gainesville bands who had come out to California. They supplied the raw sound he desired, so the Heartbreakers was formed: Mike Campbell on guitar, Ron Blair on bass, Stan Lynch on drums and Ben Tench on keyboards.
The Heartbreakers’ excellent first album was released by ABC Records, but it wasn’t promoted heavily. The LP’s driving rock style was against the disco and soft-rock preferences of radio programmers at the time. Petty’s future looked bleak until the group toured Europe, where the live shows were acclaimed by critics and the album soared into the British Top 20. The experience reassured Petty there was stilla a market for solid, forceful rock.
Before starting on the second ABC album, he and manager Tony Dimitriades demanded a comittment from the company for more attention. ABC, which had undergone a top management change, followed through. The result was a Petty single, “Breakdown,” made the Top 40 and Petty’s second LP was certified gold (500,000 sales).
Petty was working on the third ABC album when he received a form letter saying the company — and his recording contract — had been purchased by ABC. Rather than “report” to the new label, Petty argued his ABC contract was nontransferable. MCA insisted the contract with Petty was valid. They ended up in court.
The dispute was resolved in a compromise when Petty was convinced to join MGM-financed Backstreet Records, which kept him in the MCA structure but guaranteed him the personal attention he wanted.
The turmoil of recent months surfaces at several points in “Torpedoes.” Petty touches on the loss of innocence in “Louisiana Rain,” the album’s most gripping song. Written before the lawsuit, “Rain” had already been recorded by Bonnie Tyler, but her version has almost none of the emotion Petty injects in his own.
Elsewhere in “Torpedoes,” Petty mocks the legal community in “Century City” and reasserts his own idealism in “Even the Losers” and “Here Comes My Girl,” both of which echo the exhilaration of such earlier Petty high points as “American Girl” and “Listen to Her Heart.”
But the fury of Petty’s career upheaval is felt in “Refugee,” the LP’s opening selection. You can feel the fervor in his voice as he sings about the emotional shock of what happened to him and the band.
The album, coproduced by Petty and Jimmy Iovine, moves away from the shadowly, nocturnal sound of Petty’s first two albums. While that costs the Heartbreakers some of the band’s individuality, the sound now is more accessible, thereby assuring the band of more radio air play than in the past. The drum and guitar parts of the record also are more dynamic.
Petty’s voice continues to wavet at times between Mick Jagger and Roger McGuinn influences, but he has more vocal control than Springsteen and his phrasing is increasingly bold. With stronger material on Side 2, “Torpedoes” could have been the perfect Petty album. The high points, however, are enough to qualify the LP has one of the year’s most gripping works and to edge Petty up another notch in the American rock hierarchy.