When Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers said 'Damn the Torpedoes'

Tom Petty
The adage about what doesn't kill you makes you stronger hardly has a more powerful musical manifestation than the story behind Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' 1979 album “Damn the Torpedoes."

That tale has become a central part of the mythology of rock 'n' roll, one that aspiring artists of any stripe might look to as a source of inspiration and reassurance in the face of the hurdles that inevitably spring up in front of those who are pursuing a grand vision.

It's a story worth revisiting, what with this week's deluxe reissue of the original album, which catapulted the group to a new level of commercial success and critical respect with its bold ambition and fearless musical execution. The album reissue follows the recent release on DVD and Blu-ray disc of a new “Classic Albums" documentary about what went on behind the scenes between the release of the group's 1977 sophomore album “You're Gonna Get It" and the arrival more than two years later of “Torpedoes," which yielded the hits “Refugee," “Here Comes My Girl" and the band's first top-10 single, “Don't Do Me Like That." They make excellent companion pieces, the home video edition of the documentary containing an additional 42 minutes of material not included in the August airing of a 56-minute cut on VH1.

Along with new and vintage interview and performance footage of Petty, guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, bassist Ron Blair and drummer Stan Lynch, director Matthew Longfellow gets album producer turned often-elusive industry titan Jimmy Iovine on camera for his typically colorful insights. At one point, Iovine recalls telling Petty they had enough songs for the record. “It was the last time I ever said that to a band," Iovine says with a laugh. They also get engineer Shelley Yakus to elaborate on his perspective about what made “Torpedoes" successful on so many levels.

The creative process of songwriting and recording became inextricably tied up in the band's fight with MCA Records when the company bought the ABC Records label, parent of Shelter Records, which had signed and released Petty's first two albums. As the battle for control raged between a giant corporation and a band of rock 'n' roll brothers who'd driven across country from Gainesville, Fla., in hopes of making records, it became a classic David-versus-Goliath tale.

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