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“Everybody’s Had to Fight to Be Free”: Tom Petty’s ‘Damn the Torpedoes’ Turns 40

Recorded at a time of roiling complication for the Heartbreakers, Petty’s virtuosic hooks and desire for resonance made this the band’s finest—and angriest—album

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As Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers prepared to record their third album, they faced roiling complications. Legal entanglements pertaining to an unsavory record contract and publishing deal signed early in the band’s career threatened to slow their hard-won momentum, and tensions simmered between members as Petty’s long-gestating ascension—from first-among-equals to full-fledged focal point—came to fruition. Estranged from their label, short on cash, and alienated from the dream that had long sustained them, the group marinated in uncertainty.

The resulting album Damn the Torpedoes, which turns 40 this week, is arguably the band’s finest (and certainly its angriest); its release represents the moment in which Petty’s virtuosic knack for hooks and seemingly limitless capacity for umbrage alchemized into a sound and persona that would launch the Heartbreakers into megastardom. It also occurred at a fascinating pivot point in the music industry, a juncture when punk’s critical and commercial blitzkrieg had lit a fire under more traditionally minded rockers ranging from Bruce Springsteen to the Rolling Stones. And Tom Petty, too.

In his magnificent 2015 biography Petty, author Warren Zanes recounts an incident that occurred a couple of years prior to the recording of Damn the Torpedoes, during the Heartbreakers’ first tour of Europe. They were visiting a radio station in Holland and were startled to run across a promo record that featured their song on one side and one from the Ramones on the other. Petty’s group—which was assembled from the remnants of the rootsy Gainesville, Florida, act Mudcrutch and prodigious practitioners of revved up Southern boogie—evinced an appreciative enthusiasm for boundary-pushing punk acts from New York and London, but felt no innate kinship. It’s possible that something had been lost in translation and the station had mistaken Petty’s group for the other Heartbreakers fronted by Ramones associate and CBGB denizen Johnny Thunders. Or it’s possible the station knew Tom Petty and his outfit better than they knew themselves.

Indeed, European media and tastemakers are frequently more perceptive about American music early on than its home audience. In the Heartbreakers’ case, the British press helped to grow the band’s reputation by cognitively mapping them not as an updated Allman Brothers, but rather alongside critically adored punk-adjacent pub rockers like the tunefully defiant Nick Lowe and the anguished, writerly Elvis Costello. Within the roots-rock/punk Venn diagram, an astonishing number of great albums were released in 1979, including Costello’s Armed Forces, Lowe’s Labour of Lust, Graham Parker’s Squeezing Out Sparks, the Clash’s London Calling, and Joe Jackson’s I’m the Man. It is within this hybrid micro-genre that Damn the Torpedoes’s ornery heart resides. In spiritual terms, it is as close to punk as Petty would get, and the better for it: It’s a bare-knuckles brawler of a record with blood in its mouth and seemingly limitless scores to settle.

In rock star terms, Tom Petty always cut a highly unorthodox figure—elusive, sphinx-like, and, in an industry premised entirely on youth culture, never what one would call a fresh face. Both his music and his brusque persona showed a man of great impatience, one who would ultimately wind up writing hit songs featuring refrains like “let’s get to the point” and “the waiting is the hardest part.” By 1979, Petty was approaching 30 years old, married and raising a family. He was an adult with grown-up responsibilities who believed his entrée into the popular canon had been unjustly delayed by the machinations of an industry he was quickly coming to resent. He was ready—desperate, really—to get to the point.

The Heartbreakers’ first two records, 1976’s self-titled debut and 1978’s follow-up, You’re Gonna Get It!, were rough and ready affairs, reflecting the bucking-bronco energy of a live wire band finally getting its long-delayed shot in the studio. Filled with energetic performances and three-minute confections, the albums yielded classic rock staples like “American Girl” and “Breakdown” and gained the group both radio and live-act footholds, including opening for everyone from KISS to the Kinks. But Petty’s impulses ran darker. He aspired to something more bruised and resonant.

Enter Jimmy Iovine, future billionaire music mogul, Interscope president, and founder of Beats, who at that time was a hustling New York studio engineer looking to make his way up the food chain. Petty was impressed by the deep-blue mood and the noirish gloss of the Patti Smith cover of Springsteen’s “Because the Night” that Iovine had produced. Iovine had in turn expressed similar admiration for Petty’s material. Petty’s and Iovine’s backgrounds were different, but their greater essence matched. Each was ambitious to a borderline pathological extent, and both perceived the other as a means to actualizing their respective destinies. It took them all of one track to prove both of their instincts correct.

