Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are one of the great rock and roll bands of the American Heartland. Every bit as accessible as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, they’re huge in the USA, yet they have always had oddly inconsistent commercial success in the UK. This is really rather odd, as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers enjoyed their initial success in the UK and they have remained one of the most consistently pleasing rock and roll bands over the last four decades, with even their lesser albums having moments of greatness.
Through line up changes, Petty’s own on / off / on again / off again solo career and his extra-curricular activities as a Travelling Wilbury, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have had a number of producers, particularly flourishing under the production methods of Jimmy Iovine and Rick Rubin, and surviving those of Jeff Lynne, releasing a string of rock and roll albums which strike a fine balance between radio friendly rock, rootsy songwriting, unmistakable guitar work (take a bow Mike Campbell) and the sound of one of a band unfailingly pulling in the same direction.
While their lengthy career is studded with highlights, for many the apex of their brilliance was reached on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ third album, Damn the Torpedoes. Despite record company wrangles, the recording of the album seemed relatively straight ahead, and the resulting album features a number of songs that remain staples of classic rock radio, with “Refugee”, “Here Comes my Girl” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” all being released as singles and all standing up as great songs today. Amazingly, as great as these three tracks are, they don’t overshadow the rest of Damn the Torpedoes, as album tracks like “Even the Losers” and “Century City” are as well loved by fans of streamlined rock and roll as any of their singles. There’s also a few hidden gems, most precious of which is “Louisiana Rain”, a song which sounds oddly ageless and fulfils all the criteria to be considered a classic album closer.
Throughout Damn the Torpedoes’ economic run time, it’s a perfectly balanced and weighted album. Every track justifies its place on the album and it doesn’t drag itself out or sound rushed. Jimmy Iovine’s production has ensured that the album doesn’t sound dated in anyway and keyboard player Benmont Tench confirms his place as the band’s secret weapon, something underlined by his parallel career as an in demand session musician. The whole band sounds tight, utterly comfortable with going about the task of being an elite rock and roll act, yet never labouring the point. Solos are economical, songs are of a traditional verse / chorus, verse / chorus structure, Petty is in fine voice and the whole thing slots together seamlessly without any major flaws or dips in quality.
For those looking to immerse themselves in the work of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, yet are allergic to compilations and don’t want to take the chronological route, Damn the Torpedoes is a smart place to start. While all of their albums have something to recommend them, it’s no accident that this is the one that’s considered their best.