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How Tom Petty Finally Hit the Big Time With ‘Damn the Torpedoes’

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The signs were there, signaling that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ third album, Damn the Torpedoes, would be their breakthrough. After two albums of heartland rock spiked with some tempered punk fury and classic rock ‘n’ roll drive, Petty and his band of Florida rockers took admiral David Farragut’s legendary Civil War declaration of “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” as their personal call to arms in 1979.

With 1977’s self-titled debut stalling outside of the Top 50 and the following year’s You’re Gonna Get It! climbing to No. 23, things were looking up for Petty and his four Heartbreakers. They managed to just crack the Top 40 with the debut’s “Breakdown,” but two singles from the follow-up — “I Need to Know” and “Listen to Her Heart” — stopped short of matching it.

So, after some behind-the-scenes drama involving a standoff with his record company that led to Petty declaring bankruptcy so he wouldn’t be tied to a contract, the album — which was recorded in late 1978 and early 1979 in Hollywood’s Sound City studio — was set for release. (It wouldn’t be the last time Petty butted heads with his bosses over the ownership and marketing of his music: His next album, 1981’s Hard Promises, was delayed after Petty balked at the label’s proposal to raise the record’s list price.)

And from the opening, ringing riff that ushers in “Refugee,” Damn the Torpedoes sounds like an instant rock classic. New producer Jimmy Iovine loads almost every track with a monumental significance, like this could be your new favorite song or Friday-night anthem. It really was “full speed ahead” for Petty, and there was no turning back.

The songs remain cornerstones of the band’s catalog and live sets; “Refugee,” “Here Comes My Girl,” “Even the Losers” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” are staples of classic-rock radio. And almost immediately Damn the Torpedoes — which was released within days of Petty’s 29th birthday in October 1979 — became the yardstick on which Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers albums were gauged.

The commercial upswing also was felt almost immediately. The album made it all the way to No. 2 and stayed there for seven weeks, kept from the top spot by Pink Floyd‘s The Wall (it was their highest-charting record until Hypnotic Eye debuted at No. 1 in 2014). “Don’t Do Me Like That” became the band’s first Top 10 single, and “Refugee” followed it into the Top 15.

Damn the Torpedoes set up Petty and the Heartbreakers for the upcoming decade. Their next three albums all went Top 10 and spawned a string of Top 40 singles. Besides the band’s 1993 Greatest Hits package and Petty’s 1989 solo debut, Full Moon Fever, it remains their bestselling album. But more than that, the record sparked rock ‘n’ roll during a period in which punk and disco almost killed it. All these years later, it still sounds like redemption on a Friday night.

See Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in the Top 100 Rock Albums of the ‘70s

This Day in Rock History: October 19

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Next: 10 Things Tom Petty Hates

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