Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Damn the Torpedoes – Classic Music Review
You might think that following Chumbawamba with Tom Petty makes for an odd pairing, but contrary bitch that I am, I would argue that in at least one sense they’re two sides of the same coin.
In addition to their common defense of artistic freedom, both Tom Petty and Chumbawamba were champions of the underdog, encouraging people mired in hopelessness to never give up. Chumbawamba worked from a socio-political perspective, championing political and social causes in defense of the working classes. Tom Petty’s approach was more or less apolitical and leaned toward individual empowerment, encouraging listeners to recognize that no matter how dire the situation, they always have choices.
Unlike Chumbawamba, who clearly set out on a mission to raise awareness and change minds, Tom Petty had no such agenda—he was a rocker first, foremost and forever. That said, we can’t forget that at its core, rock ‘n’ roll is the music of defiance and rebellion, and that spirit pervaded Tom Petty’s music from the get-go—as clearly demonstrated in the early single release, “Anything That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll”:
. . . Your mama don’t like itWhen you run around with meBut we got to hip your mama That you got to live free Don’t need her Don’t need school You don’t like your daddy And you don’t like rules
Damn the Torpedoes turned out to be the breakthrough album for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers because they embraced that rebellious spirit in songs about the real-life struggles of everyday people, written in straightforward language that anyone who had experienced those challenges could understand and appreciate.
In the year following the release of Damn the Torpedoes, after the album had become a smashing success in several English-speaking countries, Tom Petty explained the motivation behind the songs in an interview with NME (via Songfacts): “I wanted to write anthems for underdogs, songs like ‘Even The Losers’ and ‘Refugee’ . . . The theme of the album wasn’t self-conscious but when I put it together afterward I could see it was about standing up for your rights, the ones that everyone has which can’t be fucked with or taken away.” During the period when the album was recorded, Tom felt that his unfuckable rights were threatened by backdoor dealing in the music business, a situation that put him in a pretty ornery mood and likely had some influence in shaping the album’s theme.
On the other hand, I think that critics and music historians who have argued that record company fuckery was the primary influence on the tone and content of Damn the Torpedoes are way off the mark—Tom Petty’s affinity for underdogs was in his DNA. The twin themes of defending the underdog and standing up for one’s rights run throughout his work, from “Refugee” to “I Won’t Back Down.” As he recalled in Conversations with Tom Petty, he learned the value of standing up for himself in the context of his relationship with his hard-drinking, tough-guy father, who attempted to school him in the manly arts of hunting and fishing:
It was kind of mandatory for a while that I went with him. But I never liked it. My dad was a hard man, hard to be around. He was really hard on me. He wanted me to be a lot more macho than I was. I was this real sort of tender, emotional kid. More inclined to the arts than shooting something. I didn’t want to be trapped in a boat with him all day.
Tom also resisted classic peer pressure conformity in high school, determined to form his own life path through music:
I have never been to a prom in my life. It cost me a girlfriend at one point . . . I couldn’t go to the prom because I was playing another prom. So the only prom I ever saw was from the stage. I never had that kind of life. I wasn’t taking part in high-school activities. I was in a band. I was never in the in-crowd at school. I always saw it as irrelevant after I started to become a professional musician at the age of fifteen. The whole social circle seemed completely irrelevant to me.
Tom Petty wrote songs in defense of underdogs and outcasts because their experience was his experience.
Though the critical reception of Damn the Torpedoes was universally positive, you can always depend on Robert Christgau to add a “Yes, but . . . ”
This is a breakthrough for Petty because for the first time the Heartbreakers . . . are rocking as powerfully as he’s writing. But whether Petty has any need to rock out beyond the sheer doing of it—whether he has anything to say—remains shrouded in banality. Thus he establishes himself as the perfect rock and roller for those who want good—very good, because Petty really knows his stuff—rock and roll that can be forgotten as soon as the record or the concert is over, rock and roll that won’t disturb your sleep, your conscience, or your precious bodily rhythms.
This is what happens when a guy grows up in Queens and forgets all about where he came from after getting a B. A. in English at Dartmouth. Christgau completely failed to recognize the underdog theme that runs through Tom Petty’s music, probably because Tom did not imbue his lyrics with faux poetic trappings and had the unmitigated gall to communicate in straight talk.
I find Christgau’s assessment rather . . . petty.
In an article that appears in Far Out, Tom described what motivated him to write “Refugee.”
