Review Summary: Damn The Torpedoes could be the least pretentious album in rock history. There is no ridiculous excess; there is no artsy minimalism. Its only purpose is to be a solid, fun rock n’ roll album, and in that, it succeeds marvellously.
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Damn the Torpedoes isn’t the best rock album of all time. It’s not the best album of 1979, a year that gave us The Wall, London Calling, Broken English, and Unknown Pleasures. Heck, it’s not even the best album of Tom Petty’s career (see Wildflowers). Yet in the sense of it being a "rock n' roll" album, few albums come close to it. It could be the least pretentious album in rock history, simply because it doesn’t try to be high art, satisfy critical intentions, rebel against anything, or conform to a set movement. There is no ridiculous excess; there is no artsy minimalism. Its only purpose is to be a solid, fun rock n’ roll album, and in that, it succeeds marvellously.
It surprises me when the band is categorized as “new wave.” Even early singles like “American Girl,” which is totally new wave, have more in common with the Byrds, the Stones, or other classic rockers from the previous decade. The Heartbreakers obviously shot for the arenas and the majors, and they weren’t really trying to rebel against anything. Yet at the same time, there is some truth in that categorization. In a pigeonhole, they were heartland rock like Springsteen or Mellencamp, but they weren’t interested in a massive, elaborate sound. They were just trying to rock out, and by doing so, they unwittingly provided one of the most effective antidotes to the very music punk was trying to usurp.
Nothing epitomizes this more than the work of guitarist Mike Campbell. While Eddie Van Halen is busy playing one-hundred-and-twenty-eighth-note runs and Johnny Ramone is flat-out refusing to reserve any time for himself, Campbell barely plays more than three notes per solo, sometimes staying on the same one for extended periods of time. It’s no gimmick--it’s the way he does it. He’s also pretty much the only person who solos. Keyboardist Benmont Tench, one of the best ivory-ticklers I’ve ever heard, is content to hum in the background, adding texture that’s barely noticeable but key to the music. Petty himself occasionally plays a harmonica solo, but his name is already in the band name and he’s doing all the singing anyway, so he doesn’t need to shine any more than he already does. As for the rhythm section, they’re so tasteful it’s ridiculous.
And the songs--the songs! There’s not a single filler track on the whole album. Even “Don’t Do Me Like That,” which basically repeats the same verse and chorus over and over again for just shy of three minutes, feels like an honest and complete effort. The great tunes whiz by. “Refugee” into “Here Comes My Girl” into “Even the Losers” into “Shadow of a Doubt”--all either massive hits, pop gems, or both. If the second half of the album was as good as the first, this album could rank in the same caliber as the best work by the aforementioned Stones. It’s not, but it comes pretty close.
Well, here I am, a seventeen-year-old MF Doom fan prattling on about classic rock and “real rock n’ roll” and those gol-danged punk rockers. To me, no statement is more offensive than the claim that there is “real rock n’ roll” and that bands like Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers are it, and I take pleasure in pouncing upon sixties-seventies-eighties snobs. But as for “rock n’ roll” and what the term has come to denote--music that, if not necessarily high quality, is simple, unpretentious, fun to make, and fun to listen to--nothing comes close to satisfying than Damn the Torpedos.