Aah, Tom…I miss you so bad it hurts. At least your music is still here and that’ll have to be enough.
Disc 1101 is… Damn the Torpedoes
Artist: Tom Petty
Year of Release: 1979
What’s up with the Cover? A man and his Rickenbacker. How do I know it’s a Rickenbacker you ask? It’s written on the head.
How I Came To Know It: Years ago I decided I needed more Tom Petty in my life. Once I decided that, “Damn the Torpedoes” was one of the first albums I bought. This copy is remastered, and I expect I bought it shortly after its 2001 re-release.
How It Stacks Up: I have 16 Tom Petty albums. This one and “Wildflowers” (reviewed way back at Disc 385) are essentially tied for the best, and I tend to lean to whichever one I’ve heard last. Since “Damn the Torpedoes” was heard last, I’m putting it at #1.
Ratings: 5 stars
“Damn the Torpedoes” is one of rock and roll’s greatest albums. It is so massive in our collective consciousness that people think it was Petty’s debut, its collective brilliance somehow temporarily scrubbing our minds of classics like “American Girl.” It shouldn’t be that easy to forget about her, but albums like “Damn the Torpedoes” just don’t come around very often.
The clever mix of boogie woogie, country, new wave and Buddy Holly-esque rock that Petty created on his debut record three years earlier is all still here, but he has learned to boil it down and blend it to the point where it has become something new. If his debut record was the dawn of the Iron Age, then “Damn the Torpedoes” is the invention of steel; stronger, suppler and just prettier to look at.
That’s not to say Tom has lost his edge here – he hasn’t. The opening bars of “Refugee” is sublime and polished, but Petty’s vocals are greasy and hurt-filled, the perfect counterbalance, holding your ear in that middle space until the band kicks into full gear and bridges the gap with the sweet, sweet sounds of rock and roll.
The next track is a romantic crooner of a rock song. With “Here Comes My Girl” the “American Girl” is returned but is now grounded in personal connection. It’s when you realize that the perfect girl is your girl, looking so right and all you need tonight. Ain’t love grand? Half of this song is Petty just talking, but his jam is so compelling it sounds as artful as the finest crooner.
On “Even the Losers” Petty creates a timeless ballad for everyone who has ever felt like they were on the outside looking in. The song opens grounded in the desires of every person who ever found himself alone with the girl of his dreams, and screwed up his courage to make a move:
“Well it was nearly summer, we sat on your roof
Yeah, we smoked cigarettes and we stared at the moon
And I showed you stars you never could see
Baby, it couldn’t a been that easy to forget about me.”
Maybe it didn’t work out in the long term, but Petty chooses to see the glory in the moment, not the failure that follows. Never has a break up song been so damned positive.
All three of those songs are hits, but the record is packed with deep cuts that will draw you in, like old friends that you are happy to hear from again and again. “Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid)” has a melody that soars in the high notes at the front end, and then walks down on the back end. It tells the tale of a complex kid with a complex arrangement, but never feels forced or busy.
“Don’t Do Me Like That” incorporates New Wave and a Springsteen-like organ run. Or does Springsteen incorporate Tom Petty-style organ? When you’ve got giants of that magnitude it’s hard to get the perspective needed to see who is taller.
When that song ends Petty immediately switches to a slow moving blues track, “You Tell Me,” and it feels as natural as breathing. It helps to have Mike Campbell on guitar and Benmont Tench on organ, mind you. These guys are also giants on their instruments and both are at the height of their powers on “Damn the Torpedoes.”
The record ends with “Louisiana Rain” a six-minute road trip track that starts with a weird synth sound that reminds you of the Eurythmics, before shifting gears to a slow ballad of a man in the rain, struggling with heartache and bad habits in equal measure. If there is a better song for taking a walk in the rain, I can’t think of it right now.
“Damn the Torpedoes” is a perfect piece of art, wrapped up artfully in nine songs and 36 minutes. It was so short it always leaves me wanting more, but only for the few seconds it takes to skip back to the beginning and push ‘play’.
Best tracks: all tracks