Promising Florida-born singer-songwriter Tom Petty initially pitched up in LA with his first band, Mudcrutch, who recorded a lone 45, “Depot Street,” for Leon Russell and Denny Cordell’s Shelter imprint in 1975. Issues with personnel and their label, however, caused a series of reshuffles and, by early ’76, Petty was fronting a new quintet, The Heartbreakers. Also featuring talented ex-Mudcrutch duo Mike Campbell (lead guitar) and Benmont Tench (keyboards), in addition to new recruits bassist Ron Blair and drummer Stan Lynch, The Heartbreakers gigged hard and quickly chalked up international acclaim when “Anything That’s Rock’n’Roll,” the second single from their eponymous 1976 debut, entered the UK Top 40, setting them on the path to success with their 1979 album, Damn The Torpedoes.
At home, however, success remained elusive, and The Heartbreakers only scored a major commercial breakthrough when their sophomore LP, You’re Gonna Get It!, from 1978, earned them a well-deserved gold disc. Business-related difficulties, however, threatened to derail their progress when Shelter and its distributor, ABC Records, were both sold to MCA in 1979. Protracted legal wrangling ensued, but Petty eventually negotiated a deal that allowed him to retain his publishing rights and form his own Backstreet label while MCA agreed to manufacture and distribute his band’s future recordings.
Though its defiant title hinted at these recent travails, The Heartbreakers’ sublime third LP Damn The Torpedoes, released on October 19, 1979, served notice that Petty and Co. hadn’t just survived, but were likely to thrive in the long run. A refinement of the tough’n’tender, blue-collar rock’n’roll of You’re Gonna Get It!, the record picked up on the prevailing energy of punk and the new wave, yet it also featured an embarrassment of radio-friendly riches and was further enhanced by Bruce Springsteen/Patti Smith deskman Jimmy Iovine’s crisp production.
Consistent and unerringly melodic, Damn The Torpedoes yielded two major U.S. hits for The Heartbreakers, with the infectious, soul-tinged “Don’t Do Me Like That” and the tough, gutsy rocker “Refugee” both penetrating the Top 20 of the US Billboard Hot 100. The entire album was, however, strewn with potential hits, and Petty’s versatile charges proved they were always on the money, whether they were tackling chiming, 60s-style pop (“Shadow Of A Doubt (A Complex Kid)”); swaggering bar-room rockers (“What Are You Doin’ In My Life?”) and even the redemptive, Dylan-esque ballad “Louisiana Rain.”
The critics quickly championed the band’s cause, with Rolling Stone’s influential five-star review even declaring the record to be the Tom Petty album “we’ve all been waiting for.” Supported by an extensive US tour with The Fabulous Poodles during the winter of ’79, Damn The Torpedoes eventually went triple-platinum in North America and was only denied the prestigious No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 by Pink Floyd’s colossal, multi-million-selling double LP The Wall.