This was a reaction to the pressures of the music business. I wound up in a huge row with the record company when ABC Records tried to sell our contract to MCA Records without us knowing about it, despite a clause in our contract that said they didn’t have the right to do that. I was so angry with the whole system that I think that had a lot to do with the tone of the Damn the Torpedoes album. I was in this defiant mood. I wasn’t so conscious of it then, but I can look back and see what was happening. I find that’s true a lot. It takes some time usually before you fully understand what’s going on in a song – or maybe what led up to it.
All well and good, but what’s important is what Tom didn’t do with those feelings—he didn’t write a woe-is-me-my-record-company-fucked-me-boo-hoo song but translated his experience to something everyone runs into sooner or later: having to deal with someone who has given up.
The word “refugee” is a pretty loaded word that triggers wildly different reactions from people at opposite ends of the moral spectrum. For the compassionate, a refugee is a person who through no fault of their own needs our help. When those opposed to immigration hear the word, they mimic the attitude of the narrator in the Pulp song “Weeds” by Jarvis Cocker: “Because we got no homes they call us smelly refugees.” I had a hard time linking Tom Petty’s use of the word with either of those extremes, so I did some research and found les mots justes in a comment by Walter Byrd on songmeanings.com.
“A refugee is somebody who does not have choices.”
In this case, it’s a girl who just got dumped and who believes she has no choices. Tom appropriately calls out her self-induced, poor-me bullshit:
Somewhere, somehow somebody
Must have kicked you around some
Tell me why you want to lay there
Revel in your abandon
Honey, it don’t make no difference to me baby
Everybody’s had to fight to be free
You see you don’t have to live like a refugee
Co-writer and lead guitarist Mike Campbell recalled in a Songfacts interview that “Refugee” was an absolute bitch to record: “We just had a hard time getting the feel right. We must have recorded that 100 times. I remember being so frustrated with it one day that – I think this is the only time I ever did this – I just left the studio and went out of town for two days. I just couldn’t take the pressure anymore, but then I came back and when we regrouped we were actually able to get it down on tape.” If you listen to the alternative take on the Deluxe Edition, the problem is obvious: the music simply wasn’t tough enough. Playing nicey-nice with this chick wasn’t going to cut it—she needed a metaphorical whack upside the head and the music didn’t convey that need.
The final version corrects that problem through sharper syncopation on guitars and drums, greater prominence to the organ (courtesy of Belmont Tench), filling some of the previously empty spaces on the chorus with response vocals and adding a proper (if brief) lead guitar solo. On the alt-version, Tom’s vocal occasionally suffers from an obvious drop in energy, but he’s in full command on the final take, lowering his voice only when appropriate and really letting it rip in the closing lines of the verses and all the way through the choruses. In my always humble opinion, settling for the alt-take would have relegated the track to album filler status (if that), but the reimagined published version makes for a muscular and damned exciting opener.
“Here Comes My Girl” is another song that Mike Campbell also identified as a challenge, but this time the sticking point had to do with the vocal. “‘Here Comes My Girl’ was interesting because we had the chorus and Tom wasn’t sure how to do the verse, he kept trying to sing it different ways and he finally came across sort of half-talking it, and that’s when the song seemed to come to life.” Likely channeling his brief stints as a gravedigger and a groundkeeper, Tom slips into the role of working stiff to narrate a true-to-life, undeniably poignant version of the relationship-as-refuge theme:
Every now and then I get down to the end of the day
I’ll just stop, ask myself why I’ve done it?
It just seems so useless to have to work so hard
And nothing ever really seem to come from it
And then she looks me in the eye and says
“We’re gonna last forever and ever”
And you know I can’t begin to doubt it
No, ’cause it just feels so good and so free and so right
I know we ain’t never going to change our minds about it, hey
Here comes my girl
Here comes my girl
Yeah, and she looks so right
She is all I need tonight
Banality my ass. A loving relationship is our primary defense against “the whole wide world” and its toxic obsession with status. When we’re forced to take a low-status job in order to pay the rent or dig ourselves out of a financial hole, the experience threatens our self-worth and ignites feelings of hopelessness. Coming home at the end of a hard day to someone who loves and believes in you reminds you of what really matters in the long run. That kind of support also helps to restore your self-confidence, giving you the exhilarating freedom to “tell the whole wide world to shove it.” The lyrics may not be clever or original, but the language mirrors how most people communicate in the real world, and Tom’s sincerity imbues those words with tangible meaning.