Echoing the dark-clouds-gathering maelstrom of the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” the drum hit and organ sweep of “Refugee” ushers in one of the genre’s great opening gambits—a slow rock classic that finds Petty tapping deep into his advanced-stage victim complex and discovering his best song ever, a brooding contemplation on dislocations of every sort: romantic, artistic, professional, and perhaps even geopolitical. For an artist who spent much of his life running in progressive Hollywood circles, the small-c conservative themes of self-reliance and obdurate endurance that run deeply throughout Petty’s work are inescapable. Many (even most) things make him crazy, but none so much as self-pity. “Tell me, why you wanna lay there / and revel in your abandon?” is the crucial sentiment in “Refugee.” To the extent that the exploited play any role in their own subjugation, his sympathies are nonexistent.

Side 1 of Damn the Torpedoes plays like a primer on Petty’s great songwriting strengths. The bold-stroke melodrama of “Refugee” segues into the effervescent charm and Byrds-copping jangle of “Here Comes My Girl,” which is followed by the underdog manifesto “Even the Losers.” These are tracks with towering hooks that announce themselves as instant standards, and Iovine concocts a soundscape to match—echoey, immediate, and lightly menacing, with Benmont Tench’s prominent keys invoking the specter of Al Kooper’s work on Bob Dylan’s template-setting 1965 classic Highway 61 Revisited.

By this juncture, Petty had not yet codified the friendship with Dylan that would lead to the Heartbreakers acting as his touring band for parts of the ’80s and eventually set into motion the convening of titans known as the Traveling Wilburys. Nevertheless, the legend’s daunting shadow looms large over the album, mostly reflected in Petty’s exhilarating phrasing that makes tracks like the relatively pedestrian blues-workout “Century City” dynamic and surprising.

Damn the Torpedoes’s flip side commences with one of Petty’s most brilliant, intuitive inventions. He’d originally intended to hand over “Don’t Do Me Like That” to the J. Geils Band, but when Iovine heard the demo he became apoplectic at the notion that it might be given away. History has certainly ratified his outraged impulse. From the indelible four-chord intro to the naggingly insistent chorus to the universally relatable please-don’t-fuck-me-over sentiment, it’s Petty’s “Sweet Jane,” an unforgettable piece of artisanal rock-craft that both honors and updates early heroes like Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis.

If Side 1 is an indisputable murderers’ row packed with Petty classics, the second side’s collection of mid-tempo slow burns and misfit tunes is arguably more fascinating. The nightmare, breakup-as-biblical-apocalypse “You Tell Me” swaggers along to a Muscle Shoals–worthy groove as good as anything the group has ever wrangled. And the haltingly beautiful album closer, “Louisiana Rain,” spotlights Petty’s deepening talents as a ballad writer, with its evocative imagery of pills eaten like candy and soaked-through shoes suggesting something like Walker Percy fronting CCR.

Even outtakes such as the Hollies–like “Surrender” underscore the powerful creative heater that Petty was on with its toe-tapping account of romance curdling into toxic jealousy. “You tell me why you have to pretend / I don’t like the way you’re looking at him,” he sings, inverting the ferocious declaration of personal freedom made on “Refugee” into an equally desperate demand for something like total supplication.

Upon its release, Damn the Torpedoes was an immediate smash—it reached no. 2 on Billboard’s album charts—and also had immense staying power, and was eventually certified triple platinum. The Petty-Iovine pairing proved to be a powerhouse and the two would go on to work together on the successful follow-ups Hard Promises and Long After Dark. Just as Petty never experienced a boyish phase, seeming to always be temperamentally and aesthetically older than he actually was, the inverse was also true: Decades went by without his sound or appearance feeling like it’d aged a day. He was 38 by the full flowering of his commercial success—his 1989 hit-filled solo extravaganza Full Moon Fever—but he may as well have been 25 or 100. He and the Heartbreakers continued to fill arenas up until months before his death in 2017 at the age of 66.

A final irony of Petty’s life and career is that for a performer so baldly aggrieved, he is one of the great consensus generators in the history of the rock tradition. Few are immune to the immense charms of his best-known songs or fail to enjoy tearing down the highway to “Don’t Come Around Here No More” or “I Won’t Back Down.” In a time of seemingly infinite polarization, his truculent, life-affirming catalog is likely one of the few things most Americans can actually agree upon. Forty years later, Damn the Torpedoes serves as the pivot point when Petty first harnessed his rage into a populist juggernaut. Punk taught him that anger could be power. Few performers ever wielded it more effectively.

Elizabeth Nelson is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist, television writer, and singer-songwriter in the garage-punk band the Paranoid Style.