Damn the Torpedoes, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ third album, has yet again been reissued for the masses (it was remastered and re-released once before in 2001), and as cliche as it may sound, the record remains so incredibly fresh that it hardly needs a good reason to be repackaged. This time around some outtakes that never quite made the cut, alternate takes and a few live ditties from a show at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on the tour that ensued after the record's release have been thrown in.
The alternate take of the classic “Refugee” is a particularly entertaining outing that shows Petty’s ability to evoke Dylan’s lyrical delivery and cadence. This would sound like a jab at authenticity if this songwriter and his band weren’t so deftly, proudly and transparently honest about their heavy reliance on the stylings of other rock & roll legends. Besides, in 1979, it would have been hard to say whether or not these musicians would stay in it for the long hall. But the fact is that here they are 30 years later well cemented in the lineage of American rock stardom.
In great rock & roll tradition, Damn the Torpedoes has a backstory shrouded in conflict and controversy. In 1979, MCA bought out the band’s record label (Shelter) and Petty, never one to “back down” (pun intended) from a fight over creative control, wasn’t having it. In fact, he drove the band into total bankruptcy putting up a fight. In the midst of all of this stress and madness, he and the guys threw together a few tunes, which all people not living in a box know by heart, namely “Refugee,” “Don't Do Me Like That,” “Here Comes My Girl” and “Even the Losers.” These tracks and five others about girls and unrequited love came together in a huge hurry and were released that October as the appropriately titled classic that we know and love. Why appropriately titled you ask? Well, like so many of these record label and artist battles go, the good guys lost and MCA retained the band with some degree of compromise along with the rights to release the record, hence the sentiment.
All of the pontification, backstory, debating and exposition does nothing to honor the pure joy of listening to these nine gorgeous tracks by a band so deserving of their status in American culture. Say what you will about their “formula” or “mimicry,” but they’ve hardly ever been trendy, never stopped touring, and remain tighter, more melodic, more harmony-conscious and talented than nearly any working band in the mainstream for the last 35 years. Without Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ breakthrough record, modern music would not have been the same, and we would have had no demarcation of quality in rock & roll. The band’s ensuing body of work and success remain a compass for what is good about the American rock tradition.