The music for this piece is appropriately toned down in comparison to “Refugee,” marked by bright arpeggios on a Rickenbacker, Tench’s tinkly piano and solid rhythmic contrast between Stan Lynch’s slightly relaxed drumming and Ron Blair’s pulsating bass. The band avoids the temptation to overdo it on what Tom identified as a Byrds-inspired chorus, coloring the moment of togetherness in sounds of blessed relief.
“Even the Losers” begins with a fragment of demo-quality bash involving drums, bass and acoustic guitar, followed by Mike Campbell’s wife shouting, “It’s just the normal noises in here.” We don’t hear what precipitated Ms. Campbell’s shout, but it was probably in response to Mike Campbell yelling, “Hey! I’m trying to record a demo here! What’s that fucking noise?” I’m not sure what all this has to do with “Even the Losers,” but I rather like the insertion because it tells me the band was relaxed and having some fun during the sessions.
And I like it despite the fact that it delays my enjoyment of one of my favorite songs on the album—and definitely my absolute favorite band performance.
If you look at the chords and time signature, you might yawn, “Ho, hum.” A-D-G-C and the classic Byrds Asus4 set to 4/4 time. Whoop-de-do.
This is why chord sheets, tabs and even sheet music should always be taken with a grain of salt: they suck at capturing syncopation. Yeah, you can count out the 4/4 time with ease but the guitars and bass strike between the beats and Stan Lynch uses the fills to throw in his own syncopated contributions. The Heartbreakers essentially produced a rhythmic masterpiece that eludes attempts to capture the excitement on paper and turns out to be surprisingly tricky to duplicate (says me, the shitty guitar player). “Even the Losers” is also one of Tom’s strongest and most heartfelt vocals on the album, aided by a strong melody and those lovely Rickenbacker guitar fills. Tom didn’t mention anything about a Byrds influence on “Even the Losers,” but I think it’s more obvious here than on “Here Comes My Girl.”
I had to laugh at Wikipedia’s wimpy approach to the backstory of “Even the Losers” (italics mine):
The song was inspired by a night Petty had spent with a woman named Cindy and some friends in his hometown of Gainesville, Florida when he was young. Cindy had been the object of a junior high school crush of his. Unlike in school, Cindy liked him that night . . . The next morning Cindy said their relationship was limited to the previous night. Years later, that night was very much on his mind when he wrote “Even the Losers.”
Hey, Wikipedia, we can take it! She “liked him” enough to “fuck him,” right? “The relationship was limited to the previous night” means “one-night-stand,” doesn’t it? While my foul language may not meet your editorial standards, I’d be perfectly comfortable with “she liked him enough to have sex with him,” or “she liked him enough to make love with him,” or even “Tom got lucky and fulfilled a long-standing sexual fantasy.” Treat us like adults, for fuck’s sake!
Of course, the tale is really just a vehicle for Tom to lodge a protest against the loser status assigned to him by Cindy and the high-school in-crowd, but rather than using the opportunity to brag about his good fortune and deliver a “Nyah, nyah, you said I was a loser but now I’m a rock star” message, he gently reminds his detractors that even a loser is a human being who deserves a modicum of respect:
Baby, even the losers
Get lucky sometimes
Even the losers
Keep a little bit of pride
They get lucky sometimes
I also love the humility Tom demonstrates when admitting that part of the problem is that he had a hard time letting go of past slights:
I shoulda known right then it was too good to last
God, it’s such a drag when you’re livin’ in the past
“Shadow of a Doubt (Complex Kid)” frequently served as the opening number for their live shows and the live version included in the Deluxe Edition confirms the wisdom of that decision as the boys leap from the disarming introduction straight into a full-bodied rocker that always twiddles my diddle. I’d say it’s pretty likely that the song gives the straight men in the audience a boost of blessed testosterone as they fantasize about subduing the mysterious woman at the heart of the song who likes to keep ’em guessing and sings in her sleep—in French, no less.
Hetero ladies of America! Wanna get laid? Learn a few French phrases, whisper one of your favorites into the ear of your target and I guarantee you’ll have a hot time in the old town tonight. Any phrase will do; one of my favorites is “ta peau sent l’huile de moteur.” Just make sure that the guy doesn’t understand a word of French because you’ve just told him “Your skin smells like motor oil!” Then again, if he’s a mechanic, that might be the ultimate turn-on!
While the live version is definitely hot, I do like the greater clarity of the intro in the studio version with its highly engaging interplay between guitars, bass and—surprise!—Stan Lynch on bongos. Stan shines in multiple ways on this track, providing the spot harmony added to the last word or two of the lines in the verses in addition to displaying his impressive percussive talents. Tom’s vocal is also a highlight, as it feels like he’s twisting himself into a pretzel trying to get his head around this elusive wench.
