Album: Damn The Torpedoes
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Once in a generation, if that often, there comes along a band that quite literally cannot make a "bad" album even if they tried. Sometimes this is due to the time period in which they began, sometimes it is due to a single member of the band, but in at least one case, it is because the entire group never lost sight of the number one rule of music: have fun. It is with this in mind that one can instantly understand the appeal and success that Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers have experienced for more than thirty years, as their blend of hard rock, punk, and folk continues to gain new fans in each new generation, and many of their songs have become anthems of youth. From "American Girl" to "Learning To Fly" to "The Last D.J.," the band have proved time and time again that their unique musical blend is second to none, and their live performances are as good as one could want in a "real" rock show. Due to these circumstances, it is difficult to pin down an era, let alone and album or song that sets itself apart from the rest of the bands' work, and yet there is a certain raw feeling that one finds more present on their early records. This is perhaps why many point to 1979's Damn The Torpedoes as their greatest work, and it is supported by the fact that the record sat at the second spot on the charts for a number of weeks. Without a missed note anywhere on the record, one can find everything that makes the music of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers so fantastic in their 1979 single, "Regugee."
If one sees Tom Petty as a band leader in the sense beyond just a frontman, then one can easily make the case that The Heartbreakers are in the top two or three greatest backing bands in all of music history. The power behind "Refugee" comes from its co-writer, guitarist Mike Campbell, and the tone and attitude that he brings to the core riff make the song instantly unforgettable. There is a grind and swagger in his playing that is rather similar to a punk sound, and it is the way in which he keeps this tone, yet also brings a bluesy, Southern rock feel that makes it so amazing. This connection to the punk spirit can also be heard in the fact that there is only a very brief solo, and there is no "wasted time" anywhere on the song. Furthermore, the mood that is set by the organ playing of Benmont Trench evokes the spirit of bands like The Allman Brothers, and yet there is a sting to the sound that makes it completely unique. This distinctive feel on "Refugee" goes even deeper with the percussion from Stan Lynch, as along with his fantastic drumming, an uncredited Jim Keltner adds in small fills with a shaker and other instruments that give the song a depth like no other song. Bassist Ron Blair is right there with the rest of the band, as he winds the progression in brilliant ways, holding the song together on many levels. The way in which the group feeds off of one another makes their chemistry undeniable, and the power that they bring on "Refugee" without ever getting "too loud" proves just how talented each of them were, and why the song remains such a classic.
In a similar way to how The Heartbreakers mix together a number of different influences, the same can be said of the vocal work from Tom Petty. Without question, Petty possesses one of the most instantly recognizable voices in history, and it is impossible to avoid comparisons to the sound of Bob Dylan. However, Petty takes a far more aggressive vocal approach, and this is likely due to the emergence of hard rock and punk rock in the years preceding the formation of his band. Also sounding much like the music over which he sings, there is a swagger and attitude in Petty's voice, and this gives his songs an edge and mood that sets the band apart from nearly every musical categorization. However, Petty has also shown throughout his career that he is one of the most talented writers in history, and the characters and situations which he creates are as pure and easy to relate to as any song ever written. On "Refugee," Petty crafts one of the most uniquely brilliant "jaded lover" songs ever composed, and the feeling of pain and frustration that he brings is unlike anything else in music history. Making the song truly universal, Petty almost scolds the antagonist when he sings, "...baby we ain't the first, I'm sure a lot of other lovers been burned..." and there is a tone in his voice throughout the song that is so perfect, no other band has ever dared to make another recording of the song.
Truth be told, Damn The Torpedoes is a record that almost never happened. In the months preceding the recording, Petty was locked in a massive legal battle with his record label that would eventually leave him bankrupt. Staying true to himself (and in many ways, the punk spirit), Petty did all he can to try and free himself from the major label to which he was signed as a result of Shelter Records being purchased by Arista and MCA in 1977. After the suit was settled (with Petty on the new MCA subsidiary, Backstreet), Petty quickly wrote a number of new songs, as well as pulling out some songs he made with his first band, Mudcrutch. The fact that the songs came together so quickly, yet resulted in what is without question the breakthrough record for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers is nothing short of stunning. While one can make the case that many work best under heavy pressure, this seems to go so far beyond that idea, that the success of Damn The Torpedoes is almost inexplicable. Yet the superb blend of blues, hard rock, and traces of punk, combined with the extraordinary level of talent within the band members makes it somewhat understandable, as before or since, there has simply never been another group that even comes close to their sound. This can also be seen in the fact that more than thirty years after their first releases, the bands' songs are still in regular rotation and they remain one of the largest concert draws in the world. Though it is hard to find a "bad" song anywhere in their catalog, everything there is to love about Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers can be found in their pivotal 1979 single, "Refugee."