DVD Review of Classic Albums: Damn the Torpedoes

Glenn McDonald shares his review of Eagle Rock Entertainment’s new DVD/Blu-ray release of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album Damn The Torpedoes, which gets the Classic Albums treatment.

1979 was a grim year for straight-ahead, no-frills American rock ‘n’ roll. Disco fever was sweeping the nation, punk had risen from the gutters and the easy California sound of the Eagles and Jackson Browne dominated the Los Angeles recording industry establishment.

But then, from the unlikely Mecca of Gainesville, Fla., came a band with a rock sound both aggressively ambitious and deceptively simple. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would perfect that sound with their classic third album, Damn the Torpedoes.

Anchored by the band’s ace musicianship and buoyed by Petty’s seemingly effortless command of rock songwriting, the record rose to number two on the rock charts (Pink Floyd’s The Wall ruled everything that year and was the only album that kept Torpedoes from number one) and spawned three Top 40 singles (“Refugee,” “Here Comes My Girl” and “Don’t Do Me Like That”). With an outlaw spirit, Petty staked a claim for rock music at the dawn of the 1980s — a claim he has yet to surrender.

I’m hip to all this and a lot more, thanks to the latest release from Eagle Rock Entertainment’s excellent Classic Albums series of rock documentaries. If you’ve ever trolled VH1 or VH1 Classic, you’re already aware of this series. Each Classic Albums release focuses on one of rock’s marquee albums, inviting the artists and producers to break the record down in delightfully painstaking detail.

And I mean really painstaking. Probably the most compelling element of the series is the requisite scene in which individual songs are broken down track-by-track (drums, guitars, bass, vocals, etc.), with the artists literally sitting at the mixing board and excavating the original multitrack recordings.

With Damn the Torpedoes — available on DVD and Blu-ray — the filmmakers have covered all the bases. In various interview segments, commentary is provided by Petty, all the other original Heartbreakers, producer Jimmy Iovine, engineer Shelly Yakus and assorted rock critics and commentators. The result is a rich and detailed portrait of a classic album.

Supernatural Simplicity

Petty is a genuine songwriting savant, unanimously praised for the elegant simplicity of his work even if he’s sometimes accused of taking the path of least resistance to a groove (as if that was a bad thing). Several sequences in the documentary illustrate how very deliberate and sophisticated Petty’s process is.

“The songs are really easy to play,” says Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench. “If a song is too difficult to play, we’ll usually ditch it, because Tom’s theory is something’s wrong with the song.”

Indeed, a few scenes later, Petty says he tries with each of his songs to make sure they work even if played with only an acoustic guitar or piano.

Songwriters can tell you that that’s an enormously difficult trick to pull off. In fact, there are a lot of details revealed here likely to send songwriters into fits of jealous despair.

Sitting at the mixing board with co-producer Iovine, Petty recalls how, after hearing a proposed lick from Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, he wrote “Refugee” in “about 10 minutes.” In another amazing story, Petty says that during the making of Damn the Torpedoes he kept scat-singing the chorus to one of the album’s most popular tunes.

When it came time to cut his vocal track, Petty still didn’t have a lyric for the chorus, but he went ahead anyway. When the time came, he improvised — off the top of his head — one of rock’s all-time greatest lines: “Even the losers get lucky sometimes.”

“He’s got that thing I wish I had, that all songwriters wish they had, where he can just channel into that pool of ideas and just pull stuff out of the air whenever he wants to,” Campbell says later. “He’s always had that, from the first time I met him.”

“It’s something that just happens when it happens,” Petty says. “It’s not something you really wanna look in the eye. Because it’s a little supernatural, and you don’t want to mess with it.”

The Best of the Rest

While most of the attention is focused on Petty, the filmmakers also recognize contributions from his amazing backing band, Iovine and Yakus. One entertaining passage details the conflict between Iovine and drummer Stan Lynch, which resulted in Lynch’s temporary dismissal.

Tench and Yakus explain how one particular keyboard sound was achieved “by a cheap organ run through a speaker not meant for it and extreme misuse of professional audio equipment.” One understated scene shows Ron Blair thumbing a line on his bass, effortlessly bridging the melodic and rhythmic elements of one song’s bottom end.

Then there are the weird little bits and pieces of trivia, pure manna for rock geeks of a certain intensity. The song “Don’t Do Me Like That” was nearly given away to the J. Geils Band. Petty at one point notices that none of the songs on the record have a third verse.

Both the DVD and Blu-ray editions of the release include about 45 minutes of bonus material — the stuff you won’t see on VH1. Mostly these are extended scenes from interviews already in the main program, but a few (there are 11 bonus scenes in all) are unique. One particularly cool segment features the band jamming on “Even the Losers” long after the fade-out heard on the album version.

A testament to the popularity of the Classic Albums series: Subtitles are provided in Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish.

Tom Petty fans will find plenty to keep them occupied here, but music nuts in general can appreciate the professional-grade rock scholarship presented in the Classic Albums series. As one observer put it, with Damn the Torpedoes, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers proved themselves “24-karat rockers” in an era of ersatz rock ‘n’ roll glitter. No argument here.

Mike Campbell, a fan of a Gretsch double-cutaway 6120 Nashville, a 1956 Fire Jet Gretsch and the White Falcon, talks about the making of
Damn the Torpedoes in this video trailer below.

Campbell’s guitar tech, Chinner, also shows off the White Falcon in an exclusive tompetty.com 36-second video. Watch it now!