The video below is the live version from the Deluxe Edition.
“Century City” is an interesting piece in unexpected ways, but the story behind the song really began several years before he wrote it, according to Daphne Carr of LA Weekly:
In 1974, Petty drove cross-country from Gainesville, Florida, to Los Angeles to get a record contract. Knocking on doors along Sunset, he played demos and eventually got a deal for his first band, Mudcrutch, then moved the group to L.A. “We fell in love with L.A. within an hour of being there,” Petty told author Paul Zollo in the 2005 book Conversations With Tom Petty (CWTP). “We just thought this is heaven. We said, ‘Look — everywhere there’s people making a living playing music. This is the place.’” In 1976, the first Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album hit, and aside from touring with the band, he’s never left town.
L.A. is a pretty big place, so he may not have been all that familiar with Century City, an early 60s attempt to urbanize sprawling LA by creating a live-work-play-shop space catering to the upscale crowd. He became painfully familiar with Century City when he launched his legal battle against the labels because that’s where the attorneys kept their offices. Carr notes that “He had few kind things to say about the place,” supporting her interpretation by quoting from CWTP: ‘It’s kind of an acre of skyscrapers, a really modern-looking place. It’s full of lawyers. And they take you up to big glass conference rooms — I dreaded going there.”
So Tom spent a lot of time indoors at Century City, which may account for the lines in the chorus implying that Century City is fully protected from the elements (it isn’t):
Why worry about the rain?
Why worry about the thunder?
Honey, Century City’s got everything covered
Then again, Tom frequently used rain and thunder as symbols of troubled times, and he most certainly went through a trying and troublesome experience while dealing with the legal system. In that light, a valid interpretation of “Century City’s got everything covered” might have resulted from his attorneys telling him, “Don’t worry, Tom, we’ve got you covered.” Given his loathing of the place and its cold modernity, it’s obvious that the lines “We’re gonna live in Century City/Go ahead and give in, Century City/Like modern men, modern girls/We’re gonna live in the modern world” are dripping with sarcasm.
Musically, the song is the kind of straight-up, no-nonsense rocker that was right up their alley. I really like it when a side one ends with a bang instead of a whimper.
Side two opens with an old song from the proto-Heartbreakers band called Mudcrutch that Tom didn’t want on the album so he had producer Jimmy Iovine send it to Peter Wolf but Wolf had to pass because the J. Geils Band were in the process of wrapping up Sanctuary and didn’t have room for another song and that would have been the end of it but Iovine and engineer Tori Swenson talked Tom into including the song on the album and releasing it as the lead single and lo and behold it became Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ biggest hit.
I love comma-free paragraphs.
While Tom was eventually thrilled to have a top ten hit, I agree with his assessment that “Don’t Do Me Like That” wasn’t a particularly good fit for the album: “I didn’t really want to deal with the Mudcrutch songs after the band broke up . . . I was really shocked when it was the first single off the record and a big hit because I thought it really misrepresented the album. Here we had a hit, and it was the wrong one! But it all worked out.”
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Peter Wolf accidentally confirmed the poor fit hypothesis: “I always heard it as having a Lennon-esque quality, especially in the bridge – just the way Tom puts the edge on his voice. There is also a Dylan-esque quality [in the lyrics]: “Well, you’re gonna get yours. In the public eye, you’re gonna humiliate me? Baby, your time is gonna come.” That was a theme in Lennon’s work too – [the Beatles’] “No Reply.”
An eye-for-an-eye song really doesn’t belong on an album full of “anthems for underdogs.” When I listen to the live version on the Deluxe Edition, I get the feeling that Tom is rushing through the song, motivated by the obligation to play the hit so the fans can go home happy.
Fit issues aside, “Don’t Do Me Like That” is a great rock ‘n’ roll song and Tom’s performance on the studio version is both spirited and faultless. I love the vocal syncopation (quick rest/rat-a-tat-tat) and the solid rhythmic support from the Heartbreakers. I was thinking of purchasing a seismograph and attaching it to my butt cheeks to measure the ass-shaking intensity of “Don’t Do Me Like That” but as I was unable to find a seismograph with suitable attachments, I’ll just have to estimate the song’s magnitude as off the charts.
