The Classic Albums series does it again with another terrific release that brings insight into one of the great rock albums of the seventies (and perhaps all time), Tom Petty and Heartbreakers’ “Damn the Torpedoes!” (in stunning Blu-ray from Eagle Rock Entertainment and Kayos Productions).
In the 70s, when a record business and bands would woodshed – working for the clubs, writing songs, and developing as artists and songwriters – high-potential artists often arrived with their third album(s). These third albums, in many cases, represented a giant leap forward and became the springboard for even greater success.
Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run may be the best example of this concept. While Greetings from Asbury Parkland, The Wild and the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle have their moments of brilliance, as a whole, they miss. Until Born to Run arrived, the Boss established himself as the superstar; he remains today.
The cliche explanation that goes with this “third albums theory” is the first album exhausts the artist’s catalog established up until the first album (and the artist’s lifetime). Usually, there are one or two great singles in that first record (the ones that got them noticed in the first place!). The second album is almost always rushed and spotty – constructed from leftovers of the first session with some hasty additions that “try to sound” like whatever direction the record company is telling them to aim for. These second albums are later deemed “transitional” – if the artist goes on to success. Think U2’s October REM’s Reckoning, the Police’s Regatta de Blanc, or Dire Straits Communique – interesting records all – but far from the outstanding records these artists would go on to produce and establish them as the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, they would become.
After these two albums, usually marginally successful releases, the artist (and record company) realize it is time to put it all on the line and make something great and definitive that will find an audience. It becomes do or die for the artist – and the results can be interesting. This personal and professional pressure is why we have so many great third albums. Nothing motivates like a necessity, and many artists rise to the occasion with great songs and even better production now having learned their ways around the studio.
There is also the touring aspect that contributes to this third record. Touring behind the first two albums and getting live feedback on their material develops a tightness within the band and a better focus on who the artist is. New material to be debuted on the third album can be tested live (and improved) before permanently etching it on vinyl.
These subtle details are covered in this excellent edition of Classic Albums. The story of how Tom Petty got to make Damn the Torpedoes touches on all these points with great color provided by the Heartbreakers and industry icons like Jimmy Iovine.
With Damn the Torpedoes Petty with his new producer (and engineer Shelly Yakus), new label, big drum sound, and quite simply the best songs he had written to date – he “completely changed the game” for the Heartbreakers forever.
I have said many times that the song is the thing, and “Refugee,” “Even the Losers,” and the “Here Comes my Girl” represents a giant leap from the songs of Your Gonna Get It and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Side one is one of the most delightful tracks put to vinyl. Beautiful performances, crystal clear production, memorable lyrics, and Jim Keltner’s shaker! Who knew this shaker was the secret ingredient to this irresistible toe-tapping sound? Just one of the revelations from this DVD.
The best part of the DVD is returning to the studio and reviewing the master tapes with all the creators commenting. These nostalgia sessions often evoke honest reactions and emotions. It is the hallmark of the Classic Albums series, and the recollections here are sincere and respectful.
Petty, who has been the subject of another lengthy documentary, Runnin’ Down a Dream, never offers the depth of Pete Townshend (who does?) and, for me, is always a bit frustrating as an interview. Why was Stan Lynch let go when he was such a big part of this record’s sound and success? Not adequately covered here or in Dream. This is a minor dispute here.
The remaining Heartbreakers flesh out the tunes with aplomb and good humor, and Iovine comes across as the record executive you’d want on your side. All shed light on this excellent release. The band generally seems to like and respect each other – they all seem nice guys. Isn’t this the way it should be?
Loaded with bonus interviews, this DVD is a must-have for any music fan.