Petty’s rereleased album revisits career-defining moments
By Bill Dean
Gainesville Sun — Tuesday, November 16, 2010
By the start of 1980, Tom Petty was a 29-year-old Gainesville rocker pursuing the rock ‘n’ roll dream in the halcyon land of Los Angeles. He and his band the Heartbreakers had had some success; their self-titled debut album introduced the songs “Breakdown” and “American Girl” in 1976, and their follow-up, “You’re Gonna Get It,” crept up to No. 22 on Billboard’s top 200 albums chart two years later.
But it was the group’s third and decisive album — the hit-filled “Damn the Torpedoes” — that announced to the world that the band had fully arrived. It hit No. 2 on Billboard, sold more than 2 million copies and contained four songs that would become kings on album-rock radio, “Here Comes My Girl,” “Event the Losers,” “Don’t Do Me Like That” and the ultimate kiss-off to authority, “Refugee.”
The latter song and the album itself — which has just been rereleased in a two-CD, deluxe edition with nine bonus cuts including the unreleased, studio tracks “Surrender” and “Nowhere” — became simultaneously a statement of defiance to record-company meddling and proof that young rock ‘n’ rollers could prevail without becoming “refugees.”
After releasing the group’s first two albums, Petty found himself in an acrimonious swirl that sent him into bankruptcy and threatened to keep him in the depths of record industry servitude unless something changed. MCA had purchased the parent company of the Heartbreaker’s original record label and had no intention of changing the typically unfair terms that greeted new artists at the time — essentially that they didn’t own the rights to their own songs and had no creative control.
As recounted in “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” the 2007 film and book chronicling the band’s story, Petty faced a patronizing, defiant onslaught from high-powered, record-company attorneys, who attempted to swat him away like an annoying, rock ‘n’ roll gnat.
“MCA brings me to this big lawyer,” Petty said in the book version, referring to the attorney as “the big guy.” “He says ‘Let me tell you something kid. You’re going to forget this whole thing. You don’t have a leg to stand on here. You shut up and go make your records.'”
But that set Petty off like lighting the fuse to a bottled-up firecracker.
“Look, I will sell ——- peanuts before I give in to you,” Petty retorted. “You can break me, but you can’t make records,” Petty said. “And I ain’t going to buckle … I will file for bankruptcy and take it all the way to the Supreme Court if I have to.”
The rest is musical history: Petty did file for bankruptcy — thus voiding his original contract — and won back his publishing rights and creative control.
And “Damn the Torpedoes”? It shot through the music-world stratosphere to become a career-defining work, one that still resonates decades later to fans and artist alike.
“‘Damn The Torpedoes’ I think is a classic record, and will always be around,” Petty said in Paul Zollo’s 2005 book, “Conversations with Tom Petty.”
“It really broke some ground as far as sound and creating a style of music. That one I’m very proud of. I always like to hear it.”