“You Tell Me” is clearly the weakling of the bunch, a mid-tempo burn that never fully ignites. The band recovers pretty quickly with the spirited rocker “What Are You Doin’ In My Life,” apparently a story about a groupie-stalker who followed Tom “all around New York City/Tryin’ to make people think I wanted you with me.” Casting himself in the role of victim, Tom does exactly what any sensible person would do in response to such a creep: he calls her on her bullshit and tells her to get the hell out of his life. The music is high-tempo melodic rock with hints of Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran ringing in my ears.
“Louisiana Rain” is another song from the Mudcrutch era that Tom continued to tinker with over the years, with the lyrics sometimes changing in live performances. The story centers around the travels of an itinerant to various and sundry locales in the United States that fall into the category of “seedy”: a whorehouse in San Diego, a dive in South Carolina where he winds up in a drunken stupor and a cheap restaurant somewhere on the road where he runs into an “English refugee” popping pills and drinking tea. The variable chorus tells us he is dogged by rain, Tom’s go-to metaphor for hard times—but in this case, it’s Lousiana rain, plentiful and relentless. The picture Tom paints is that of a lost soul, a wanderer with vague intent who “may never be the same when I reach Baton Rouge,” possibly his place of origin.
Each verse is worth a closer look. Here’s verse one:
Well it was out in California by the San Diego sea
That was when I was taken in and it left its mark on me
Yeah she nearly drove me crazy with all those China toys
And I know she really didn’t mean a thing to those sailor boys
My dad told me that downtown San Diego was a pretty seedy place in the 70s, designed to cater to the needs of horny sailors. “Those China toys” can’t be a reference to Ben Wa balls, which are generally used by women for the purposes of masturbation or strengthening the pelvic floor muscles in order to provide a better fuck. My guess is that Tom is referring to anal beads, which can be used to intensify male orgasms. The narrator’s orgasms are so intensely satisfying that he doesn’t care that his love interest also provides similar services to half the U. S. Navy.
On to verse two:
South Carolina put out its arms for me
Right up until everything went black somewhere on Lonely Street
And I still can’t quite remember who helped me to my feet
Thank God for a love that followed the angel’s remedy
There are two cities in South Carolina with a “Lonely Street”: one in Spartanburg, the other in West Columbia. Tom might have been referring to either place, but I think it’s more likely that longtime Elvis fan Tom Petty was referring to the Lonely Street mentioned in “Heartbreak Hotel.” While we know someone (likely a woman) helped him recover from the bender to end all benders, the mention of God and “the angel’s remedy” in the last line indicates that the helper forgave his sins and did not pass judgment on him. Unfortunately, an alternative version of the verse ends with the line, “Thank god for a long-neck bottle, the angels’ antidote,” indicating that our hero may have opted for the “hair of the dog” approach to cure his hangover. Either option affirms the basic character description of a man living on the edge.
And verse three:
Well I never will get over this English refugee
Singing to the jukebox in some all-night beanery
Yeah he was eating pills like candy and chasing them with tea
You should have seen him lick his lips, that old black muddied beak
Apparently, our lost soul doesn’t keep very good company, seeking out other lost souls to assure him that he’s not alone. He may draw comfort from the fact that the English refugee appears to be in worse shape than he is, but I’ll bet that comfort doesn’t last too long. All I know is that I never want to dine at that restaurant.
As noted above, the chorus is malleable, but I think the second version is the stronger of the two:
Louisiana rain is falling just like tears
Running down my face, washing out the years
Louisiana rain is soaking through my shoes
I may never be the same when I reach Baton Rouge
I think his quest to return to Baton Rouge is either an ephemeral yearning for home or a fool’s errand that will result in a downpour of embarrassment: he will never be the same guy he was before his extended road trip. One can only hope that any family he has in Baton Rouge will forgive, forget and help him back on his feet.
The track opens with a minute or so of synth play before Tom does a quick count-in to the song proper. I find myself getting impatient during the intro, largely because I know the song that follows the noise is one damn fine piece of music—a mid-tempo ballad sweetened with touches of country in the form of slide guitar and harmonica. Tom relates the tale with obvious feeling, revealing once again his deep empathy for the ultimate in underdogs.
Tom Petty was obviously a man with a strong moral compass and his fight for control over his music and the means of production would continue in the form of the delayed release of his next album, Hard Promises. MCA wanted to apply “superstar pricing” to the album, adding an extra dollar to the retail price. Tom resisted the price increase, airing his grievance to the media and gaining wide support from his fanbase. MCA procrastinated for a while, but eventually threw in the towel and released the album with standard pricing.
Tom had yet to write “I Won’t Back Down,” but the suits at MCA realized that Tom Petty was one guy who would never back down when it came to a matter of principle.
Score another one for the underdog.